Thousands take to streets of Taiwan's capital Taipei in protest against govt's plans to reform pensions

Protesters holding placards and shouting slogans during a protest in Taipei, Taiwan, on Sept 3, 2016. Thousands of retired public servants took to the street to protest against the government's retirement pension reform plan. The retirees claim that
Protesters holding placards and shouting slogans during a protest in Taipei, Taiwan, on Sept 3, 2016. Thousands of retired public servants took to the street to protest against the government's retirement pension reform plan. The retirees claim that cutting their pension hurts their livelihood and takes away their dignity. Other social groups and industry sectors also plan to hold protests in September, urging President Tsai Ing-wen's government to address various issues and to improve Taiwan's economy.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Demonstrators on the streets of Taipei on Saturday (Sept 3, 2016) in protest against the government's pension reform plans, which they say are unfair and "humiliate" their professions.
Demonstrators on the streets of Taipei on Saturday (Sept 3, 2016) in protest against the government's pension reform plans, which they say are unfair and "humiliate" their professions.ST PHOTO: JERMYN CHOW

TAIPEI - A record 250,000 retired military personnel, police officers, civil servants and public school teachers took to the streets of Taipei on Saturday (Sept 3) to protest the government's pension reform plans, which they say are unfair and "humiliate" their professions.

In the largest anti-government protest since President Tsai Ing-wen's electoral win in January, they demanded the government change the way it reforms the pension scheme and restore the dignity of their professions.

Saturday, which was also Armed Forces' Day, was the first time that the three groups had come together to stage the three-hour protest.

The simmering tensions spilled onto the streets even as a committee appointed by Ms Tsai is working to submit reform proposals by next year. The protesters are unhappy as their generous pensions are likely to be slashed.

They came from all parts of Taiwan, including the southern city of Kaohsiung, and descended on the capital Taipei on Saturday at 2pm.

Juggling banners and flags, the protesters shouted slogans like "We oppose a smear campaign, we want our dignity" as they marched from four different locations, weaving through Taipei's main roads before gathering in front of the Presidential Office building on Ketagalan Boulevard.

Retired teacher Wu Shih-hsin, 66, who came with her former colleagues, said: "I am not against reforms, but targeting our pensions belittles our sacrifices as public servants. It's our entitlement."

Also present at the demonstration were legislators from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and the party's chairman Hung Hsiu-chu, who said they wanted to cheer on the protesters.

Ms Tsai has made pension reforms one of her top priorities, as the generous payments are becoming a huge burden on the economy.

She had previously said that the need for action was so urgent that if not done now, Taiwanese "will regret it at once".

In Taiwan, retired military personnel, teachers and civil servants are drawing pensions that can be nearly four times the starting salaries of many university graduates.

Taiwan's large pensions were affordable when its economy was growing at an average of 7.6 per cent in the 1990s and 4.5 per cent in the early 2000s, and when the population was relatively young, with a large proportion in the workforce.

But the burden of such generous pension schemes is being felt acutely, with a rapidly ageing population, a low fertility rate - 12.5 per cent of the population are older than 65 - and as the economy slows, with growth for this year forecast at 0.77 per cent.

Indeed, the public-service pension fund for teachers, civil servants and military personnel is reported to have been in deficit since last year.

"We are just people who are just protecting our nest egg. We want the government to hear our voices and stop insulting us and characterising us as robbers," said National Civil Servants' Association chairman Harry Lee Lai-hsi, one of the organisers of Saturday's protest, who is one of the most vocal critics of the reform panel.