Taiwan plans show to reel in more to join its army

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (centre, front row) poses for photos with navy servicemen in front of a Duch-made Sea Tiger submarine at the Tsoying navy base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (centre, front row) poses for photos with navy servicemen in front of a Duch-made Sea Tiger submarine at the Tsoying navy base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. PHOTO: AFP
Taiwanese special forces personnel walk behind an armored personnel carrier during an annual military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on January 17, 2017.
Taiwanese special forces personnel walk behind an armored personnel carrier during an annual military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on January 17, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

It hopes 16-episode military drama can boost recruit numbers as conscription ends in 2018

With many of the young shying away from signing up with the army even as Taiwan prepares to scrap conscription from next year, it plans to roll out the big guns - as well as high jinks and romance - to woo potential recruits.

Taiwan's Defence Ministry will be spending NT$12.8 million (S$590,000) to produce a 16-episode military drama serial tentatively titled The Best Choice, an effort that has drawn comparisons with the popular South Korean drama Descendants Of The Sun shown last year.

The K-drama, about the romance between a special forces captain and his doctor girlfriend, reportedly led to more South Koreans turning up at an army enrolment exercise.

Responding to reporters' questions on Monday, Taiwan's National Defence Ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi played down comparisons with the South Korean show. "We have our own style, culture and standards. We hope that the Taiwanese public will like our version."

While the storyline and cast of The Best Choice is still being finalised ahead of filming next month, its director Liang Hsiu-shen, who previously acted in 1970s military education videos, said the show would be "lively and romantic".

While the Defence Ministry cannot confirm if this is the first drama serial that they are funding, analysts say it is generally uncommon for government ministries to sponsor dramas.

The Taiwan military usually produces its own print, television and online advertisements to raise its public profile. It hopes that the upcoming drama will inspire more people to sign up as career soldiers.

Currently, about six in 10 people in Taiwan's 200,000-strong military are career soldiers, falling short of the target of nine in 10 in order for conscription to be scrapped.

Many Taiwanese stay away from the military because they feel the highly regimented lifestyle is not commensurate with the pay. At the same time, the military is struggling with its image following a series of accidents, including a recent report of air force officers being tested for illicit drug use.

A recent poll by the China Times newspaper found that only 29 per cent say they have confidence in the ability of the Taiwan military.

In recent weeks, Taiwan has also unveiled plans to increase defence spending and develop more weapons in response to China's increased military posturing.

Military-themed dramas and movies are an evergreen genre in Taiwan. The most recent one is Soldier, a 2011 work by TV station Sanlih Entertainment Television. Others include the popular Yes Sir movie, which came out in 1987 and spawned seven sequels featuring big names like Takeshi Kaneshiro.

But it is not known how effective they were in boosting recruitment.

Former deputy defence minister Andrew Yang said such military-themed shows are a "waste of money" as their impact is limited.

He also warned against over-glamourising military life. "You don't want people who eventually qualify and join the military to end up feeling duped when they realise they are not cut out for the tough training and discipline," said Dr Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

Professor Lin Lih-yun, from the National Taiwan University's Graduate School of Journalism, said the military will need to be more creative in storytelling to strike a chord with people. "Youths nowadays are more savvy and may be turned off when they feel they are watching propaganda."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan plans show to reel in more to join its army'. Print Edition | Subscribe