Tsai should learn a lesson from Park - but not about corruption: The China Post

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waving to the crowd during a stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, US, on Jan 14, 2017.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waving to the crowd during a stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, US, on Jan 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on March 13, the paper says that the importance of economic reform is the main lesson that President Tsai Ing-wen should learn from the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Following the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, several local media outlets and political figures have raised the example the disgraced South Korean leader as a cautionary tale for President Tsai Ing-wen. In fact, similar warnings have been given by both critics and allies since Park was engulfed in a corruption scandal.

Former President Lee Teng-hui, whose supports Tsai, pointed out in November that she might "end up like the Korean president if she is not careful."

Both their nations' first female presidents, Park and Tsai are both unmarried women who have broken into a world occupied by married men. Both enjoyed wide support when they came to office, chosen by voters looking desperately for reform.

While there are similarities, as politicians, Tsai and Park are polar opposites. Park is political royalty, the daughter of a former authoritarian president. Her main base of supporters are middle-aged conservatives who warmly remember the era of strong economic growth engineered by her father. Tsai, on the other hand, courts young liberal-minded voters.

If the downfall of Park is to serve as a warning to Taiwan's president, it is more in terms of the economy, crisis management and leadership style.

While the economy is apparently not the cause of Park's impeachment, it is main source of her trouble.

With her father's credentials from leading South Korea's economic miracle, Park campaigned on a promise to institute economic reform to create innovative businesses and jobs, especially for young people. While young voters did not necessarily appreciate her blue blood, they saw progress in the fact that a woman was elected head of state in their socially conservative nation and gave her the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of her presidency.

Yet, despite her policies aimed at increasing youth employment and wages - she went as far as cutting the salaries of some civil servants to free up resources for youth employment, and asked private businesses to follow suit - South Korea's macro-economic situation continued to struggle. People who did not see their lives improve began to regard these reforms as business-benefiting policies in disguise.

The wage-cutting policy, for example, went from a groundbreaking key labour reform to an excuse for employers to cut pay.

Discontent over the economic situation found an outlet in the sinking of the MV Sewol, a ferry that capsized, killing 295 people, most of them high school students.

The government's slow and poorly conducted disaster response - Park was seen in public seven hours after the event - and its reluctance to accept responsibility and investigate convinced the public that Park's government was not as reformist as she had promised. The president's approval ratings entered net negative territory and never returned.

The Choi Soon-sil scandal that finally brought Park down was in part the result of this earlier decline of her popularity.

Choi, a close friend and aide to the president who had unusual influence over her administration despite holding no official position, was not strictly speaking a secret.

Park's family's relations with Choi's father, South Korean shamanistic-evangelical cult leader Choi Tae-min, is well documented. The scandal began with reports and leaks on Choi's influence peddling, including a tablet device used by Park's office that contained presidential speeches marked with Choi's edits.

These reports and leaks bore the hallmarks of people, including those close to Park, tipping the media either out of disappointment or because they saw an opportunity in a weakened president. Had Park enjoyed better public support, there is a good chance the Choi scandal might not have become what it is today.

As Taiwan's president, Tsai is also pushing for reformist policies in the face of daunting economic and social challenges. The president is already facing problems in her labour and pension reforms. Just this weekend, protesters took to the street, demanding Tsai make good of her promise to terminate Taiwan's use of nuclear power.

The downfall of Park has shown that the public's patience for reforms is limited.

By promising the impossible - cutting Taiwan's nuclear power while maintaining energy stability and lowering carbon emission and distancing Taiwan from China, its biggest trade partner, while creating better environment for both businesses and workers - Tsai has set up her government to disappointment the public.

The president needs to look to her South Korean counterpart for this lesson.

The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.