Speaking Of Asia

Tough challenge ahead, whoever wins

Two single women, with opposing views on cross-strait relations, are contesting the Taiwanese presidential election next year

Come January next year, Taiwan will likely have its first woman president. She will also be the first popularly elected woman leader in Asia's modern history who is not the widow, daughter or sister of a male political giant, indeed not of any political pedigree at all.

That's some progress, given that Taiwan is a patriarchal society that, until 2002, had no law preventing companies from firing women employees when they got married or pregnant. As a measure of that progress, a 2012 study shows Taiwan has one of the highest levels of women's political representation in Asia at 28 per cent.

Take the candidate nominated by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ms Tsai Ing-wen. She is no Yingluck Shinawatra, the erstwhile prime minister of Thailand and sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra whose political faction remains popular. Neither is she Park Geun Hye, the president of South Korea who is the daughter of the late Park Chung Hee, a strongman remembered for pulling the country out of abject poverty in the 1970s. And she is no Corazon Aquino, the widow of Philippine political hero Benigno Aquino whose assassination in 1983 sparked the people power movement that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and swept her into the presidential palace.

Instead, Ms Tsai, 58, is devoid of political background, being the daughter of a car mechanic turned property developer. She trained in law in Taiwan, the United States and Britain and returned in 1984 to teach at various universities before becoming a policy wonk from 1993 in the government of then President Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang (KMT).

After the DPP broke the KMT's more than 50-year hold on power, in 2000, Ms Tsai was inducted into its government, serving as its cross-strait policymaker and even as vice-premier, and becoming a party member in 2004.

During the party's wilderness years, in the aftermath of the corruption scandals surrounding former president Chen Shui-bian and the loss of power to the KMT in 2008, Ms Tsai took over its helm, regaining the credibility it had lost and winning back supporters.

When she stood as her party's candidate in the 2012 presidential polls, her being single and a woman were hardly issues at all, unlike Ms Park's candidacy in South Korea later that same year, with opponents attacking her for being both.

Ms Tsai lost to KMT's Ma Ying-jeou who was seeking re-election - with a creditable 45.6 per cent of the vote in a three-cornered fight - mainly because voters were worried about her anti-China stance.

Her gender and marital status will certainly not be issues in the 2016 presidential poll, given that her key rival Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, of the KMT, is also single and a woman.


The circumstances of Ms Hung's nomination by a party that is still very much male-dominated are quite different from those of Ms Tsai, who had clearly won her spurs. Ms Hung came from virtually nowhere to win the nomination - leading to some analysts calling her the "accidental candidate".

She had stepped forward intrepidly to offer herself as KMT's candidate when none of the male star politicians of the party would do so, with the candidacy seen as a poisoned chalice. The party had lost badly in local polls in November last year, against the backdrop of the deep unpopularity of President Ma; economic uncertainty, particularly among young Taiwanese dismayed by stagnating wages and soaring property prices; and mistrust of Mr Ma's policies of closer economic and people-to-people ties with China that Taiwanese thought benefited only big businesses and pushed the island too close politically to China.

As a barometer, the local polls showed that the KMT would have an uphill task retaining power in the presidential and legislative elections next year. With the DPP fielding a strong candidate in Ms Tsai, the chances of the KMT winning the presidential poll were further diminished, so that even KMT chairman Eric Chu, touted early on as the party's likely candidate, said he would not run.

Ms Hung was uncontested in the party primary and her nomination was passed by the party central committee last month and at the party congress over the weekend.

Like Ms Tsai, she has no political background. The daughter of a business executive - who went from China to Taiwan in 1946 and was jailed for three years on suspicion of being a communist - Ms Hung became a school teacher after university. She went on to work full-time for the KMT before standing for her first election to the legislature in 1989.

Ms Hung, who earned the moniker "little hot pepper" for her small size and her combative style in Parliament, focused mainly on educational issues during her eight, largely unremarkable, terms.

In 2012, she was elected deputy speaker, the first female in Taiwan to hold the post. This was, however, seen as a move to balance off long-time speaker Wang Jyn-ping, who leads the local Taiwanese faction in the KMT.

Ms Hung is from the faction of mainlanders. Mainlanders are those who came, or are descendants of those who had come, to Taiwan during or after the civil war in China that the KMT lost to the communists in 1949. Many mainlanders are nostalgic for the mainland and dream of one day unifying with it, while the majority of Taiwanese want the status quo of de facto independence for their island.

Ms Hung has always shown herself to be pro-unification. Soon after the party primary, she began talking about signing a peace agreement with China and ending arms procurement from the United States, statements that may be music to Beijing's ears but discomfiting not just to many Taiwanese but also the island's sole ally, the US.

It is telling that an opinion poll released last week showed support for Ms Hung had fallen 8.3 points in two weeks to 19.5 per cent, against Ms Tsai's 54 per cent. At a time when Taiwanese are wary of closer ties with Beijing, her China platform spooks many, as opposed to Ms Tsai's of keeping the status quo.


For Washington, it would be a bit of a nightmare for its Taiwan policy if Ms Hung were to win, as it could mean a Taiwan increasingly in thrall to China and distancing itself from the US. Taiwan is important strategically to the US as part of the island chain from Japan to Indonesia that prevents China from expanding easily into the Pacific.

However, the Americans, who have a commitment to defend the island if it is attacked under their Taiwan Relations Act, would not be totally comfortable with Ms Tsai as president either.

A win for Ms Tsai, who is critical of Mr Ma's China-friendly policies and whose party is independence-leaning, will mean increased tension and less certainty in the Taiwan Strait.

Some pundits are already predicting a harder Chinese line towards Taiwan. "If China decides that its strategy of economic engagement with Taiwan has failed, Beijing might well backtrack on existing deals and significantly harden its rhetoric," think-tank Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer was quoted as saying by CNBC.com recently.

This is as US-China ties are going through a bumpy patch, with increased rivalry in East Asia as a result of the US pivot to the region and China's increasing assertiveness towards its neighbours.

Ms Tsai was unable to win the support of the Americans during her 2012 candidacy. Said an official after her visit to the US in 2011: "She left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue with the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years."

Seeming to have learnt her lesson, during her US tour last month Ms Tsai sought to reassure her American interlocutors, saying she would "push for peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations" if elected. But she avoided questions on her stand on Taiwan independence and the 1992 Consensus - that there is one China with the two rivals having different interpretations of what this means - Beijing's baseline for cross-strait interactions.

For the Chinese, their preference is clearly not for Ms Tsai: a Tsai win will mean slowing down the burgeoning ties with Taiwan under Mr Ma and, therefore, of the trajectory towards unification. However, being pragmatists, they are already putting out feelers to the DPP and prepared to engage with it should it come to power - as it appears likely to, going by the polls - next year.

For whoever wins, however, the focus should not just be Taiwan's China policy but also its economy.

Taiwan is one of the four Asian tigers together with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, high- growth economies through rapid industrialisation and a focus on exports. Its per capita income grew from US$9,116 in 1992 to US$19,762 in 2012 and it is the sixth-richest economy in Asia.

However, in recent years, the island has become less competitive. Businesses complain of excessive regulation and restrictions on foreign direct investment. Research and development investment is low. Stagnant wages fuel a brain drain to Hong Kong and Singapore, according to Dr Joshua Meltzer of the American think-tank Brookings Institution. Graduates with bachelor's degrees have seen salaries shrink, from an average of NT$28,511 in 1999 to NT$26,915 in 2013.

The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index has listed policy instability, restrictive labour regulation and inefficient government bureaucracy as the key obstacles to doing business in the island.

Meanwhile, Taiwan faces increased competition from South Korea. Taiwan is also being left out of the many free trade agreements signed in the region, making its goods more expensive than others.

The Sunflower Student Movement protests last year against a services trade pact with China was as much about fear of increased economic competition as it was about worry over Taiwan ceding too much political control to Beijing.

While China and America will be watching with some anxiety to see which of the two female candidates becomes president, one thing is already clear: Whichever candidate wins, she faces a tough challenge to reform the economy to give the island's young a better future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'Tough challenge ahead, whoever wins'. Print Edition | Subscribe