Improving Taiwan’s Global Competitiveness: Toward a Safer, Internationally Friendlier SocietyCivility, more permissive laws for foreign employment and a more diverse educational environment will help Taiwan along the road to modernity
In a recent article titled “Five signs Taiwan is emerging, not developed,” journalist Ralph Jennings made a series of observations — some of them almost apocalyptic — about Taiwan’s “blind spots” that have undermined its reputation as a developed country. Among those were illegal buildings lacking construction code compliance, the negligence of preserving green space and environmental conservation, passive and underperforming law enforcement, a diminished quality of life due to air and noise pollution, and the uncivilized conduct of its people toward strangers. These inconvenient truths were put to the test on Feb. 6, one night before Asian lunar New Year Eve, when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled Tainan, resulting in more than 110 deaths and 500 injuries. Building construction, law enforcement, and quality of life topped the list that failed the stress test.
Beyond the debate over “emerging” versus “developed” implicit in Jennings’ article, broader and more essential questions emerge: If disasters are inevitable, what can Taiwan learn from this recent tragedy, and how can it prepare for future ones? To improve its global competitiveness, what can Taiwan do to create a more open, friendlier society to both attract and retain international talent, and thereby enhance its global competitiveness? I do not intend to address all of Jennings’ points, only to suggest a few, relatively simple things that Taiwan can do to improve its position internationally.
Emergency response: Risk avoidance v. fatalism
Taiwan experiences more than 500 earthquakes every year, including a few strong ones. Natural disasters caused by typhoons and earthquakes are the norm rather than the exception. Like epidemics such as Dengue Fever, disasters respect no boundaries. Residents of Taiwan must therefore learn to cope with this reality.
Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of risk awareness across Taiwanese society. Many classrooms and conference rooms have only one exit, and the absence of regular drills makes emergency responses grossly inadequate. Fatalism is pervasive and further contributes to uncertainty and preventable casualty when disaster strikes.
These inadequacies call for an immediate plan. To avoid or minimize damage, it is imperative for schools to consider incorporating emergency preparedness and response into educational training. For instance, as Taiwan enters the new spring semester this week, in the very first class session instructors should explain how to recognize signs of an earthquake, where to find shelter for minor quakes, and what to do when a major quake hits. For easy evacuation, they should consider clearing exit row seats near the exit door, and explain where the exits and stairways are, and the reconvening place when the emergency is no longer in effect.
Employment authorization for international talent
International talent (e.g., guest workers) are a unique asset for Taiwan, because this community brings fresh training, skills, and diverse perspectives that are complementary to the “island mentality” known to characterize some local residents who have never traveled overseas. After graduating from Taiwan universities, many international students return to their home country and continue to advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international system. Therefore, Taiwan should commit to making its society more open to international talent so that they may reciprocate and offer their strengths whenever the chance arises.
Unfortunately, current laws create substantial barriers that limit the ability of international talent to work and compete against locals. Guest workers are often frustrated in obtaining work permits due to limitations stemming from their foreign status. For example, current laws restrict employment of Taiwan-trained international students, permitting up to only six-month internships after graduation, thus reducing their equal opportunity to transition to gainful employment in Taiwan. As a result, many Taiwanese employers are unable to reap the benefits of locally trained international talent.
For illustration, Article 5-1 of the “Qualifications and Criteria Standards for foreigners undertaking the jobs specified under Article 46.1.1 to 46.1.6 of the Employment Service Act” provides a point system for approving skilled guest workers in 15 job categories of work permits. The minimum-wage test for approval is based on an average wage of NT$48K/month for all job categories. The system of sliding-scaled salary for point assignments should be re-considered. Specifically, the salary scale should be based on the prevailing wages for every professional category (i.e., teachers vs. college professors), not on a mean salary of NT$48K. Moreover, several weighted indicators of the point system for work permit approval, such as “Chinese language proficiency,” “third-language proficiency” and “government’s interest/policy” indicators, are not the most relevant and should be abolished.
In addition, the length of stay for employment after graduation should be extended. Article 34 of the “Regulations on the Permission and Administration of the Employment of Foreign Workers” provides that Type C workers, i.e., international students trained in Taiwan, are only allowed to work for up to six months after graduation. Most developed countries — the U.S. included — offer foreign students of advanced degrees up to one year of practical training after graduation. The six-month work authorization should be extended to benefit students gaining experience, and for local industries needing international talent.
Diversity in the classroom and society
The recently elected executive and legislative branches of government bring in a renewed commitment to diversity and equity, with president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) pledging that “…no one, on this land, should apologize for our chosen identity.” This philosophy should be extended to ensure a safer and friendlier environment for all people in Taiwan, regardless of their national origins.
In education, having diverse viewpoints in the classroom helps stimulate innovation, and later on, may help promote reforms in society. For instance, the NCKU Graduate Institute of International Management has one of the most culturally diverse student bodies in Taiwan’s higher education, represented by more than 26 countries, including Taiwanese students. To develop students’ appreciation for diversity, the faculty proactively encourages students to work in groups of diverse cultural backgrounds to gain intercultural experience. Opportunities exist to honor cultural heritages, promote respects for individual autonomy and freedom of belief. Learning through free exchange of worldly viewpoints helps prepare students, local and international, for a corporate world in local society and in the international arena.
To realize the diversity pledge by the future Tsai administration, as Taiwan becomes more globalized with an increasing diverse international workforce, it should prepare a safe and friendly environment to protect international workers. Hate-motivated crimes must be penalized. There have been increasing reports of physical or verbal attacks against guest workers and international students recently. Taiwan does not have “hate crimes” regulations to discourage hatred-motivated acts, such as verbal abuse or violent behavior resulting from cultural intolerance. To ensure a safe and internationally friendly society, it might be necessary to consider the introduction of “hate crime” laws to discourage such behavior.
Civil conduct as a way of life
Local residents can help improve Taiwan’s international competitiveness without either traveling overseas or spending a dime. A good point of departure is in daily activities here at home, by practicing what people in developed countries perform on a daily basis. These could be as simple as:
Observing the rules of order. Wait in line while taking public transportation or waiting to purchase tickets. Observe traffic signals and rules. Avoid running red lights or driving/riding in the wrong lanes.
Respect for and sensitivity to personal, private space. Lower your voice when in a conversation or at a public venue. Be punctual. When talking to people or attending class, avoid sending e-mails, talking on the phone, or playing on your smartphone at the same time.
This is pure common sense, the kind of civil behavior that people in developed countries engage in daily. By so behaving, one can contribute to the quality of life in society and help move this country from “emerging” to truly developed status.
Ed Hsu is a professor at the NCKU Institute of International Management in southern Taiwan. A Tainan native, Hsu transitioned back to his hometown after decades of academic life in the U.S. He is interested in improving cultural understanding between southern and northern Taiwan, and Eastern and Western societies. He can be reached at email@example.com