Tolerance for Dishonest Politicians: Bad Karma for All of Us

Taiwanese are inordinately tolerant toward ambiguous attitudes on patriotism, which may reflect a lack of consensus regarding the status of Taiwan as a country
Daniel Lin

The controversy over President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) U.S. permanent residency and green card is nothing new. It first surfaced ahead of the 2008 presidential election, when Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) accused Ma of quasi-deceptive campaigning regarding his alleged U.S. permanent residency. Hsieh was ostensibly truing to sabotage Ma’s chances of getting elected by undermining his credibility. But as we all know, he failed, and Ma won by a landside.

The surprising thing was that Ma’s credibility issue was regarded as a matter of nuance, with some Ma supporters even admitting that they did not care about his citizenship. For all intents and purposed, Ma won the 2008 presidential election, and again in 2012, thanks to the successfully “marketing” formula that “Taiwan can only count on China to revive its economy,” and “the Chinese Nationalist party [KMT] is the only advocate that China trusts.” Six years have passed, and Ma remains in his post as president of Taiwan, a country whose fate he has been more than eager to tie up with China.

Despite his declining approval rates and a series of protests initiated by different groups, President Ma has shown no signs that he intends to revise any of his domestic and international policies, a kind of obstinacy that should have served as a gold mine for his political opponents.

When the green card issue, coupled with tax liabilities, reemerged in May 2014 following an investigative report by the Chinese-language Next Magazine, the most surprising things was not how Ma handled the crisis, but how the anti-Ma camp, especially Frank Hsieh and outgoing DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), responded to the controversy. Hsieh’s initial reaction was particularly amusing. “If only Taiwanese had believed me [back in 2008], Taiwan would not have suffered for the past six years,” Hsieh said. Coming from a shrewd and seasoned politician like Hsieh, this comment was actually based on a very weak logical argument — Hsieh lost the 2008 presidential election not because the majority of Taiwanese did not believe his accusations regarding Ma’s U.S. green card, but because the majority of Taiwanese believed that Ma was the best candidate to make the country prosper economically.

Whether Ma indeed had U.S. permanent residency or not was beside the point and did not invalidate his candidacy, at least not in the eyes of the public. That is why DPP Chairman Su’s remark that “Ma should step down if he knows what shame is” was, and remains, utterly ineffective in swaying public opinion.

The Next Magazine article pointed to Ma’s liabilities under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which some believed clearly established that Ma’s U.S. permanent residency remained valid. However, Ma immediately claimed that he would resign from the presidency if he had to pay any taxes to the U.S. government. His confidence seemed to imply that he already knew what the U.S. government’s attitude toward the matter would be. Furthermore, he tactically chose to emphasize the aspect of his tax liabilities rather than his immigration status. Soon thereafter, Ma obtained a letter from the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) that seemed to support his position, though the document was somewhat ambiguous on whether he had indeed abandoned his U.S. permanent residency. Once again, Ma survived the attacks and strengthened his grip on the presidency.

Many questions have been raised about Ma’s patriotism, due in part to his family’s immigrations records, including his own. Whenever challenged, Ma has successfully weathered the speculation using the same reasoning: (1) his U.S. permanent residency was automatically invalidated 20 years ago; and (2) he respects his family’s freedom to choose their citizenship. That such justifications succeeded in deflecting criticism shows that Taiwanese are inordinately tolerant toward ambiguous attitudes on patriotism, which may reflect a lack of consensus regarding the status of Taiwan as a country. (Ironically, many Taiwanese only seem capable of demonstrating patriotism during sports games.) What is even worse is that such a wishy-washy attitude toward patriotism may have generated a sense of hopelessness when it comes to the dream of creating an independent country.Ma’s U.S. immigration records may also stir up some conflicting emotions in some people, as some may regard a U.S. status (either permanent residency or citizenship) as a lifeline or even the embodiment of success. Additionally, Ma’s unshakable presidency in spite of these accusations has further strengthened the notion that credibility does not matter in Taiwanese politics, or at least that it isn’t a deciding factor. Ma and his KMT administration have broken many promises over the past six years. Despite this, very few people believe that KMT candidates will face an up-ill battle in the 2014 seven-in-one elections or even the 2016 presidential elections.

In Taiwan, politicians are not much different from entertainers, and their lies are often seen as little more than small glitches in their performance, which can be easily forgotten. The media is also complicit in this, as it continually feeds highly sensationalistic material which ensures that deceptive deeds will soon be forgotten, perhaps even forgiven. When a country’s democracy is not established on credibility, corruption is no longer a risk but an unavoidable outcome. Our tolerance for Ma and other dishonest politicians will sooner or later turn into bad karma.

Daniel Lin is a psychiatrist and faculty member at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the U.S. He is also a freelance movie critic and long-term advocate for Taiwan independence.

3 Responses to “Tolerance for Dishonest Politicians: Bad Karma for All of Us”

May 22, 2014 at 10:40 pm, John Schmidt said:

Patriotism merely for patriotism’s sake is never a good idea. In fact, I would argue (and have written) that the problem may be not that Taiwanese are not patriotic, but that there is not a well-defined Taiwanese identity to even support. I think focusing on identity and cherishing and protecting what Taiwanese have worked so hard for is a more effective tool than pure patriotism. President Ma wearing a Taiwan flag pin on his lapel would not strengthen the nation’s will for independence.


May 23, 2014 at 2:23 am, Robert Pratt said:

This is absolutely one of the best pieces I’ve read on Thinking-Taiwan. Great, great writing. Torch Pratt


May 25, 2014 at 11:51 am, les said:

I’ve heard a great many people express an opinion along the lines of, ‘If it weren’t for the opportunity to embezzle money, or gain it from granting favors to special interest groups, who would go into politics?’ It’s expected that politicians will abuse their power and use it accumulate massive personal wealth. Anyone who doesn’t actually looks strange and unfathomable.


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