Ma Ying-jeou and the Peter Principle

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Monday October 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

What is it a sign of when posing for pictures and uttering platitudes are not enough, when your approval ratings have plunged from 70 to under 25 and when half of the people who voted for you already regret their choice in your first 100 days? What is it a sign of? It's a sign that Taiwan has once again witnessed the Peter Principle in action, the principle that all men rise to the level of their incompetence, some more quickly than others. In the case of Ma Ying-jeou, however, some feel the degree of incompetence is so great and so unique that perhaps a new principle needs to be coined, the Ma principle.

How do they say the Ma Principle differs from the Peter Principle? First, the Ma principle begins with the Peter Principle, that the person involved has already risen far beyond the level of his competence. For those who have observed Ma's pampered past in party protected positions, up through his eight years as Mayor of Taipei, this is a no-brainer. Born into a family of loyal members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Ma's looks, loyalty and servitude were all he needed in his early years. His loyalty, for example was proven in taking the role of a campus spy reporting on his fellow Taiwanese; Ma calls that a different time.

With his education provided by the KMT Ma graduated from Harvard Law School, but here came the first warning of his competency level. Despite his law degree, he never passed the bar exam either in the United States or in Taiwan. At that time it mattered little since the KMT one party state would always provide a job. Protected by the party machinery, Ma progressed through party positions with little accountability until he became Mayor of Taipei. There in his eight year tenure, the burden became more evident. Many feel that any improvements in the city under Ma were more cosmetic than substantial. On the down side, some glaring examples of mismanagement such as the handling of the SARS crisis, the botched revitalizing of the Nanking W. Road Circle, and the more recent failure of the Maokong Gondola project stand out.

In the Peter Principle, those who reach the level of incompetence often realize it and keep quiet, satisfied with their higher pay grade. Those exhibiting the Ma Principle however remain in the role of inveterate poseurs, intentionally or unintentionally. The intentional ones are clear charlatans, committed to their image at all costs. Those who do it unintentionally are those who possess naivet? an image of projected grandeur and a sense of moral superiority such as the fabled Ah-Q.

A key to the Ma Principle is to always avoid responsibility. Make sure that the buck stops elsewhere. For this one needs inside and outside assistance. On the inside, one must have a willing fall guy, someone to take the blame when reality cannot be avoided. An example of this is Ma's secretary who took the blame for depositing illegal funds into Ma's bank account. That man is now in jail; the money remained in Ma's account, and Ma claimed he knew nothing about how it got there.

The second half is to have an external villain and scapegoat on which to blame all else. For Ma, this role has been filled by the past President Chen Shui-bian. When Ma was campaigning for the office of president, he constantly blamed the country's economic slowdown on Chen. After Ma took office reality caught up with him. The economy continued to sink and sink and sink under Ma. In true Ah-Q style, Ma quickly shifted the blame. The economy was now a global problem; Ma could not be held accountable.

A corollary to avoiding responsibility is passing the buck and saying this item belongs to the Legislature, that item belongs to the Constitution that item belongs to anyone, anyone but me. If unavoidably caught in specific promises such as Ma's 6-3-3 campaign pledge then move the goal posts. The 6-3-3 promise? Accountability for that will only be due in 2016 after Ma is gone.

When promises fail, make new promises; trust the short term memory of the people. Promise untold riches from China and they will forget your old promises. Promise, promise, promise until it is time to leave office; incompetence can always be hidden by new promises.

One must also keep a moving target; be prepared to talk out of both sides of your mouth and to make contradictory statements. What is Ma's position on Taiwan's sovereignty? In his campaign, Ma promised to defend it with his life. In his inauguration speech, he said it was not an important matter. In his interview with a Mexican journalist, sovereignty disappeared. Taiwan was a region and China was a region. In the Japanese interview, it changed and China became a part of the Republic of China. Now in an interview with an Indian quarterly, Ma stated he would seek a peace pact with China. Would this be on a state to state basis? When Ma was Mayor, people would say, his opinion depended on who he talked to last. Now people say, Ma's opinion depends on which news media he last talked to.

If Taiwanese are wondering, China is as well. The Chinese are unsure if they are dealing with a naive Ah-Q that they can take advantage of or with a charlatan whom they must figure out how much they need to pay. Some Taiwanese are clear about Ma's position. Protests have already been held, on August 9th, August 30th and a major one is planned for October 25th.

As a last resort in the Ma Principle, if reality continues to bear down on you, use the media to foster an image and use government muscle to dictate public opinion. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has already accused Ma's government of interfering in the nation's state-owned media including the Central News Agency (CAN), Radio Taiwan International (RTI) and Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS) because they printed stories that were critical of the Ma administration and its lax policies towards China. Such a quick condemnation in 100 plus days in office is more common in dictatorships. Yet Ma blithely feels his good ship Lollipop is in calm waters.

Perhaps Ma is leaning on his mentor, Chiang Kai-shek who lost China. Chiang was good with slogans, great with image and full of promises. He reached his level of incompetence but how easily he duped the people into believing his greatness and that he could retake China. As the saying goes, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time even with the Ma Principle.