Tsai Ing-wen and Transformational Leadership

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Tuesday September 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

One of the most important considerations facing the president of any nation is what legacy they wish to leave. Will they simply be seen as a caretaker who avoided disasters? Or will they go down in history as having been transformative?

President, Tsai Ing-wen has weathered the first year of her presidency with little problem. She has taken the reins of the nation and knows first hand the scope of the position. She also has the benefit of knowing Taiwan's past three presidents well.

It is time as the walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem says to the carpenter (one who builds) to talk of "other things." It is time to go beyond sealing wax, cabbages and kings. It is time to talk of transformational leadership, the type that creates a positive legacy.

Richard Neustadt, a US political scientist, who focused on the role of presidents and their legacies in a democracy, considered the "power to persuade" as a chief sign of one's leadership and a necessary ingredient of transformation.

However, transformational leadership demands more. Such a leader must identify necessary changes appropriate to the times, back them with the required vision to guide them and win the commitment of a majority of legislators and people to bring it all to fruition.

Tsai is the fourth president freely elected in Taiwan, making it is easy for her and Taiwanese to look back and rank her three predecessors.

In this ranking, all can see that former president, Lee Teng-hui stands out as most transformational. He made Taiwan the democracy that it is.

Showing leadership and vision, Lee identified the need to remake the nation into a democracy.

He forced the retirement of the "iron-rice bowl" members of the Legislative Yuan who shamefacedly had held their lucrative positions since the 1947 elections in China. From 1992 on, he made all legislators to be elected by the people.

In 1996, Lee further orchestrated that the election of the president would be by the people even though he could have probably gotten away with less.

Of course, Lee was backed by a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that held a majority of seats in the legislature, but it is foolish to think that they were all of one mind. There were many opposing voices in the KMT and many who still preferred the privileges of the one-party state.

Lee overcame the opposition and when he finished his presidency he insisted that relations with China be done on a state-to-state basis.

The following eight years of Chen Shui-bian show a man under high expectations, but facing greater limitations. Chen initially came in as the first president of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); his victory was due to a split vote in the KMT.

Thus, even though he won, Chen was saddled with having to deal with a legislature that was loaded with disgruntled KMT members and its spin-off People First Party (PFP).

The KMT and the PFP both felt the dispossession that a democracy brings to those previously nourished in a one-party state. Even Lee ironically found himself kicked out of the KMT as a traitor.

Chen would end up in jail on corruption charges after a questionable double standard of justice at his trial along with potentially perjured witnesses.

If there were transformational results that led to a positive legacy from him, they would be found in his insisting that Taiwan be Taiwan.

The next eight years of Ma Ying-jeou fit a different pattern. One could say that never has so much promise and so much potential produced so little.

Ma had entered on a backlash of disappointment with Chen; he was aided by his KMT having a veto-overriding majority in the legislature.

Ma's majority win proved even greater than that of Lee in 1996. With the right vision, he could have done great things for Taiwan.

Unfortunately that was his flaw. His vision was out of step with the people who elected him.

It was linked to a China-centric image of his waishengren past—a term referring to people who fled to Taiwan with the KMT after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War and not that of Taiwan. His vision lacked a sense of Taiwanese history.

When re-elected in 2012, Ma won by a much smaller majority. For those who could read the signs, he was sinking.

He had misread the mood and direction of the nation and he would soon be internationally branded as the "bumbler." The subsequent Sunflower Movement predicted how disastrous the 2014 and last year's elections would be for Ma and the KMT.

This is the history and challenge that Tsai has stepped into.

After the Ma years, many expect a new vision and clearer change in direction. Taiwanese not only gave Tsai a strong majority win the presidency, but also completely redid the Legislative Yuan.

Her party, the DPP, now controls the legislature for the first time. In addition she has potential allies in the vibrant New Power Party.

The first questions that she and her party must articulate the answers to are vision questions: What vision and what changes are needed at this moment in the post-Ma years of Taiwan's history? How can these changes best be articulated even as a hegemonic China tries to undermine her administration and Taiwan?

Tsai has already taken steps on the historical Aboriginal question and the New Southland Policy provides an alternative to economic dependency on China. In addition, pension reform is necessary for the nation's future economy.

How can these be brought together?

The question of the nation's desinicization raised by former Chinese KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu is a no brainer: Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China.

If anything, the burden is on China to learn from Taiwan, as democracy is foreign to many Chinese. That however is China's problem and not Tsai's.

What is lacking in all of the above is a clearly expressed vision.

To be transformational, Tsai must still find and articulate a clear vision for Taiwan's future, a vision that will continue to move this democracy in a positive direction and at the same time provide economic hope.

Then like Lee, she must find a way to work with positive people in the KMT, who see Taiwan as Taiwan. All this is not easy, but legacies never are.