Sunday, June 15, 2008

The incredible shrinking Ma

All those international reporters who during the presidential campaign swooned at the “charismatic” and “charming” Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) must be wondering nowadays what happened to the photogenic politician. Where in diyu (“hell”), indeed, has he been? No only has he made precious few public appearances since his inauguration on May 20, but when he did, it was a gaunt-looking Ma who gazed back at the camera, a shadow of his former media-hungry self. And in a marked departure from his whirlwind of a predecessor, who like him or hate him could not be faulted for lack of energy, Ma has limited his activities to hedonistic attendances at exhibitions, trade shows and visits to friends down south. In everything he has done and said since he took the helm, he has given the impression that he is part of a plan to steer well clear of anything that could spark controversy.

As the country faces floods, rising commodity prices and attendant discontent, and while top officials engage in crucial negotiations with officials in Beijing, our president is on cruise control and has failed to give any indication that he is on top of things.

Perhaps Ma contents himself with delegating on the domestic front — such as on the devastating floods in central Taiwan a few weeks ago — which, in his view, may not be overly important. Aloof though this position may be, he may be of the opinion that such matters are not the remit of a president and that more crucial issues, such as foreign policy, are what heads of state should occupy themselves with. He certainly would not be the first leader to hold such a belief — to wit, former US president George H.W. Bush, who to a large extent lost the presidency because of his inattention to and lack of interest in domestic matters.

If Ma, like Bush, were foreign-policy oriented, then surely the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands incident would have prompted him to jump on stage and take the lead — especially after government officials utter the “W” word during official deliberations on a minor incident involving a longstanding ally. In a cascade of events since the collision at sea last Tuesday, recriminations have been made, Taiwan’s representative to Japan has been recalled, the Japanese flag has been stamped upon in public and relations between Taipei and Tokyo may have reached their lowest point in decades. Surely, amid all this, a national leader would intervene and call for calm, if not pick up the phone and contact his counterpart in Tokyo.

And yet, nothing. Here Ma has been offered a chance to make up for the damage he did to Taiwan-Japan relations when he failed to acknowledge the Japanese delegation during his inaugural speech, not to mention help avoid a minor incident from being blown out of proportions. His failure to intervene puts the nation’s very security at risk, as irreparable damage to our relations with a strong ally may be in the making.

If this had happened a year ago, Chen (no softie on the Diaoyutais) would have been all over TV mending fences. So would former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). This time around, Ma cannot hide behind a supposed constitutional clause that bars him from doing his job. He must grab the wheel and show leadership. If he doesn’t, some may begin to wonder if he might not be nothing more than a mannequin, with a puppeteer hiding backstage.

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