I was in Taipei on May 20 eight years ago and witnessed Ma Ying-jeou win the election for Taiwan’s presidency with a lead of more than 2.2 million votes over his rivals.
He will step down as president on Friday at the age of 66.
However, his approval has sunk to 23 percent eight years after he took over the helm, and the Island’s residents are most unhappy with his economic policy.
He failed to realize the “633” goals — 6 percent annual economic growth, per capita gross domestic product of US$30,000 and unemployment of less than 3 percent — that he put forward when he was sworn in eight years ago.
However, Taiwan’s GDP grew only 2.8 percent annually, less than half of the 6 percent goal, during his term.
That is even worse than the average 4.9 percent annual growth achieved when Chen Shui-bian was president.
Per capita GDP also lagged behind the target.
Taiwan’s nominal per capita GDP was US$22,000 last year, IMF data shows. That represents a 29 percent jump from US$17,000 in 2008 but is 27 percent lower than Ma’s ambitious goal of US$30,000.
Taiwan ranks last among the “Four Little Asian Dragons” in per capita GDP, behind Singapore’s US$53,000, Hong Kong’s US$42,000 and South Korea’s US$27,000.
Meanwhile, Ma did make some progress in improving the job market.
The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent from a high of 6 percent in 2010.
But it remains worse than the jobless rates in the other three Dragons.
Ma tried to lower the unemployment rate in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.
The Ministry of Education allocated a special budget to subsidize the monthly salary for interns who had just finished university and started work, bringing it up to NT$22,000.
However, the one-off policy initiative resulted in the so-called “22K curse” although the policy ended in 2013.
Many companies have set the starting wage for college graduates at NT$22,000.
That salary can barely support college graduates in Taiwan who don’t have their parents’ help, let alone allow them to start their own families.
Frankly speaking, young people in Taiwan are even more miserable than their counterparts in Hong Kong.
Certainly, in a free job market, low wages are mainly due to supply and demand.
However, Ma failed to boost incomes for young employees during his term.
He received only 14 percent approval for his efforts to improve the wealth gap during his term, 21 percent approval for driving economic growth and 22 percent for improving financial policy.
Overall, Ma has failed to deliver his promised goals, and Taiwan has lagged behind other economies in the region during his term.
Ma has done a poor job mainly because of mistakes in his cross-strait policy.
He has obviously underestimated the public concern about integration with the mainland.
Ma thought economic incentives were sufficient to win public support.
The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) Taiwan signed with the mainland in 2010 has reached a standoff owing to strong opposition from other political parties.
As a result, more capital, industries, jobs and talent have been moving to the mainland over the years, while Taiwan faces huge pressure from the mainland when it tried to build economic ties with other countries.
Taiwan has failed to make any gain from cross-strait relations.
Many experts in the mainland believe some coastal cities in China may overtake Taiwan economic growth very soon if that continues.
By then, unification with the mainland will no longer be an issue.
It seems there is limited time left for Taiwan. Let’s wait and see.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 19.
Translation by Julie Zhu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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