The public needs to wake up to the issues that matter
Based on the most discussed issues in the national news last week — whether printed, broadcast or online — one could be forgiven for thinking that a former president’s awareness of national identity or a certain rich wife’s tour of an Apache hanger were the most important issues in the nation.
While the weak state of Taiwan’s economy — the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics recently revised Taiwan’s 2015 GDP growth forecast drastically downward from 3.28 percent to 1.56 percent — is in the news, Taiwan’s economic problems were much less discussed by the Taiwanese public than the “Apache scandal.”
The citizen journalists and keyboard commentators who have generated lots of stories, observations and analyses (some insightful, some not) on issues such as the government’s guidelines on the high school history curriculum are keeping mum on the economic issues that affect most of Taiwanese public.
Of course, that does not mean people do not care about the economy. In fact, public anger about the dismal state of the country’s economy (especially its stagnant wage growth) has long been the underlining contributor to political turmoil in recent years, reflecting anti-establishment sentiments around the world in the wake of the Great Recession. Hot-button issues such as the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement and the curriculum controversy, while important in themselves, are just the fuses that trigger the powder keg of public discontent.
Take the Apache scandal as an example. Prosecutors last week decided not to press charges against Lt. Col. Lao Nai-cheng ( ), local TV personality Janet Lee ( ) and 13 others for organizing or taking part in an unauthorized private tour in March to a military base that is home to important assets such as AH-64E Apache helicopters.
The case quickly gained public awareness, earning Lee the nickname “Sister Apache,” mainly because of Lee’s status as a “gui fu” — a rich wife. The Apache scandal was to the public an example of the inequality between the haves and have-nots. Since the prosecutors’ decision was made public, the Defense Ministry’s website has been flooded with emails applying for a visit to the Apache base that are intended to ridicule how the rich wife got away with the illegal visit. People also took to Facebook and other social media, creating memes to mock rich wives and the accommodating military.
It is sad, therefore, to see the lack of a similar level of public attentiveness, skepticism and originality on issues that are truly related to the key issues of economy and social inequality. For example, when presidential candidates of both major parties announced plans that are basically a death knell to the stock gains tax, there were no heated discussions, no clever memes and no in-depth analyses from the media or the public.
The stock gains tax is one of the few policies of the Ma Yingjeou administration that aims to tackle income inequality by taxing profits made from stock trades. Such tax can, with good planning, relieve the burden of salary earners while helping to bring about a much-needed rebalancing of Taiwan’s economy. A more balanced tax structure could help redirect capital now excessively focused on speculative investments back to Taiwanese businesses.
The current calls for stock gains tax reduction or de-facto cancellation mainly come under two false pretexts: that the tax hurts the stock market and the economy, or that the tax is not effective. Stock markets all over the world have been entering correction territory recently, showing that the fundamental reason behind Taiwan’s stock price plunge is global, not domestic.
The suggestion that the stock gains tax is ineffective, on the other hand, is simply hypocritical. The lawmakers who decried the lack of revenue generated from the tax know well that since its inception the tax has been castrated multiple times by none other than the same lawmakers themselves. When the tax was rolled out in 2012, lawmakers added a clause that allowed it to be enacted only when the TAIEX reaches 8,500 points. And when 8,500 points became a realistic target, lawmakers moved the goalpost by amending the law, canceling the 8,500 cap while inserting a “whaler’s clause,” which stipulates that only those with annual stock transactions above NT$1 billion will be taxed. They also put the tax on listed stocks on hold until 2018, leaving the gains tax burden only to mostly small investors of unlisted or over-the-counter stocks. And now, the same lawmakers are criticizing the ineffectiveness of a tax that they had prevented being enacted in full force for at least another three years.
The Taiwanese public, both online and off, can be resourceful and creative but can also be easily bedazzled by hot-button issues. The nation needs more discussion on issues that are not sexy but are key to its future.