The public needs to wake up to the is­sues that mat­ter

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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