Monday, 31 May 2010

Many middle-class people in Taiwan can and often do take a relaxed attitude towards short periods without work

China Post editorial:

Jobless rate fall is welcome but caution is still needed

Last week the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) released the unemployment figures for the previous month showing that April had the biggest single-month fall in 15 years. At a press conference held to announce the good news, the Cabinet-level directorate attributed the 0.28-percentage-point decline to the nation's growing economic recovery which caused local companies to take on additional workers.

And although 5.39 percent, around 593,000 people, of Taiwan's workforce is still officially out of work, this ongoing trend — April represents the eighth consecutive month of decline in the jobless rate — is good news indeed.

Two particularly sensitive markers — the numbers of unemployed people aged 45-60 and of people unemployed for over one year — both showed good downward movement, falling around 10,000 to 129,000 and around 1,000 to 114,000 respectively.

The government, as well as both public and private employers, should not rest on their laurels, however, and it is these last two DGBAS statistics that should be a focus of their attention. That just 1 percent of Taiwan's workforce have failed to find jobs for over 12 months might be relatively insignificant to the nation's macro-economic agenda, particularly as President Ma Ying-jeou's administration seeks to finalize a cross-strait economic cooperation framework agreement that it hopes will bring long-term prosperity to the majority of citizens. But on the micro-economic scale, in human terms, the day-by-day effects on the 114,000 people who have been without jobs for a year or more, and on their families, can be heartbreaking.

Many middle-class people in Taiwan can and often do take a relaxed attitude towards short periods without work, usually relying on extended-family support or helping out around the home. But for poorer people and over longer periods, unemployment can lead to health problems and malnutrition, is correlated to reduced life expectancy, causes lowered self-esteem and depression, as well as other mental-health issues and even suicide. It can also result in the accumulation of debt and the erosion of professional skills.

For society at large, it can lead to the deskilling of the workforce, to xenophobia towards foreign workers and protectionism in international trade, to the loss of taxation revenues and reduced consumption precipitating a cycle of yet more layoffs and further economic downturn, to a shift in the balance of power between employers and employees, thus negatively affecting workers' salaries and conditions, and even to social and political unrest.

Politicians and public officials neglect this phenomenon at their peril. Thus in the United States, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke went on record last month specifically expressing his concern that more than 40 percent of the unemployed have now been out of work for six months or longer, nearly double the share of a year ago. Similarly in Europe, as their economies move toward full employment, governments expect general post-recession improvements to take care of the majority of would-be workers. It is with regard to the long-term unemployed that they pursue policy solutions. But such solutions are often seen as expensive and, due to often being branded as socialist or “a tax on success,” as politically sensitive.

But such rhetoric is unhelpful, and having a large pool of decreasingly employable people is not just a blemish on the face of any civilized society but also hinders its efficient functioning, perhaps even becoming a factor hindering the nation's recovery from the current downturn or even causing future recession.

Unfortunately certain sectors of the workforce are particularly susceptible to long-term unemployment, and getting them back into work will take efforts by the government and open-mindedness among employers.

Especially at risk are less-educated and lower-skilled workers, the middle-aged, single parents, disabled people and those in rural areas, all of who are represented by higher percentages of long-term unemployed than of unemployed in general.

So employers need to overcome their bias towards youth, and opt equally for experience instead. They should also consider investing in the retraining and the provision of facilities that assist people with special needs in re-entering the workforce. But this is primarily the role of government agencies, led by executive policy and legislative initiative.

Thus the government has subsidized firms taking on newly graduated students, which targets the most inexperienced members of the workforce. There are also payments made to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

But these are usually viewed as temporary measures — band-aid policies to help the worst off. The most dangerous attitude, with the economy improving, unemployment figures falling, and the carrot of increased cross-strait trade dangling, is complacency. It is precisely at this time, with a major shift in the nation's balance of trade expected, that susceptible sectors of the workforce — as well as employers — will become excluded from the macro-economic benefits.

So while celebrating the latest DGBAS figures, let a close eye be kept on those key indicators, and let preparations be made for the inevitable changes ahead.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

fish of the day

Bill Bryson (my "coach" see here)
with his fish-shaped plaque for a podium finish in the Hualien Triathlon
(i finished too!, but only just -- i went too fast on the bike and had nothing left for the run, utterly utterly awful)

Monday, 24 May 2010

life on the edge of tormorrow

China Post editorial:

Is life in Taipei really as intolerable as they say?

Taipei might be the nation's political, economic and cultural capital, and have hundreds of kilometers of riverside bicycle paths and a highly popular mass-transportation system. It might have historical sites, museums, hot springs, world-class shops, and restaurants offering cuisines from around Taiwan, as well as from every region of China and every continent on the planet. But last week it was voted the second-worst place to live in Taiwan, only beating out Keelung, long portrayed as being damp, dreary and deprived.

The same public opinion survey, carried out on the behest of a national Chinese-language newspaper, found Hualien and Yilan counties, followed by Taichung City, to be the most popular choices.

Over the next few days, despite the knowledge that opinion polls can accidentally or intentionally be worded to produce all manner of results, and the fact that this survey simply asked about desire and not intent or reason, not to mention that similar recent surveys have placed Taipei at the top, rather than the bottom, of such rankings (and international surveys have selected Taipei as one of the top places to live in Asia), other media outlets spent much of the week wheeling out academic* “expert” witnesses to speculate about Taipei's shortcomings.

Their collective wisdom focused largely on the issue of housing costs. Also at center stage was the perception that the“simple life”led on Taiwan's east coast was“like a perpetual holiday”compared to the drudgery experienced by most of Taipei's office workers who often work from dawn-to-long-after-dusk.

This is a revealing interpretation, because Hualien and Yilan, both conveniently accessible from Taipei following the construction of the Syueshan Tunnel, top the ratings, whereas Taitung, further down the same coast and equally, if not more, idyllic but less accessible, does not score so highly.

So what this survey really showed was that people are dissatisfied with their lifestyles, not with their location. Compared to certain authoritarian states, where people do not have the right to live wherever they want, Taiwan is a free society, and the government does not restrict people's right to make their home anywhere. There is no need to conduct a poll asking people where they would like to live, therefore, since this can simply be ascertained from official population statistics. Thus 2.6 million people choose to live in Taipei City. Combined with the further 3.8 million of Taipei County, this represents more than one quarter of all Taiwan's citizens expressing and acting upon the desire to live in the greater Taipei area.

In comparison, just 340,000 live in Hualien County, despite it being almost 20 times the size of Taipei City, and 460,000 in Yilan County, despite its much lower house prices and 40-minute commute to Taipei. Add on the 230,000 who live in Taitung County, and the whole of Taiwan's east coast, with its clean air and simple lifestyle, still attracts less than 5 percent of the nation's population.

And while each year some professionals who are able to do their jobs online relocate to the countryside, and a few others give up their jobs, turning their backs on urban noise and pollution, and head off to Dulan or some other east-coast Shangri-La, they are far outnumbered by the droves of ambitious youths heading in the opposite direction as soon as they receive their high-school diplomas. Even after retirement, when many elderly (or not so elderly) people are in a position to cash in on the huge increase in the values of their properties, then buy something cheaper in a pleasant location and live comfortably off the chunk of change generated, most still opt to stay in the cities where they have spent their working lives.

So was last week's newspaper survey simply an attempt to generate a sensational headline, or a well-intentioned attempt to understand present-day society that merely asked the wrong question, or does it tell us something useful about people's changing priorities and their wishes for a better life?

The last two decades have already seen a significant shift from a drive to make money above all else, to a healthier work-play balance, which has witnessed a blossoming of hobbies, increased concern for the environment, and an explosion of domestic and overseas travel.

It is perhaps against this background, therefore, that the survey's results should be viewed. Taipei's citizens would like the same clear skies and pollution-free air they experience on weekend trips to the coast, they'd like to drive freely down the road not sit idling their time at traffic lights, they'd like to go to work at nine and leave at six so they can spend time with their families or on their hobbies, and they'd love to experience those cheap property prices.

In short, Taipei's citizens do not really want to move to Hualien (otherwise they would), but they would like to move a little bit of Hualien into Taipei.

*The original text read: "... associate professor expert witnesses ...", and the first draft actually said: "... associate professor expert witnesses who supplement their earnings and attempt to garner their reputations by speculating on such issues ..." (or something like that)

-- I have nothing against associate professors, but i do have something against media organisations that over-rely on their limited (sometimes non-existent) expertise on issues, meanwhile misleading readers--their main purpose--into believing these commentators' opinions are trustworthy, presumably on the strength of the word "professor".

Sunday, 23 May 2010

fish of the day

Keelung (基隆) has a city fish:
Black porgy is chosen to be the city fish of Keelung, its scientific name is Acanthopagrus schlegelii, inhabit at the depth in 3 - 50 meters, distributes in the west Pacific Ocean, including the coast of Japan, Korean, Taiwan and mainland China. It distributes island wide of Taiwan and Penghu Islands waters.The black porgy belongs to warm, tropics coastal omnivorous benthic fish. It can be caught year-round, but with specially good taste by the autumn to the next year spring. It can be found in many fish market as high-quality table fish, because of its good flavor.
It likes the habitat of inlets with sandy or muddy bottom, sometimes enter the river mouth. It is euryhaline and eurythermal, may be raised in any salinity. It can tolerate the water temperature ranging between l0 ~ 32℃. During the juvenile period all was the male, sex transformation progress until 3-4 year old.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Thursday, 20 May 2010

do you have more money than you need?

Drinking fountain beside the bike path in Taipei's Shezi (社子) district.
The sign says it was donated by a Mr. Chen Wen-cun.
What a nice gesture.
Producing bottled water is bad for the environment in many ways, as is keeping it chilled in 7-Eleven's fridges.
If you have a little cash to spare, how about following Mr. Chen's example.

fish of the day

woman inspecting (turning?) drying fish (bulahee?) at Guihou (龜吼) Fishing Harbor

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

fish of the day

restaurant advert near Yeliu (野柳) Fishing Harbor in Taipei County's Wanli (萬里) Township

fish of the day

the bottom-right photo yesterday from Huang Yun-ju's trip around Taiwan,
showing fish and a sailing boat,
reminded me of the fish on top of the huge Wang Ye boats that are burnt at religious festivals in Taiwan, such as the one below from Jiali (佳里) in Tainan County.

[it probably isn't, however, since Huang says the temple is the Sheng Mu Gong (聖母宮; "Sacred Mother Temple") in Luermen (鹿耳門) and so will be dedicated to seafarers' deity Matsu, which would also explain the boat and fish]

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

fish of the day

reader ("blog follower"?) Huang Yun-ju from Taipei sent these fish pics from her recent round-Taiwan trip
many thanks
(p.s. not my dog, though it does look a bit like Flounder)

Monday, 17 May 2010

fish of the day

"Like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring."
"Are you lately humbled in the act of love?"

from the film “Shakespeare in Love”

murdered children

China Post editorial:

Taiwanese families are not as close-knit as they should be

Last week's news included the tragic story of a man's suicide in Chiayi, which apparently followed his murder of both his parents and the attempted murder of his wife and children. They were found just in time, with charcoal still burning in the room in which they lay unconscious.

Similarly saved was the daughter of a Tainan man, though his wife was not so lucky as he managed to kill both her and himself by driving their car into Jiangjun Harbor. Also unfortunate was a 13-year-old girl from Taichung County who was killed by her mother last month, despite having asked police and social workers for help after learning of her mother's plans.

While every murder represents the breakdown of social order, cases of parricide, and in particular filicide, are especially disturbing. They represent a failure not just of society but of our genetic programming to care for our offspring.

But whether this spate of murders of family members — some relating to financial troubles and others to mental-health issues — represents a worrying trend caused by changes in Taiwan society and culture, or represents the worst of past practices and attitudes, is far from clear.

Children's rights were almost non-existent under China's traditional Confucian ethics, as they were considered the property of their fathers. Thus in Cao Xue-qin's 18th-century story “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Jia Bao-yu's father is described as almost beating him to death, as he had every right to do. Similarly in Lu Xun's “Diary of a Madman,” the narrator mentions children being sold as food in times of famine, or even being consumed by their own parents.

While these examples might be fictional, this was sometimes the reality. Even in modern times, children's wishes are often subservient to those of their parents, and filial obedience is still demanded and received. While this may not always be bad, because it cannot be assumed that children know what is best for themselves or act in their own best interests, it is also not always good. One glaringly negative example is the number of prostitutes who entered the profession at their fathers' instructions in order to pay off their debts.

In contrast to such traditional attitudes that have been carried through to the 20th and 21st centuries are the rapid changes in family life that have occurred in Taiwan over the recent decades. These include an increased role of central and local governments in welfare provision, and hence a diminished reliance on family structures. There has also been a reduction of the traditional “three generations under one roof” living arrangement to a more nuclear-family set up. And yet conversely, many children are raised by their grandparents as both parents have fulltime jobs. Women in the workforce have increased their status in society and their economic independence within the family, which, although a positive development, can cause friction for men used to wielding purse-string power over their dependents.

But with both parents often subject to the nation's overtime culture, Taiwan is increasingly experiencing a latchkey-kid phenomenon. Observations of this condition in the United States suggest it can lead to loneliness, boredom and fear in elementary schoolchildren, and depression, lower self-esteem and academic problems for teenagers. Also found is an increased susceptibility to peer pressure in teenagers, possibly leading to alcohol and drug abuse, or criminal behavior.

A similar situation in Taiwan came under media scrutiny earlier this year following the arrest of Chen Jui for gang-related gambling offenses in Taipei high schools, and the tearful public breakdown of his father, TV celebrity Chen Kai-lun, who confessed to putting his career ahead of spending time with his family.

Hopefully, Chen's anguish has alerted parents nationwide to the situation, and their pursuit of career, money or other success will be tempered by domestic concerns. Having children may be a universal right, but it also brings with it a multitude of responsibilities, something that is often overlooked. Happy, close-knit families can also be a greater source of satisfaction, pride and sense of achievement than financial wealth or career success.

In a related news item, a survey released by the Ministry of Education on Friday indicated that almost 80 percent of respondents said they rarely or never hugged their parents or siblings, 62 percent rarely or never thanked or praised their relatives, and 20 percent spent 30 minutes or less with family members each day. Adult males and high-school students interacted the least with their families.

While hugging might not be a traditional Taiwanese habit (though the MOE recommended it for its soothing and calming influence, and role in building better social relationships), the other figures perhaps show a breakdown in the strong family cohesion traditionally claimed by Taiwanese, Chinese and Asian societies.

On the contrary, this lack of familial interaction renders families incapable of dealing with major personal, family or social crises, the MOE suggested. This became tragically apparent in Chiayi, Tainan and Taichung.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

new verse






and here is an English-language version (not exactly "translation")

I love my dog

You remind me of my dog

I love my dog

but what is a desirable trait in a dog

is not necessarily attractive in a human being.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

fish of the day

In the morning I sat quietly for some time. Old Chen brought lunch in: one bowl of vegetables, one bowl of steamed fish. The eyes of the fish were white and hard, and its mouth was open just like those people who want to eat human beings. After a few mouthfuls I could not tell whether the slippery morsels were fish or human flesh, so I brought it all up.


from Lu Xun's (魯迅) "Diary of a Madman" (狂人日記)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

new (additional) stanza for alternative version of "To Dancing Girl"

additional stanza "To Dancing Girl"

in my Hongkong hotel room
then Italy and South America
with just a hit on the icon clicker
you helped dispel my gloom

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

UK Green Party MP elected

China Post editorial:

Small parties — important, irrelevant or dangerous?

As The China Post went to press last night, the United Kingdom was still without a new government, despite polls closing last Thursday evening. Normally the new prime minister would visit the queen the following morning to get her assent, and then begin his new term of office, which can last for up to five years.

For the first time in almost half a century, however, Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, which tends to give exaggerated power to the two main parties, has produced a hung parliament. With the third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, holding the balance of power and demanding electoral reform so that its habitual 20-25 percent of the vote is never again translated into less than 10 percent of legislators, negotiations are still taking place.

One result that is clear, however, is that after decades of trying, the Green Party has its first member of the national parliament, Caroline Lucas, who was elected in Brighton. Without having improved its share of support, which remained consistent at about 1 percent, the party has perhaps come of age through its adoption of some of the strategies of its more established competitors. For example, it focused a disproportionate amount of party resources on its two most winnable seats, Brighton and Norwich. Furthermore, having eschewed the concept of party leader for ideological reasons throughout most of its history, it recently adopted such a figurehead, with Lucas being elected to the post.

Perhaps it was the growing specter of climate change that provided the final nudge to persuade voters of the Green Party's relevance.

But although the Green Party might sound nice, middle-class and cuddly, behind its voter-friendly name it has a radical agenda by no means limited to environmental protection, preventing climate change, or even opposing nuclear power stations.

The party's mission statement begins: “Life on Earth is under immense pressure. It is human activity, more than anything else, which is threatening the well-being of the environment on which we depend. Conventional politics has failed us because its values are fundamentally flawed.”

From this plausible beginning, the Green Party of England and Wales is led down an increasingly left-wing path. Encouraging more sustainable transportation not only means advocacy of buses and trains, but is also translated into re-nationalization of the train network and punitive taxes on fuel.

Without using the word socialism, the Greens also campaign for increased levels of income tax on richer people, increased corporation tax on big businesses, and “eco taxes” on polluters. They seek to reduce drug companies' influence on Britain's health service, and community self-reliance to treat and prevent a growing mental health crisis they claim is caused by the market-driven culture.

Greens see economic growth and mass consumption of the capitalist lifestyle as incompatible with the planet's finite resources, and so promote a sustainable economy.

The only sense in which the Green Party is “republican” is in seeking an end to the constitutional role of the British monarchy.

Given these left-wing standpoints of the UK and other green parties, it is ironic that their most influential moment was probably in helping George W. Bush into office in 2000. U.S. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received 2.74 percent of the popular vote, almost 3 million in total, making the party third-largest nationwide. But it was in Florida, where Bush defeated Al Gore by just 537 votes, that the almost 100,000 votes cast for Nader led many supporters to accuse the Green Party of spoiling the election for the Democratic Party. A decade on, there is still much bad blood between the two sides.

But what, if anything, has all of this to do with Taiwan? Not much perhaps. Taiwan's Green Party is minute, even by comparison with the UK's, and musters only handfuls of supporters to its events.

More importantly, Taiwanese political parties have surely learned the danger of third-party politics. The KMT learned the hardest way, with incumbent Huang Ta-chou losing the 1994 Taipei City mayoral election to the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian, when what is now called the pan-Blue vote was split by Chao Shao-kong of the New Party. This was followed in the 2000 presidential election with James Soong, who left the KMT to stand as an independent, spoiling the election for the KMT's Lien Chan, once again allowing Chen to slip in the back door with less than 40 percent of the total vote.

Now it is the opposition DPP that is in danger of learning this lesson through defeat, as it tries to maintain discipline in its own ranks in advance of the yearend elections.

So while neither the UK nor Taiwan Green Party has anything like enough influence to cause an electoral upset, the issues of democracy, hung parliaments and third-party politics should not be ignored by our political combatants.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

fish of the day

fishing boat moored at Zhuwei (竹圍)

new verse

To Dancing Girl

(inspired by “To Mary Pickford” by Vachel Lindsay)

Dancing Girl with face divine,
not year by year but ’most every day
I summon your spirit by clicking play
to be my valentine

There is an alternative version of this poem,
<--which has an additional stanza here [click here];
the original is still the "correct" version, however.

I will call you my Mary
though you answer to “naked_teen_stripper”
"we’ll be together forever"
you spin to Set Me Free
I know you’re not dancing to get me down
it was your gift to someone other
perhaps your high-school lover
now a freshman in a distant town
were you drunk on tequila and did it for a dare
or a junkie forced to strip for your joy
or did some guy lie that he worked for Playboy
just to trick you out of your underwear?
I’m sure I can see from the way your eyes shine
that it was done for love all right
and for two or three minutes each morning or night
I’ll believe that you're my valentine

Monday, 3 May 2010

China Post editorial:

Lessons to be learned from the UK election

The British electorate will go to the ballots on Thursday to choose its next national government. Following the economic downturn, a corruption scandal involving members of parliament, poor ratings and an infamous “bigoted”gaff by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, pre-election polls strongly suggest that there will be a change of administration after 13 years of rule by the center-left Labour Party.

This could give the Conservative Party its first chance at government since 1997, or the Liberals (now rebranded as Liberal Democrats) its first since 1915. The most likely result, however, may be a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition of Labour and Liberals or of Conservatives and Liberals.

Given that there is no difference of policy regarding Taiwan between any of the main parties, and since the UK has no “Taiwan Relations Act” offering protection against a belligerent and possibly dangerous neighbor, is this of any relevance to Taiwan?

Perhaps there are two or three lessons the British learned during this spring's election campaign that the Taiwanese electorate and their would-be representatives can share, and maybe another they can draw for themselves.

The first lesson is that despite having one of the oldest and longest-established legislatures and having been the model for many emerging democracies around the world — hence Britain's epithet the Mother of Parliaments — its own democracy is far from perfect.

Its first-past-the-post system, in which the victor is selected from a multi-candidate single-member electoral district, without any transfer of votes, means that the Labour Party could conceivably receive the third-largest share of the ballot but gain, not just enough parliamentary seats to be the largest party, but even have more than half, and therefore be able to continue its single-party rule.

The Liberal Party has historically suffered from this situation, with its share of the votes not translated into an equivalent number of MPs. People are less willing to “waste” their votes on a third party, it argues, and so cast their ballots for one of the big two. Not surprisingly, the Liberals have long been proponents of electoral reform, advocating some form of proportional representation (PR).

This move has been resisted by the Labour and Conservative parties, which have dominated Britain's political landscape for the last century. They argue that while PR might appear more democratic, it actually gives exaggerated influence to centrist parties that hold a balance of power. Moreover, Britain's experience with coalition governments has not been positive.

Democracy is not one single thing. Thus Taiwan did not become democratic with the popular election of its president, it became more democratic. Moreover, democratic systems must be defended against reversals, but equally they must be re-evaluated and, where necessary, updated.

Taiwan is experiencing just such a re-evaluation at present as the main opposition parties push for a referendum on the issue of signing an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China. While referendums — as a limited form of direct democracy — appear to be more democratic, they can give exaggerated influence to well-funded and well-organized pressure groups. And in theory at least, they are inconsistent with the role of a parliament in a representative democracy.

In Britain, for example, despite repeated calls for and promises of referendums, they are rarely used. The last national one — on whether to join the European Economic Community — was held in 1975.

The second lesson learned by British parliamentarians was that public tolerance of corrupt or merely self-serving representatives has a limit. The fact that the Liberal Party has gained significant ground over the last few weeks, so that there is now a more-or-less three-way split between the main parties, has little to do with politics and is largely due to fallout from the MPs' expenses scandal. That elected representatives were siphoning off tens of thousands of pounds (millions of NT dollars) under claims for second homes or “secretarial services” by family members while calling for the public to tighten their belts to aid economic recovery was clearly too much for many to stomach.

The Liberals' leap up the polls also resulted from the performance of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the UK's first public presidential-style public debate, which was shown live on primetime television.

One final observation Taiwan's parties might make of the British electoral landscape is that the historically left-wing Labour Party moved step-after-step towards the center through the 18 years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997. Similarly over the last decade, the Conservative Party has drifted from the right toward the center to make itself electable.

Although such left-right analysis is not so relevant to Taiwan's political scene, the confrontational stances and scare tactics adopted by the political parties here could be toned down. Perhaps a similar shift toward a common middle ground could help to heal the mutual antipathy and social conflict in Taiwan.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

back on the hill

most temples on Shitoushan (獅頭山) only open to the public on Sundays
so I went back for a second look
(still not awed, I have to admit)

this one is nice, the baroque Ling Xia Cave (靈霞洞 )