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September 20, 2017

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The story behind the new premier William Lai

"My son, do you really need to go on doing this? Why don't you come back and be a doctor?" That's William Lai's mother Lai Tung Hau put to the future Tainan Mayor and premier in 2004. In July that year, William Lai, who was the chief secretary of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislative Yuan Caucus, was beaten by a group of gangsters after Lai chided them for riding on the wrong side of the road.

Lai's mother took care of Lai at the hospital and tried to convince him to leave politics and return to his former profession as a physician. But William Lai said instead: "As long as the society needs me and supports me with voters, I will just have to go on."

Lai had twice been considered for a Cabinet position. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian was elected president and he planned to have Lai take over as Vice Minister of the Department of Health (now Ministry of Health and Welfare) and to be promoted to minister later; In 2007, Chang Chun-hsiung reprised as the premier and invited Lai to be as secretary-general, but Lai was dedicated to his lawmaker election campaign.

On Sept. 4, arguably not the best time, Lai accepted the appointment as premier. In private, Lai's friends recalled something he mentioned earlier: "a warrior does not get to choose his battlefield." Now the battlefield has called on him, "I will just have to go on," his friends quoted him as saying.

When Lai was elected the first mayor of the newly elevated special municipality of Tainan, he was taking the rein of an ancient saddled with debt. The mayor was no stranger to hardship. Lai father, a miner, died when he was two. He and his five siblings survived on the paychecks his mother earned by washing clothes. Growing up in now New Taipei City's Wanli district, it became a post-typhoon routine for Lai to look for the sheet metal roof of his house blown off by the storm. "Saving money is quicker than earning money" was something his mother told him often.

Facing Tainan's debt of NT$96.4 billion, Lai reduced expenses bit by bit through cutting councilors' discretionary funds to neighborhood chiefs' free parking quota to the city's annual budgets. Tainan City government official said that Lai was so frugal that he did not even hold a celebration feast after winning the election. When city officials proposed a small celebratory gathering, Lai said "great, let's order pizzas," which they ate while having a meeting. His entourage in overseas trips compromises only of five persons. And he hauls his own luggage.

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