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Ma is serious contender for 'least popular' leader accolade

President Ma Ying-jeou was on a roll yesterday in his race with former President Chen Shui-bian for the title of “The Least Popular President of the Republic Since its Founding,” when his approval rating dropped to 15 percent, a personal all-time low. That means he still has only 5 more percentage points to go before he catches up with the defending champion and his number-one political nemesis, whose 10-percent approval rating still remains an unbroken record, and 15 more before he becomes a complete political pariah.

Nick-named a “non-stick pan” or Teflon man, alluding to his uncanny ability to steer clear of scandals surrounding his political career and keep his image unsullied, the president, of course, has his underlings and his party to blame, and can even try to wash his hands of it if he so desires.

But now, the writing is on the wall and the president had better get his act together after a major case of official corruption, arguably the worst since the beginning of his presidency, has been brought to light.

Former Cabinet Secretary-General Lin Yi-shih (林益世) admitted Monday that he had accepted NT$63 million in bribes when serving as a legislator in 2010. Lin, a former chairman of the ruling Kuomintang's Policy Committee, was then taken into custody after confessing to soliciting bribes in a 12-hour interrogation session. News media are hinting this may just be the tip of the iceberg as the country waits anxiously for more disclosures.

As far as the president is concerned, the consequences of the scandal could be dire because in his second term he is expected to spend more time building his legacy, something he would be remembered for. Presumably, the president does not want to be remembered as the head of a corrupt administration, especially after he was first elected on a “clean government” platform in 2004, when he accused the outgoing Chen Shui-bian administration of being corrupt. Chen, still serving a long sentence for graft, may ultimately become the person who laughs last, now that one of Ma's hand-picked men has found to be much less than honest and Ma is having a poor show in the polls.

Maybe Ma, who is proud of his reputation as an honest politician, should do some soul-searching, as recommended by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and seriously think about trying to have something to show for his second term. Mere damage control simply will not suffice. For starters, the president may contemplate the careers of two political leaders, one Chinese and the other American, and try to learn a lesson from them. The late President Chiang Kai-shek, for all the controversies surrounding his long presidency, was said to be a frugal man, clean as a whistle. But he was, and perhaps still is, blamed for the rampant corruption within his party and administration which, among other things, cost him the people's support and a possible victory over the insurgent Chinese communists after World War II. So if the government and the ruling KMT do not do some serious house cleaning, blame will eventually land at the president's door despite his immaculate personal record.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, is remembered as “Honest Abe,” but one is tempted to argue that Lincoln may have never been so remembered if he had not achieved something truly remarkable, such as winning a war. Honesty is just one of the qualities we expect of our leaders. One cannot say the Ma administration has achieved nothing remarkable so far and will not in the next four years. But we want to remind the president that Chinese historians evaluate the careers of political leaders and government officials by two yardsticks. One is virtue, and the other is competence.

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