Moral rearmament movement in Taiwan

Monday, July 6, 2009
By Joe Hung, Special to The China Post

The Ministry of Education launched a one-and-a-half-year campaign last month to make the people on Taiwan acquire “character,” “grace” and “taste.” Cheng Jui-cheng, the minister of education, got his NT$1.2 billion movement under way because he was convinced our people considered rude and vulgar worldwide are not that bad and all they need is a little more character, grace and taste. Of course, he is right. But he has prescribed a naive remedy.

His campaign has four features: ethical education, art embedded in school education, formation of a life-long habit of reading, and public awareness of the importance of sustainable ecological development.

It's impossible to make the drive a success in a brief span of time. The campaign has to be a long-lasting one, like the Moral Rearmament Movement of 1938. I don't know whether our good education minister has that in mind when he decided to kick off the most ambitious movement ever in history, for it involves not just moral revival but cultivation of refine ladies and gentlemen as well.

At any rate, Cheng got President Ma Ying-jeou to appear like a railroad station master with a regulation cap but wearing no uniform to speed off a group of schoolchildren aboard a special train to highlight the inauguration of what should be better called a new moral rearmament on Taiwan.

Remember Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek started a “new life” movement in China before the Marco Polo Incident of July 7, 1927 and President Chiang Kai-shek's similar campaign in Taiwan in the late 1960s? Chiang wanted the Chinese on the mainland and Taiwan alike to behave like decent people.

Chiang failed.

Actually, nobody can make such a movement successful in just a few years.

The Moral Re-Armament Movement (MRA) Dr. Frank Buchman launched is, essentially, a religious one.

Confronted with a sinful world, his Buchmanites taught the importance of absolute honesty, absolute purity and absolute usefulness. The influence of the movement shouldn't be underestimated, but the Christian world hasn't been made less sinful.

Religion, in a wide sense, is a system of truths and the obligations arising therefrom which constitute man's relationship with God or Tao as by far a greater majority of us who are basically agnostic Confucian Chinese believe. We used to be taught to honor and obey our parents and ancestors, love our brothers and sisters, and teach our children to be honest, not to waste anything, to work hard and, above all, to do nothing that may reflect shame on our family.

That moral fabric began to fray long before the West knocked at the door of China with the Opium War of 1939. But westernized bureaucrats and political leaders, unlike their Confucian predecessors, have made the situation worse in the recent past.

Cheng's campaign was planned by such bureaucrats, who are, in the best characterization Premier Liu Chao-shiuan gives them, “those who lack common sense, though they have academic knowledge.” They may not be as bad as Tu Cheng-sheng, who claimed Taiwan is in the center of the world by putting the island right in the center of a world map, or his chief of staff at the education ministry, who called Ma Ying-jeou names and insulted his father in public while he was campaign for president. But all the bureaucrats under Cheng do not know character is built up over the long years, including the formative years, albeit taste and grace can be learned much later.

Don't think ethical education is crowned with success when all schoolchildren score full marks in examinations on ethics. Good behavior and conduct are taught at home and by dedicated schoolteachers who have to set personal examples for the youngsters under their care to follow.

We have few such homes and teachers. In fact, most of our academically knowledgeable bureaucrats and political leaders haven't been brought up by dedicated parents and taught by dedicated teachers in the first place.

Moreover, examples of lack of character abound. A few of them suffice. We elected Chen Shui-bian, a man of greed, our president in 2000.

Our name-calling and pugnacious lawmakers, who never hesitate to resort even to fist fights to suit their purposes, show schoolchildren how they should behave when they grow up. If anything, grace and elegance certainly are not their forte.

Our moral rearmament movement should take place without fanfare.

One thing the education ministry should do at once is to make schoolteachers teach their pupils how to behave not just in classrooms but in everyday life, because young, highly self-assertive parents cannot be ordered around.

While I was a school kid, my teacher ate his box lunch in a noon break with us in our classroom. He started our lunch break with reciting and requiring all of us to recite with him a 31-letter poem by Emperor Meiji, that urges the partakers of the meal to thank our parents and ancestors for the love and favor they have given us.

The teacher never tired of warning us against wasting food and teaching table manners. Character, like common sense, is gained from experiences of life, not by special study.

In Christendom, the church is responsible for helping build character.

Government corruption was by no means absent in colonial Taiwan, but practically all the educated Taiwanese have been impressed with the probity and eagerness of purpose of the majority of the Japanese teachers and officials with whom they came into contact, and with the simplicity of their mode of life.

Incidentally, such teachers and officials are fast becoming rare animals in postwar Japan, while those educated Taiwanese are dying out but their offspring are nostalgic, reminiscing those good old days when law and order were seldom disturbed and Taiwan was much less “sinful.”

Years of that quiet and slow revolution, if launched at all, will have some effect, though the goal of creating a new generation with character, grace and taste can't be attained.

One good thing about ordering schoolteachers to get that revolution under way is it doesn't cost a penny.

The question is whether schoolteachers are going to obey the orders.

However, asking the president to ape the station master and the education minister appearing like his station hand surely wasn't the right way to get our new moral rearmament started.

Both Ma and Cheng, who tried to be populists, lost some dignity they deserve, which is part of the grace and taste they want our next generation to acquire in just one year and a half.

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