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July 29, 2017

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The proof of Ma as bumbler is in the pudding

The China Post--Several senior government officials have argued for the validity of the recent "Ma the bumbler" article by The Economist. But it is the Ma administration that has provided the strongest evidence to justify the magazine's assessment.

Let's for one minute consider the government's argument that its competence should not be judged merely by Taiwan's recent economic performance, which in many ways can be affected by outside factors beyond the government's control. Let's use the Ma administration's effectiveness as a gauge of its ability to communicate. The media may be a wild beast but at least it has no invisible hand.

Even in this respect, however, the administration has just shown the world its utter ineptitude by turning a single word into a major political storm.

The Ma administration has long emphasized the importance of communication. Earlier in Ma's first term, then-Premier Liu Chao-shiuan ordered his Cabinet officials to attend group training sessions in order to learn to better bond with the people. In the wake of recent public discontent over the government's performance, the Presidential Office has emphasized so-called tangible policies that can be better "felt" by the public. But the "bumbler" brouhaha just shows how miserably it has failed in communication.

Instead of biting its teeth and downplaying the significance of the article — which by the way was not a cover story but a 600-word report on the political climate in Taiwan — the government is adding fuel to the fire by rushing to criticize and correct the magazine. Senior official after senior official jumped to the president's defense by making unsubstantiated challenges over the article's comprehensiveness and the accuracy of its data.

And what have the officials' responses achieved? They probably helped less in recovering Ma's reputation than giving the "bumbler" blaze more air. Thanks to the officials' overkill, the embarrassing word was picked up by the Agence-France Presse and is now gracing the websites of major English newspapers in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore, to name just a few. Things went so bad that the Presidential Office had to issue a statement on Monday emphasizing that Ma did not order the tirade against the article.

To be fair, it might not be exactly accurate to describe the government's response as "overkill." The officials' comments, when read in full, were less argumentative than the media had let on. But after five years of professing to value communication skills, the Ma administration should understand the media's tendancy to exaggerate and to focus on its officials' unfortunate choice of words. When it has failed to learn even that and control its officials, how can the administration complain when Ma is called a bumbler?

The president should have anticipated his officials' eagerness to defend him as a show of loyalty. After all, that has been a tradition among Chinese mandarins since time immemorial. Next time he is called bad names by the media, the president should pre-empt his officials by facing the music first and letting the public be the judge of the reports' fairness.

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