Doctor a balm to Taiwan politics

Doctor a balm to Taiwan politics
Dr Ko Wen-je positioned himself as an independent candidate unaffiliated to either the "blue" pro-mainland camp or the "green", which is pro-independence.

When Dr Ko Wen-je accepted victory as the newly elected mayor of Taipei, he looked like the emergency room doctor that he is. He wore a white coat. His hair was slightly mussed, as if he had just got off duty.

In his flat, calm tones, he spoke of how political parties and politicians need to "be more humble" towards citizens.

It was balm to a society fed up with partisan politics, infighting and gridlock which now characterise Taiwan's party politics.

In recent years, civic society has taken the lead in driving change, whether it was last year's protest over military abuses or this year's Sunflower movement against the ratification of a cross-Strait services trade pact.

Dr Ko made it clear he thinks such developments are positive for Taiwan.

"People movements have heralded a new era of Taiwan politics. The rise of civic society is not a negation of politics, but marks an opportunity for the involvement of the people.

"The high walls of ideology are about to fall. It is time for the people to be masters of their own house."

While a political novice - he was running for election for the first time - he proved to be adept at understanding the public mood.

Taipei and other local elections were held less than two years ahead of a presidential poll and the worse-than-expected showing for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) across the island bodes ill for the unpopular government of President Ma Ying-jeou, which favours closer ties with China.

Dr Ko's win is a clear signal that the mood has changed and the power that he can now wield. And perhaps where he might head next.

Every Taiwan president has been a former mayor of Taipei since the island introduced direct presidential elections in 1996.

Positioning himself as an independent candidate unaffiliated to either camp - though he has been a long-time supporter of the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian - the 55-year-old known as "Ko P" (short for Professor Ko) said the worst thing about Taiwan politics is the schism between the "blue", the pro-mainland camp, and the "green", which is pro-independence.

He would rise above the fray, work with both sides and share power with the people, he declared.

Voters in Taiwan's capital agreed, and on Saturday, 57 per cent of them threw their support behind the doctor.

Rival Sean Lien, 44, who works in the financial industry and is the eldest son of former premier and KMT's honorary chairman Lien Chan, got 41 per cent.

Specifically, Dr Ko - who says he will not join any political party after being elected - intends to prohibit his top employees from engaging in political party activities while seeking the "widest public consensus" on policy-making.

Whether this is enough to overcome entrenched enmity and sustain the expectations of the people is another matter. In an interview with The Straits Times on the eve of the election, he acknowledged he might not succeed.

"Over the past 20 years, the blue and green camps have been engaging in a stand-off. Both sides don't want to work together, to talk to each other. At the very least, I am a third party, neither blue nor green. There is a greater chance of forging collaboration."

On whether he can win the trust of the pan-blue coalition given suspicions that his ideological stripes run "green" on the inside, he said: "At least they will trust me more than they will trust someone from the DPP."

"And ultimately, if we try to get the public's support for policies - no one will want to go against that."

Another winning factor for Dr Ko has been his relatively down-to-earth public image.

The father of three comes from a lineage of middle-class public servants - his father was an elementary school teacher, while his grandfather was a school supervisor and then principal.

The latter was arrested by the KMT-led Republic of China government in 1947. He was tortured and beaten badly for a month. He died in 1950.

At a time when Taiwan is grappling with issues of inequality, stagnating wages and rising costs, Dr Ko himself is also favourably contrasted to his rival as a man made good through his own hard work.

He graduated from the department of medicine at National Taiwan University (NTU) in 1986 and became an emergency room doctor focusing on trauma treatment.

In 2006, he made headlines when he used groundbreaking research to save the life of the wife of outgoing Taichung mayor Jason Hu - he lost his bid on Saturday - who had fallen into a coma after a car accident.

Dr Ko later founded NTU's first organ transplant team and established standards for organ transplant procedures later used throughout Taiwan.

In 2010, he directed the emergency care team that treated Mr Sean Lien for critical wounds after he was shot in the head.

But the following year, the hospital became embroiled in a scandal when HIV-infected organs were transplanted into five patients after a staff member misheard the donor's test results over the phone.

Dr Ko, then head of the organ transplant task force, resigned.

Dr Ko, the only person punished in that incident, had said he was never given a chance to defend himself.

It was described as a turning point that propelled his participation into politics, against the "unfair" authorities.

From head of the trauma department to Taipei mayor, all eyes will now be on his healing powers as a politician.

To read The Straits Times' interview with Dr Ko Wen-je, go to www.stasiareport.com


This article was first published on December 1, 2014.
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