10 August, 2022


Letter From Taipei: Reality Is More Complex Than Youthful Prejudices

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

The majority of Lankans, of all hues, have not been favourably inclined to Taiwan (formerlyFormosa) since the early 1950s. The love affair with the Peoples’ Republic commenced with the Rubber-Rice Pact (1953) and continued through Non-Alignment, notions of Peaceful Coexistence and Non-Interference in each other Internal Affairs (meaning non-interference in each others human rights violations) and the gift of the Bandaranaike International Conference Hall. Recently the Rajapakses have tried to cosy up to Beijing, run up debts that will inundate future generations, and they have swelled the illusion that Beijing will protect GoSL from international penalties for human rights abuses. (They will learn the hard way that Xi Jiping will not hesitate to cut Lanka adrift and let it sink if the going gets hot).

Conversely, for the last fifty or more years,Taiwan(self styled Republic of China) has been an object of aversion to Lankans, seen as an American client, and a die-hard outpost of imperialism and capitalism. Chiang Kai-Shek has invariably been projected as an arch reactionary. This is all reflex for Lankans since Taiwan has been a closed book for most of us for decades. There is a rational element in this; the Peoples’ Republic is a giant force in Asian power play and global economics, and naturally Lanka linked its star to Beijing, recognising it diplomatically.Beijing doggedly bullies the world into snubbing Taiwan and unsurprisingly successive Lankan governments have grovelled. The ignorance of the Lankan public, yours faithfully included, about this impressive little dragon economy and its affable people, however, is less forgivable.

A four day visit to Taipei, spent roaming the streets, the public transport facilities and two museums, one marvellous, one impressive, helped dispel my ignorance. I was educated and enchanted by the visit. I am only too familiar with Chinese people in China, which country I have criss-crossed more than a dozen times, and of course Hong Kong, where I worked for twenty years. The Chinese are an able people with much to be admired, but not even their greatest admirers will say folks in the Mainland and Hong Kong are charming (I know an exception!) or helpful to strangers. Conversely, Taiwanese are courteous, invariably going out of their way to show the way or provide directions. Sometimes, perplexed on the streets, I was greeted by something I have never ever, in three decades, once experienced on the Mainland or Hong Kong: “Can I help you?” Over here the usual response to a query on the street is a ruff off-putting gesture and a brusque turning away. Hence it is not true that all Chinese do not give their seats on busses and the metro to pregnant women or the infirm (London and New Yorkare a little better). The commuting public of Taipei, over 90% ethnic Chinese, are very much an exception. So culture and behaviour are more varied and complex than race or ethnicity.


The National Palace Museum houses, as museums go – I have visited many in the Mainland – in my layman’s view, the best collection of artefacts and treasures of China’s history and archaeology. True the Kuo Min Tang under Chiang Kai-Shek carted away (Mainland people say looted) trainloads and shiploads of artefacts to Taiwan when it fled under American protection in 1949. In defence it can be said that these riches have been protected from the ravages of nature and the attention of culturally unlettered philistines. Those who have witnessed the ignorance, decadence and iconoclasm of Islamic fundamentalists who smashed the Banyan Buddha statues and cleaned out the Baghdad and Kabul museums, and the bovine dogma of Cultural Revolution Red Guards, will discover in these museums, something to be grateful for.

This correspondent in front of his Taipei hotel

The museum staff have employed Taiwan’s IT expertise to put on dazzling demonstrations, varied displays, digital presentations and holograms, to bring a stunning display to the visitor. It really is a very impressive show case. True of course Chiang Kai-Shek could not ship out the Forbidden City and the Xian Terracotta warriors, so the big and heavy stuff still sits in the motherland!

The second museum I went to was the natural history section of the Taiwan Museum which provided an overview of the earth and the history of life on the planet. It houses an impressive dinosaur fossil collection (and full size replicas) including a gigantic brachiosaurus skeleton and a tyrannosaurus replica. It was pretty deserted on the weekday on which we went round, but I do hope it bustles with school kids on holidays. The third location I visited was a huge architecturally imposing memorial hall to Chiang Kai-Shek, housing a large collection of photographs and artefacts of the late leader. Unfortunately, political and historical commentary is stonily silent; well he lost, did he not?

An efficient and well oiled dragon

Taipeiclearly rivals Seoul for the title of world’s best networked city; Taiwanese companies many operating out of mainland China, are also the world’s leading digital chip makers. I used to say that Hong Kong had the world’s best public transport system; I have to change ranking now;Taipeiis better (equally comfortable, more frequent and efficient, better networked, and surprisingly, cheaper). The service is smiling, staff and public more patient with the old and the infirm.Taiwan’s rail, metro and bus systems are owned by state corporations. Let me remind you that Lanka’s CTB provided a better service than the private mafia now does and British Rail was superior to the lousy privatised rail system that the near-fascist Thatcher put in place.

Taiwan/Lanka are of comparable population (23 million/21 million) but somewhat different in size (36,000 sq km/65,000 sq km). However, economic development is vastly different; GDP ($470 billion/$65 billion) and per capita GDP ($20,000/$3000).Taiwanis a bustling immensely successful economy, Lanka a mess, on a steep downward slope – shove the government’s “Wonder of Asia” fiction in the bin.

Why did things turn out differently? There are three reasons. First,Taiwan adopted a dirigisme (directed by the state, but with a role for private enterprises growth track) as opposed to Lanka’s market prostitution (come and do as you will with me) beginning with JR. Second, Lanka, except briefly when NM was finance minister, never had a deep economic strategy; it has been shallow, lacked perspective for fostering value-adding manufacturing foundations.

Thirdly Taiwan, like South Korea, was not seduced by bogus intentions of transforming itself into an Asian financial marvel. Colombo, as a financial hub, can never be more than a seenibola outpost, and has missed a berth in the Asian manufacturing century stakes.Taiwan is a power house of high-tech industry – less of heavy industry, hence complementing China nicely – and only 2% of its GDP comes from the agricultural sector.

The right to self-determination

There is one point on which my Hong Kong and of course Mainland friends and I strongly disagree; that is the right of the people of Taiwan to be masters of their own fate. Politically, I have always supported the One-China stand to the extent that dismembering China was, at one time, a U Spolicy objective, in the heyday of its anti-communist crusade. My stand was never intended as a holy grail to be employed against the people of Taiwan. If they want to go, let them go I say! But it may never happen; a Taiwanese (or Tibetan or Xingjian-ese) declaration of independence is probably the only issue on which China will go to war, even with the US. Taiwanese politicians well understand this; even pro-independence parties only talk, but will never walk the talk even when in office. This is the realism with which Taiwan will have to live for the foreseeable future.

Actually Taiwan is in nearly all respects an independent country which runs itself just as it pleases in political, economic, social, cultural and defence matters. Its de facto independence is constrained only in international diplomacy; no UN seat or representation in UN agencies, and no diplomatic relations in all but a handful of countries, since Beijing will suffer apoplexy if anyone formally recognises Taiwan. The stupidity of nationalism I call it, but nationalism is a stupidity with we have to live in Chinaas much as Sri Lanka, the USA or Timbuktu.

Do the people of Taiwan want reunification or separation? The old nationalists stood for reunification, they just wanted the “bloody communist bandits in Beijing” driven out first. They are still around but a minority. A significant number want a formal declaration of independence, “but not yet” they say, like St Augustine.  The majority seem to be emotionally mixed up, a state unrecognised by their own consciousness. The truth is that political reunification will not happen so long as the Communist Party rules China; that is, not even in my grandchildren’s life time.

It would be better for all if Beijing recognises the right of the people of the Taiwanese people to self-determination, knowing that this will facilitate the emergence of Taiwan as a new member of the community of nations. That’s fine, it‘s the way things are going all over the world. Globalisation facilitates secession into smaller nation states which then cooperate in a myriad new ways – the European Union, ex-Yugoslavia, the North American trade federation, the loose association of the ‘-stans’ in a linkage that includes China and Russia. An economic union and a two nation political formula of Chinaand Taiwan only formalise prevailing reality and validate an inevitable future. The opium of narrow nationalism is what stands in the way.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    how ever, Kumar David and his Marxist fiends are ready to quote
    Lenin and support the LTTE’s right to “self-determination”, while an individual
    Tamil had no right to express his views as the LTTE was the sole spokesman. Ideology is the opium of the intellectual.

    • 0

      Arther Koestler:
      No.1 : You don’t even know how to spell your own last name!
      No.2 : I don’t recall Kumar David EVER supporting the LTTE or its behaviour.
      A little fact and accuracy in your efforts to be “smart” perhaps?

  • 0

    The relevant question is, who paid for this trip?

    Are they trying to use our popular opinion maker Prof David to launch an anti-China capaign over here?

    Former communists have all demonstrated that they are good at performing unbelieveable summersaults and Prof David could not be any different.

    Only pity is that theymay be wasting their money!

    • 0

      Are you related to “Arther” (sic) above because you appear to be as spelling-challenged as witness your pseudonym!

      • 0

        Can you go [Edited out] yourself pls.

    • 0

      M R AND HIS LOOTING CLAN Paid for the Trip.

      You moron Just read the Artcle and answer, then ask M R and looter for your pay check.

      Sri lanka Wander of MR shit hole geting in to CHINESE debt trap and begging for colonial west’s money.

      200odd ministers and 500 odd family looters ransacking the poor’s and disopra’s remitences. and having gala time.

      you publisity morons get paid from our pockets.


    • 0


      you are real SEPTIC tank

  • 0

    Thanks for that, Kumar.
    Most informative and enlightening and minus the self-serving B.S that one would have got from the “intellectual” acolytes of our Sri Lankan regime, thank God!

  • 0

    “The opium of narrow nationalism is what stands in the way.” This is the last and most important sentence of the Kumar’s article. It is a good statement. Let me construct another sentence. “The opium of narrow secessionism is what stands in the way.” I am asking myself whether both nationalism and secessionism stand in our way. To me cultures and sub-cultures are not static, but keep on changing. Do all cultures and sub-cultures need to separate themselves from the rest and unify again economically in an economic desperation, like EU? I do not know. But I know that all cultures are needed to be treated equally. The requirement of secession arises from discrimination. Therefore discrimination is what stands in the way of progress in the humanity. Still I am thinking.

    • 0

      Good thinking. I think discrimination is part of the human psyche and we cannot envisage it’s total elimination, perhaps some measure of control is possible. Problems arise when such discriminatory thought is institutionalized as law. The opium of narrow nationalism does stand in the way of progress. My take is that secession is also driven by this same narrow objective.

  • 0

    Taiwan is a good model for Srilanka to follow,because both are small islands(taiwan is half the size of srilanka),bulging with excess populations(taiwans 23 million vs srilanka’s 20) and also next to giant population neighbours of same ethnicity,taiwans neighbour being china and srilanka’s india,china 1350 million india 1200 million.For both the giant neighbours can become big assets or big liabilities depending on how the small ones play their cards when walking the tightrope.

    Srilanka has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to become a taiwan,which is ranked 13th most competitive nation in the world while srilanka is a pathetic 68th.Competitiveness is based on 12 pillars which i give below with Taiwan’s and Srilanka’s rankings respectively.

    3.Macroeconomic environment-28-127
    4.health and Primary education-15-44
    5.Higher education and training-9-79
    6.Goods market efficiency-8-57
    7.labour market efficiency-22-129
    8.Financial market development-19-42
    9.Technological readiness-24-89
    10.market size-17-64
    11.business sophistication-13-31

    When you look at the pillar no 3 and no 7 there is a wide difference.
    Srilankas macro economic environment is highly unstable.High interest and capital repayments of past loans,fiscal deficits,inflation etc.

    The labour market efficiency is terrible in srilanka with very rigid and inflexible labour force.Businesses are unable to shift workers from one economic activity to another rapidly and at low cost and to allow for wage fluctuations without much social disruptions.Also there is a lot of barriers for youth to enter the labour market.No meritocracy and no equity between women and men.Poor incentives for workers to give out their best performance.

    Higher education and training also big gap.Moving up the value chain will be difficult for Srilanka and it will get stuck in simple processes and products without moving up the ladder.We won’t be able to compete in a globalized economy that requires pools of well educated workers who are able to perform complex tasks and adapt rapidly to changing environments and evolving needs of the economy.

    The secondary and tertiary enrolment rates are poor and also the quality of education as evaluated by the business community.

    The extent of staff training and vocational training and continuous on the job training also not adequate resulting in lack of upgrading of workers skills.

    There is noticeable wide gap in technological readiness too between the two countries.Taiwan is far superior in its ability to adopt existing technologies to improve productivity with special emphasis on its capacity to fully utilise information and communication technologies(ICT)in daily activities and production processes for increased efficiency innovation.

    Foreign Direct Investment(FDI) is important because whether you are getting the technology from within the country or from outside is immaterial,main thing is for the businesses to be able to use it.Taiwan’s FDI was 58 billion USD for 2012 whereas srilanka’s was about 1 billion USD if my memory serves me right.

    • 0

      You missed the topmost comment.

      Basically Taiwan got to where it was by
      a) One party Dictatorship
      b) Over 140K people killed and imprisoned
      d) US direct funding to counter China
      e) Gold and money the Kuomintang brought from China

      • 0

        Sbarrkum,I did not miss it mate,i read it all and agree with you that all the things that you mentioned happened.However read the 12 pillars i have mentioned and see whether over time is it really necessary to have the a the ingredients you mentioned to build these pillars to make it such a competitive country.The main reason why these pillars were built is focus.If a government is focused on building these instead of being distracted by other matters then it is achievable,whereas in srilanka instead of focusing on these since independence the successive governments have only been focused on petty minded things like bullying the sinhalese and now starting to bully the muslims and also lot of infighting among the sinhalese too and also now trying to focus on military dominance of the tamils instead of reconciling and uniting with them.

        Choosing your priorities carefully and focusing on those is the key to success.The Taiwanese leaders for all the faults you mention did not lose that focus,whereas we did and are still doing with our petty mindedness.Small minded people should not be given big jobs because they will always stay small and what they do will always be small.Probably if Upali Wijewardena had taken over the country we might have become a Taiwan,because he certainly was a man with a large mind who could think well beyond these shores into the international horizon.Thats what we needed,leaders who could look beyond Srilanka into the world and cherry pick and bring the good things into Srilanka and leave out the bad.Our leaders have been always insular with their focus always within the parameters of this 65000 sq.km without thinking there is a vast world out there to exploit with a competitive economy.They have been like children bickering and fighting while this world passes them by and they miss the bus.

        • 0

          In my comment,instead of mentioning as bullying the sinhalese,i should have mentioned it as bullying the tamils.My mistake.

          • 0

            Hi Shankar,
            I agree with the pillars.
            In Taiwan they just bulldozed bullied all the opposition, pretty much wiped out the original people and became a powerhouse.

            For centuries, Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples experienced economic competition and military conflict with a series of colonizing peoples. Centralized government policies designed to foster language shift and cultural assimilation, as well as continued contact with the colonizers through trade, intermarriage and other dispassionate intercultural processes, have resulted in varying degrees of language death and loss of original cultural identity.

            • 0


              how do you make part of your comment bold?

      • 0

        Sri Lanka is making good progress:

        a)One family dictatorship
        b)Well over 140K people killed and imprisoned
        c)This must be muzzling the press; I am guessing
        d)China funding to counter US
        e)Gold and Money coming from the middle-east and the rest

        Hopefully, the recipe will work for Sri Lanka too!

    • 0

      When Sri Lanans are holidays (including The weekends) how can they economically progress? I am reminded of the three astronauts, one an American, the other a Russian a fed the third a Lankan, who landed on the moon. The American and Russian were brimming with ideas and plans on what would do on the moon. The Lankan was very quiet and when questioned replied, ” What can we do here, because it I will be a Poya holiday everyday?”

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

      • 0

        Dr.Narendran,you are right,there is far too many holidays.Lord bhuddha did not tell not to work on poya days.Any excuse is enough to get rid of the work.

        However another reasons is Srilankans can’t seem to make up their mind as this story below shows.Even the brilliant ones too it seems

        Bride elopes with attesting witness
        MONDAY, 13 MAY 2013 14:15
        In a twisted tale of love and marriage, a bride from Gampola is reported to have eloped with the attesting witness, some two hours after she married her lover.

        Details of the case as recorded by the police revealed that a Kandy girls’ school A/L student who had obtained nine As at the O/L examination had fallen in love with a 19-year-old A/L student of another Kandy school.

        After being involved in an amorous love affair, the couple had decided to spend a night together at the house of the girl’s friend. Realising that the couple were keen to spend a night together, the inmates had convinced them of the contentious issues they might face in the future and accompanied the young lovers to the Ulapone Registrar’s Office and registered their marriage at about 4.30 p.m.

        The attesting witness was a 22-year-old father of one child.

        The witness had been the former lover of newly married bride. No sooner the couple returned to the friend’s house some two hours later to spend their honeymoon, the inmates found that the bride had eloped with her former lover, who attested to the marriage. It appears that the bride was unable to forget her first lover who had himself forgotten he was already married and a father of one child.

        The villagers had given chase when they noticed the couple holding hands making a quick getaway.

        They had made good their escape by boarding a bus that was nearby.

        The following day all those involved in this bizarre drama had been summoned to the Gampola police station. The runaway couple were also present. The bride had confessed to the police that despite her marriage to the student from Kandy she was so enchanted with the mannerisms of her first lover and had preferred to run away with him.

        Police severely reprimanded the couple and the parties had agreed to settle this matter amicably. (Suranga Rajanayake)

      • 0

        Sorry. The first sentence is garbled. What I meant to say was:

        When Sri Lankans are on holiday ( including weekends) for almost half the year, how can they economically progress?


        • 0

          and Dr.Narendran as you can see from the following story we have smarter people than the Taiwanese but they are not been utilised for productive purposes

          Colombo – Funny, but true. A dog in the Sri Lankan town of Katharagama Kandasuridugama died after being hit by a speeding Jeep transporting a group of foreigners from the Yala Wildlife Sanctuary.

          A woman by the roadside began to cry and wail over the dead dog.

          The foreigners travelling in the jeep felt very sad and guilty for what had happened and made a collection of SRs25, 000 and gave it to the woman.

          However, the Lanka Mirror reports that no sooner had the Jeep left, than it emerged that the dog was a stray and the woman had just cashed in on the situation.

  • 0

    The drawback in Sri Lanka is our ego. Why do we have to project ourselves as ‘the wonder of asia’,’a land like no other’ etc? When someone coined the term ‘a small miracle’ it was received with shocking disapproval and anger. How could we be small? We are the biggest and the best! We are the greatest! But we are neither one of those. We can have high aims, we can be ambitious but we must be realistic. We must know our place amongst the nations of this earth. We need not be subservient but firm in our opinion. We need not be slavish followers of big powers but earn their respect and regard. We cannot be pompous and authoritarian before our own people just because of our powerful positions, but humble and kind.

    In Kumar David’s article it was so pleasing to read the kindness and assistance he received from the Taiwanese people. You will not get that from the public service anywhere in Sri Lanka. On the other hand we are ever ready to boast of our friendly smiling faces. Why do we lack the skill of introspection?

  • 0

    I am pleasantly surprised to read a “feel good” article written by the firebrand professor. I am sure he is heard of (probably met?) Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director from Taiwan. Apparently, the film crew of “Life Pi” has fond memories of their experience in Taiwan, where the film was made. Also, the opening song in the movie is in Tamil and it garnered an Oscar nomination as well (but did not win).

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