Editorial: Expect Tsai to address conflicts of interest

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen is not scheduled to be sworn in and become Taiwan’s first-ever female president until May 20, but already her relatives have come under scrutiny and their business dealings analyzed.

She started a tour of Taiwan’s economic sectors with biotechnology, one of the most promising industries likely to lift the country out of its present gloom and on to a higher plane of development.

Yet, just days later, accusations surfaced of insider trading at one of the most prominent companies in the sector, OBI Pharma Inc. The plot thickened even further when reports in the media identified Tsai Ying-yang, one of the president-elect’s brothers, as a shareholder in OBI Pharma.

While there was not a single report indicating he was involved in the as yet unproven case of insider trading, fingers immediately started pointing at Tsai, saying she was no better than the average Kuomintang politician.

She made the right response to the accusations, announcing she would resolve any likely conflicts of interest before her May 20 inauguration. She also denied any knowledge of her brother’s business activities.

Tsai has ten brothers and sisters, so it would be unfair to expect her to know everything about all their business activities. Anyone who has even only one brother or one sister will not pry into his or her business affairs or bank accounts, so it’s only logical that the next president does not know that one of her brothers owns shares in a company like OBI Pharma.

In addition, Tsai Ying-yang was only listed as the fifth biggest shareholder in the biotech group, with a shareholding of less than 5 percent. Describing OBI Pharma as a company owned by the new president’s family is therefore completely exaggerated.

The whirl of allegations and suggestions was reminiscent of the Yu Chang case, which according to some sank Tsai’s chances of being elected president in 2012. During the run-up to the election, KMT politicians accused her of having unfairly benefited the company while in government, even though she knew she would later be offered a top function at the biotech firm.

The critics suggested that as vice premier in 2007, Tsai had approved investments by the government’s National Development Fund in Yu Chang Biologics Inc. Later the same year, after she left government, Tsai was invited by top academics and experts to serve as chairperson of the company, which she only did for several months.

The Supreme Prosecutors Office Special Investigation Division looked at the case, and concluded several months later, after Tsai had lost the presidential election, that no charges should be filed.

She said at the time that she was not happy because the allegations had damaged the reputation of several top Taiwanese scientists while also amounting to a setback for the country’s entire biotechnology sector.

It would be unfair to tar a president with the same brush as her family, since they lead distinct lives and have different responsibilities.

Taiwan has a president, not a monarch with a royal family and a court entourage. In monarchies, close scrutiny of all family members would be appropriate since each member of that royal family lives off taxpayer money. A president is different because only the president draws a government wage, not his spouse, not his children and not any other relatives.

The alleged events at OBI Pharma, in which any involvement by Tsai Ying-yang is far from clear, should not be used to drag the president-elect through the mud in a replay of the Yu Chang accusations.

Whatever might have happened at OBI Pharma will be cleared up by an investigation, but it looks far removed from the escapades that presidents of other countries encountered with their siblings.

In the United States, dubious precedents have been established when the brothers of presidents allied themselves with questionable foreign governments in cases suspected of influence peddling. Brothers of presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all made headlines in a negative way sometimes affecting the popularity of the incumbent presidents.

Legislation determines that presidents and their relatives cannot earn illegal profits and benefits from their positions, and Taiwan is not different from any other countries in that respect.

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen has been elected on a platform which calls for more transparency and a higher degree of responsiveness by government to public opinion, so it is only to be expected that she will handle the issue of potential conflicts of interest.

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