Taiwan’s new woman leader: Why it’s about finding the next ‘cool’ invention

The island nation needs to tap key qualities of women and youth – creativity and collaboration – to bring innovation to its economy and reduce a dependency on China. Tsai Ing-wen’s victory is an attractive opportunity for that cultural change.

Tsai Ing-wen, president-elect of Taiwan and head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The island nation of Taiwan, too often overlooked in favor of dragon-size China, has again given the rest of Asia another example to follow. On Jan. 16 it elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, a Western-educated scholar-turned-politician who reflects Taiwan’s rising role on the world stage.

Her victory is a breakthrough on many fronts.

For one, Ms. Tsai’s popularity did not rely on the fame of a male relative, as has been the case for other women leaders in Asia, such as Park Geun-hye in South Korea or Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.

Second, her win defies the Confucian axiom that a women ruler is as strange as a hen crowing at daybreak. In fact, many young Taiwanese, although steeped in conservative Confucian culture, now find women leaders very trendy. By contrast, China may talk up the role of women as leaders but it is a long way from letting one rule.

Third and most important, Tsai’s feminine style of leadership – which is generally more collaborative – may be just what Taiwan (and much of Asia) needs as the region’s most-mature economies struggle to shift from imitation to innovation in their technology industries.

Despite its small population of 23 million, Taiwan has been a model in the region. It was a leader in designing a prosperous export economy. This required it to first uplift its farmers’ income while luring foreign high-tech firms to special industrial zones. After advancing to become an Asian economic “tiger,” it then joined the bandwagon toward democracy in the region in the 1980s. Since 1996, it has had three freely elected presidents. Ms. Tsai will be the fourth, starting in May.

Taiwan’s democracy has been its best shield against China’s aggressive claim to the island, a dispute that goes back to the 1949 communist takeover of the mainland. The island’s elections have clearly granted legitimacy to the winning party, something that Beijing’s one-party rulers cannot assert. In particular, Tsai’s victory was bolstered by an energized wave of young Taiwanese voters, known as the “sunflower movement.” They are fed up with the authoritarian leanings of the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), a declining economy, and Taiwan’s rising economic dependency on China.

For all its democratic success, Taiwan now needs a second shield against China’s bullying. It must reduce that dependency on the Chinese market. Many large Taiwanese companies have tied their wagons to the mainland’s low wages and massive scale, relying on the model of efficiency-driven manufacturing. To break away from a potential stranglehold by Beijing, Taiwan needs to move more quickly to a knowledge-based economy that relies on creativity and collaboration. It must generate technological ideas, not simply absorb them from elsewhere.

Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party promise just that. In fact, it is her first priority, far more than achieving better relations with Beijing. This will require a shift in values. Taiwan’s business culture has to change, Tsai says.

“People generally think that failure is a bad thing,” she told an American audience last year, noting that Taiwan must overcome a shame-based culture and embrace the fact that start-up ventures should be allowed to try new things.

Taiwan’s government has already done much to promote innovation. It has improved cooperation between universities, industries, and government, thus raising the number of patents. It plans to alter university admissions to attract students willing to take business risks. It is allowing foreign professionals to work in key industries. Parents have been encouraged to let young children play rather than focus mainly on academic learning. And entrepreneurs have been told to focus on the less-material side of emerging industries, such as software and creative branding.

Most of all, Taiwan must unleash women to be entrepreneurs and also bring a collaborative style to research and development. (Less than a third of its entrepreneurs are women, below the global average.) And nothing will inspire this change more than Tsai’s election as president.

Yet for all her promises about creating an innovation-driven economy, Tsai must realize that a spirit of creativity cannot be contrived from the top-down. It can only be nurtured, nudged, and nestled.

Many countries are trying to find the next “cool” industry. As Bem Le Hunte, an expert on innovation at Sydney’s University of Technology told the Australian Financial Review, “Soft power is about attraction, not force. You don’t manage creativity, you manage for creativity. Cool must be authentic.”

By dint of its democracy, Taiwan has created a more open and transparent society. And this latest election taps strongly into its young people and women. Nothing could be more “cool” or authentic than for the new president to now build on their creativity. The rest of Asia will be watching.

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