Taiwan reaches out to Southeast Asia



    From a manufacturing and electronic equipment-producing economy, the vibrant Republic of China (Taiwan) has emerged as a major player in global affairs, especially among its Southeast Asian neighbors.

    President Tsai Ing-wen is Taiwan’s first female head of state AFP FILE PHOTO

    As expressed by Representative of Taiwan, ROC to the Philippines Gary Song-Huann Lin, culture is an important instrument of diplomacy in this day and age.

    “Cultural diplomacy is not limited to only art, music, dance, literature, but [also]the soul and breath of a nation like the traditions, language, cuisine, costumes, way of life, customs and beliefs, which, in general, make a people and a nation,” he told The Sunday Times Magazine during a brief visit to his office in Manila.

    Through culture, according to him, humans transcend political rivalries, military conflicts and various challenges.

    It is exactly in this context that President Tsai Ing-wen saw the exigency of Taiwan’s “New Southbound Policy,” which reaches out to other countries in the Asia Pacific region, including the Philippines, placing tremendous weight on the “advancement of cultural diplomacy as a form of soft power.”

    PH, first of priority partners

    Taiwan extends food production, agriculture, health care, shelter, education, emergency response, transportation, technology, tourism, job placement, finance and infrastructure—areas that make up soft power—to 18 priority economies in Asia and the Pacific, with six countries identified as both recipients and partners of its New Southbound Policy.

    With its proximity to the Luzon peninsula, the Philippines became the first country to sign a renewed bilateral agreement with Taiwan that, according to Lin, “puts in place mechanisms that make investments more transparent and the treatment of investors fairer, including provisions on how investors can seek government assistance when they run into trouble.”

    Tea-leaf picking at Wenshan District in Taipei

    While the investment deal signed in 1992 only covered the manufacturing sector, the agreement signed on December 7, 2017 in Manila has expanded the scope of bilateral investment to include the financial sector, infrastructure and intellectual property.

    Six other deals were also signed as part of ministerial trade and economic consultations including Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) on green or renewable energy, insurance industry supervision and professional training.

    Taiwanese Vice Economics Minister Wang Mei-hua, who witnessed the signing between Lin and his counterpart Manila Economic Cooperative Office (MECO) representative in Taipei, Angelito Banayo, expressed how the renewed agreement with the Philippines “will inspire other Southeast Asian countries to [follow suit and]renew their investment agreements with Taiwan.”

    Penghu National Scenic Area

    Taiwan is aware of the Philippines’ possibility as “important gateway” to expand into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The remaining priority countries in the New Southbound Policy are Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India.

    Warmer diplomatic and cultural relations

    On September 5, 2016, barely four months into office, President Tsai Ing-wen launched the New Southbound Policy “to aid in promoting regional exchange and collaboration with the 10 members of Asean and countries in South Asia like India, and Pacific heavyweights Australia and New Zealand.”

    The people-centered agenda cater to four fronts: trade cooperation, talent exchanges, sharing resources and regional links. It was an update of the Go South Policy enacted by President Teng-hui Lee in 1994.

    From January 28 to February 2, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a group of journalists from Southeast Asia to show how the New Southbound Policy works and affects workers, investors, immigrants, students and tourists from said countries.

    Prospect Foundation officials with the Southeast Asian Press Group accompanied by Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Ned Chou (extreme right) PHOTO COURTESY OF LAI THUY HA

    Two came from Indonesia and one each from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines, represented by The Sunday Times Magazine. The six-day familiarization tour turned out to be an excellent venue for cultural and diplomatic exchanges among the participants and Taiwan’s government agencies strongly tied to the New Southbound Policy.

    According to various local and national government offices, the New Southbound Policy goes beyond government level. They said leadership and involvement of civil society is crucial for the success of the agenda, like non-government organizations (NGOs) concerned with Southeast Asian migrant workers. In fact, an official of the National Immigration Agency told The Sunday Times Magazine that they assist even those who entered Taiwan illegally since they could well be victims of unscrupulous recruitment agencies in their homelands.


    Of the almost 700,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, Indonesians constitute the biggest group, numbering more than 250,000; followed by Vietnamese at almost 200,000; and then Filipinos at around 150,000, mostly employed in the manufacturing and domestic sectors.

    At the forefront of helping migrant workers is One-Forty Foundation, underscored as the bridge between Southeast Asian migrant workers and Taiwanese employers.

    Their main objective is for migrant workers to think about their future and what they can do to help make life in  Taiwan better, according to an official of the immigration agency. This includes helping them to learn Mandarin, adapt to their new environment and update their skills in their field. It is also a platform where fellow migrants can share experiences with one another, especially from those of the same nationality.

    Think tank Prospect Foundation, meanwhile, headed by I-Chung Lai, said that they have been coordinating with research and development centers in academic institutions in all priority Asean countries, including Brunei.

    And while there is no direct financial assistance funnelled through partner agencies, Southeast Asian nationals are encouraged to study in Taiwan, particularly those who want to pursue doctorate and masteral as their universities have many scholarship slots available for qualified individuals.

    Social integration

    The Taiwanese government and its general citizenship have embraced the reality that Southeast Asians have long become an important part of their society—building families with Taiwanese partners, contributing to fiscal and economic growth and increasing the flow of human and intellectual wealth in the region.

    This vibrant inter-cultural atmosphere is exemplified in areas like the Huaxin Street in New Taipei City where third generation mainlander origin returnees from Myanmar have resettled; the Indonesian neighborhood within the vicinity of the Taipei railway station; and the weekend Filipino Town (like the Chater Road in Hong Kong’s Central District) around St. Christopher’s Church in Zhongshan District in Taipei City. Thai Buddhist monks are also seen lounging around the capital city’s iconic landmark, Taipei 101.

    As two Taiwanese academicians noted, these Southeast Asian communities have developed distinct cultural and economic characteristics and reshaped the human landscape of Taipei.

    Taiwan Representative to the Philippines Gary Song-Huann Lin THE MANILA TIMES FILE PHOTO

    “The two-way exchanges between Taiwan and Southeast Asia have thus changed the street scene in the cities and are in the process of gradually shaping new collective identity. This is a community consciousness that brings together immigrant life and culture at both local and regional levels,” Alan Yan and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao shared with The Sunday Times Magazine. Their statement is lifted from their published treatise in the NBR – The National Bureau of Asian Research – titled “Repositioning Taiwan in Southeast Asia: Strategies to Enhance People-to-People Connectivity.”

    “In the near future, it is conceivable that there will be more than a million ethnic Southeast Asians who have put down roots in Taiwan. The country will no longer be a lonesome Asian offshore isle but instead become part of the ASEAN Community as a contributing stakeholder based in solid partnership and further regional integration,” they added.

    They further highlighted that the timely launch of the New Southbound Policy not only underlines the soft connectivity between Taiwan and Southeast Asia but also strengthens the partnerships between Taiwan and the region.

    Common history

    Taiwan’s ties with Southeast Asia predate the now familiar notion of sovereign nation states and their territorial boundaries, going back to the history of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples.

    The languages of Formosa (the name of the island given by Portuguese explorers and colonizers in the 1500s) which Taiwan aborigines speak are a part of the Austronesia language family, with influences from Southeast Asian tongues like Tagalog and Malay.

    Scholars attribute this spread of languages and cultures to migration through the maritime routes linking Taiwan to various parts of Southeast Asia, starting with Luzon, which is just across the Bashi Channel from southern Taiwan.

    * * *

    Trial visa-free entry for Filipino passport holders

    Along with the New Southbound Policy, the Taiwanese government also eased the requirements for Filipinos travelling to their shores.

    Its approval by Premier Lai Ching-te was announced in late September 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Director General Winston Chen.

    Filipino passport holders entering Taiwan can enjoy a free entry visa for a maximum of 14 days (much like Hong Kong) from November 1, 2017 until July 31, 2018.

    It was, according to Chen, “to promote people-to-people, tourism and commercial exchanges between Taiwan and the Philippines.”

    Prior to this, Filipinos could apply for the e-visa (online visa) that covers a duration of up to 30 days and valid for three months upon approval. The government also eased visa-free requirements for Filipinos who already possessed a resident card or visa for Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, any of the Schengen countries, the United Kingdom and the United States.

    Both Chen and TECO in Manila expressed that the Taiwanese government hopes the Philippines will also grant their people visa-free privileges “based on reciprocity.”

    Gearing toward tourism with the visa-free privilege, Taiwan is reportedly anticipating around NT$10 billion (P14 billion) from Filipino tourists this year. Department of Tourism data likewise shows that Taiwan ranks as the sixth largest visitor market in the country during the first semester in 2017.

    The privilege is good for tourism, business, visitation and attending functions and events. Diplomatic and official passport holders are not eligible, and those intending to stay in Taiwan more than 14 days still need to acquire an appropriate visa, TECO said.

    The requirements for a Philippine passport holder to enter Taiwan visa-free are as follows:

    • Regular passport with remaining validity of at least six months from date of entry.

    • Return ticket for the traveller’s next desti­na­tion, and visa for that destination if required.

    • No criminal record in Taiwan.

    • Proof of accommodation (hotel) booking or host/sponsor’s contact information, details of the tour or travel itinerary, or of the event or meeting.

    * * *

    Main tourist attractions

    According to the 2018 Index of Economic Freedom released on February 2 by the Washington-based think tank The Heritage Foundation, Taiwan ranks 13th in the list among 186 countries and territories. It is also fifth among 43 countries and territories in Asia and the Pacific, behind Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia.

    Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

    And as Taiwan shifts from a manufacturing hub to a tourism destination with its many inviting spots for the whole world to see—it is worth to note some of the must-visit sites of this highly industrialized realm in the Asia-Pacific region.

    Figures show that between January and August 2017, more than 1.5 million Taiwanese visited Southeast Asia while 1.3 million tourists from the Asean region visited Taiwan, an increase of 38 percent over the same period in 2016.

    Sun Moon Lake Lalu Island

    Taipei 101. Formerly called Taipei World Financial Center, this skyscraper was officially classified as the world’s tallest building in 2004 until the completion of Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. It still holds the record of having one of the fastest elevators in the world taking only 37 seconds to travel from the fifth floor to the 89th floor. It is designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, with the apparatus on the 88th floor an attraction by itself.

    Sun Moon Lake. This is the largest inland body of water in Taiwan located at the foothills of Central Mountain Range in Nantou. Its east side resembles the sun while the west side resembles the moon, hence the name.

    Surrounding the lake are numerous trails for hiking. With the majestic Wen Wu Temple, many people consider the site and its surrounding countryside as the most beautiful place in Taiwan.

    Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village is a place to observe Taiwanese traditional tribal style and aboriginal traditions. It is also a theme park, equipped with modern rides like the suspended roller coaster, free-fall ride, log flume ride, water coaster and cable car. Adding beauty to the village are cherry blossoms that flower between February and March, with a festival held annually since 2001.

    Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. This was erected in memory of Taiwan’s revered leader of 25 years. Both a landmark and a tourist attraction, the monument is surrounded by a park with the Liberty Square on the east end, the National Theater on the north and National Concert Hall on the south.

    Cable cars at Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village

    National Taiwan Museum. With a collection of 10,000 items, it was set up by the colonial government of Japan in 1908, first as Taiwan Governor Museum. The museum was designed by Japanese architect Ichiro Momura and Eiichi Araki carried out by Takaishi Group with a Greek temple façade and Pantheon-like vaulted ceiling. Walls are comprised of columns, with the windows built in Renaissance style.

    National Palace Museum. Containing permanent collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks, it encompasses 8,000 years of history from the Neolithic age to modern China. Most of the collections are high quality pieces of China’s emperors, notably from the Ming and Qing dynasties, sharing roots with the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

    * * *

    Fast facts and figures

    Popular name: Taiwan

    Official name: Republic of China (recognized by 21 member-countries of the United Nations and the Vatican City)
    Former name: Formosa

    Capital : Taipei

    Official language: Mandarin

    Currency : New Taiwan Dollar (NT$1 is equivalent to P1.70)

    Area : 36,193 square kilometers, bigger than Belgium and smaller than Switzerland.
    Population : 23 million, with low 0.9 percent birth rate

    Ministry of Transportation and Communications officials pose with the Southeast Asian Press Group after the forum

    Mode of transportation: Cars, buses and taxis (left-hand drive), bullet train (taking only 40 minutes to travel a 170-kilometer stretch), MRT. Biking is also popular, with bicycle paths as part of government infrastructure program
    Form of government: Democracy

    * * *

    Points of interest

    Besides the capital city of Taipei, another major destination is Taichung, a major economic and cultural hub in central Taiwan, with its many industrial and manufacturing plants. It is home to the National Museum of Natural Science and National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and host to the 2018 World Flora Exposition happening in November until April 2019.

    Taiwan prides itself in having an efficient MRT system

    Taoyuan is the technological center with its many industrial parks and technological company headquarters,
    Taiwan’s largest airport, and the Asia Silicon Valley Development Agency (ASVDA).

    Kaohsiung is the industrial center of southern Taiwan complete with its own subway system. It was the host city of the 2009 World Games and home to the Republic of China Navy fleet and academy.

    Jiufen is formerly a gold mining colony in the northeastern part of Taiwan, retaining the sights and structures of Japanese architecture and business atmosphere.

    * * *

    ‘Best food in the world’

    In a CNN International survey, Taiwan tops all other places as having the “best food in the world,” scoring 8,242 votes in the online survey. At far second is the Philippines, garnering 1,528 votes, followed by Italy then Thailand. Japan is at fifth, then Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Greece and Vietnam.

    Cuisine is a major tourist attraction

    Taiwan has a simple culinary philosophy that goes, “Eat often and eat well.” This was cited by survey respondents as one of the reasons why they voted Taiwan as number one.

    The amazing blend of Min Nan, Teochew and Hokkien Chinese cuisine along with Japanese cooking could be the reason for their palatable treats.

    Tainan, the oldest city, is Taiwan’s food capital, with Taipei boasting around 20 streets dedicated to snacking alone.

    A comment that resonates with foodies is that every time one thinks he’s “found the best street side bao, the most incredible stinky tofu or the mind-blowing noodle soup, there’s always another Taiwanese food shop that surpasses it.”

    While most Asians serve rice at the beginning of a meal along with dishes that go with it, the Taiwanese have reversed it, serving rice toward the end of the meal instead, before dessert.

    “It’s to fill one up if the early servings did not bring satisfaction to the tummy,” explained a Taiwanese national to The Sunday Times Magzine.

    Besides delicious food, Taiwan is also the center of Mandarin pop music culture.

    * * *

    Filipino sand artist wows Taiwan media

    Two years ago, the Taiwanese media discovered that a Filipino factory worker in a semiconductor company is also a gifted sand artist.

    Mario Subeldia with one of his works

    Mario Rafa Subeldia of Lucena City, who was 29 years old then, has since performed in year-end parties, concerts, TV shows and even invited as motivational speaker in various events not only in Hsinchu City where he is based but also in Taipei and adjoining places.

    Subeldia has been working there for seven years and is just completing the needed documents so he can shift careers as a teacher. He holds a Bachelor of Arts major in Public Administration from the Southern Luzon State University in Lucena City.

    In January last year, he formed a group called AFACE (Arts and Fashion: A Charity Event). In coordination with the Gomaji Foundation in Taiwan, beneficiaries of their fundraising events include the Sinag Kalinga Home for the Aged in Lucban, Quezon; Lucena City indigenous people and street kids; Barangay Silangan, Mayao, Lucena City Day Care Center; and Duterte’s Kitchen, Lucena City branch.

    “I help my co-OFWs who have the potential as models, artists and photographers to build their confidence and show their skills in Taiwan. This is in line with the organization’s vision and mission which is to share Filipino talents, skills and culture to the Taiwanese population,” he told The Sunday Times Magazine in a phone interview while en route to Taichung.

    For the AFACE Next Top Model search for ambassadors culminating on March 18 at Hsinchu Big City, artworks of Filipino artists will be showcased with the collaboration of Marikina-based Casa De Moda designer James Paul. Proceeds will be turned over to Lucena City Social Welfare Development Office for the benefit of the Girl Crisis Center and the Reception and Action Center for Boys.

    The National Immigration Agency informed The Sunday Times Magazine during the visit that there are Filipinos in the business and education sectors too.



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