It is election time in Taiwan, with Presidential and Legislative Yuan elections scheduled to take place on 14 January 2012. And one of the must-be preelection functions was the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei (AmCham) Annual General Meeting where there was not one but two important guest speakers: President Ma Ying-jeou and Opposition Candidate Tsai Ying-wen. Both were invited to lay down their economic policies to scrutiny by the American — and international — business communities.
First to arrive was President Ma, who strode in with his posse of black-suited security guards. Actually, much of his plain clothes security detail arrived before the event with their earpieces and military-style bearing marking them out as they tried to casually saunter around the Grand Hyatt lobby and ballroom entrance. And the press went nuts, hanging onto his every word. There was an almost orchestral ‘clickety-click’ reaction of shutters going off madly whenever he raised his hands to emphasise a point.
Ma spoke of his successes in improving ties with China through 16 agreements including the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and direct cross-strait transport links. ‘I know you can’t vote for me’, he joked, ‘but I listened to what you said about the need direct flights’. He went onto call for a resumption of the US-Taiwan TIFA talks (stalled during a spat over beef imports). He also noted Taiwan was negotiating Free Trade Agreements with Singapore and New Zealand, and actively seeking to join the Transpacific Partnership within ten years. And the average salary in Taiwan had increased to USD20,000 per annum, while the KMT was increasing social welfare spending to farmers and the elderly.
After speaking and answering questions for around an hour, Ma withdrew as suddenly as he had entered. And then there was a half an hour window for a hurried lunch before the next speaker.
While we all listened attently to Ma’s speech, you could almost hear people’s stomachs rumble with hunger by the time the questions were winding up. The bread rolls had already done the rounds of the table, with people trying to surrentipously nibble a bite. I worried about a long drawn out lunch, but thankfully the Grand Hyatt had an innovative solution to our time constraints: a set lunch that arrived quickly and seamlessly.
I tried to follow somewhat of the usual order of courses, starting with a trilogy of appetisters: a quenelle-shaped spoonful of smoked halibut tartar with sour cream and chive, a simple organic green salad with balsamic dressing topped with a corn chip and a refreshly simple artichoke and mushroom salad. Then I tried the bright-orange soup which I initially mistook for pumpkin. I later realised that it was sweet potato and apple. I was surprised at this combination because I actually liked it: I have spent most of my life refusing to eat sweet potato (or in fact any orange vegetable).
The main was a rich piece of grilled salmon fillet served with gravy, accompanied by a mashed truffle potato cake some wrinkled peas. The potato would have been better without the truffle which detracted from the flavours and was visually unappealling. (I am not a fan of the gratuitous overuse of truffles.)
Dessert was Venetian tiramisu, served expresso-style in cups. It was rich and naughty, as a good tiramisu should be, but I personally prefer a higher ratio of savordi biscuits to cream (I suspect I am largely alone in this preference). But I loved the fresh fruit salad, especially the sweet dragon fruit.
After our brief thirty minute lunch, DPP opposition Presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen strode into the room. She did not have black goons to accompany her, but rather a company of pink-vested minders who tried to appear nonchalant. Although Tsai had a hard act to follow, she wasted no time in pledging to improve ties with the US: ‘restoring the balance in the trilateral relationship (China, Taiwan and the US) will be one of my key tasks in managing our external relations when I am elected president’, she said outlining a new strategic partnership with the US. She pleded to ensure a peaceful and stable relationship with China once elected, and to communicate with the US during the months before inauguration. On the trade front, she vowed to progress FTA and trade negotiations to ensure Taiwan’s long-term competition, especially from South Korea.
Both Ma and Tsai — alone with third contender James Soong from the People’s First Party — will outline their visions during their first televised presidential debate at 2.30pm this Saturday. Apparently the timing is to ensure that media clippings are prepared in time for the evening news, which is what most busy Taiwanese will actually watch. It should be interesting to watch the candidates go head to head; hearing them speak individually is one thing, but defending their policies will be another. Still, watching in front of the tellie is not quite as impressive as watching the President and possible President-to-be speak a few metres in front of you. And I will miss the Grand Hyatt’s gourmet cuisine … perhaps I will need to recreate at home.