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Streets jammed by budget outcry

TAIWAN. A turbulent year. In July, there was uproar when the National Assembly abolished a clause in the constitution that said at least 15 per cent of the central government's budget should go towards science, education and culture.

Incredibly, no one had the slightest idea that the Bill to make the changes had been submitted to the assembly. Even the education minister, Wu Jin, said he first heard about it via the newspapers.

Critics of the ruling Kuomintang (nationalist party) claimed that the secrecy was deliberate because the nationalists wanted to free up funds for advanced weaponry in the wake of a military face-off with China in the Taiwan Strait a year before.

Taiwan's president, Lee Teng Hui, promised the budget would remain above 15 per cent despite the constitutional change. However, opposition politicians and, more significantly, the public, demanded that the constitutional guarantees should be restored. An embarrassed Mr Wu said he would resign if this was not done.

Late September saw the biggest street demonstrations in Taiwan's history as concerned parents, students, teachers and municipal officials jammed the streets in major cities including Tai-pei, Kao-hsiung and Tai-chung.

Classrooms emptied as more than one million students - a quarter of the student population - joined an open-air "class". The size of the turn-out showed that there was little confidence in the president's reassurances.

Mr Wu came in for criticism for not joining the protests and lost credibility when he pro-nounced them "illegal" because pupils had been encouraged to miss classes to attend. He did, however, promise not to take disciplinary action against teachers who had taken children to join the protests.

A government task force was set up to draft a Bill to peg the amount to be spent on education to an as yet undetermined percentage of the gross national product rather than a flat percentage of the total budget. No target date has been set for the legislation to be passed.

A beleaguered Mr Wu has said the education ministry plans to allot Pounds 10 billion or about 7 per cent of GNP in the future, compared to 5.62 per cent of GNP at present.

In November, Mr Wu had to bow to national security considerations in another key area when prime minister Vincent Siew quashed his plan to recognise academic qualifications from 73 Chinese universities, just days after the education ministry had said the plan would go ahead. The matter was passed on to the mainland affairs council, a cabinet-level body. The prime minister quoted several academics' arguments that Taiwanese students who study in China might be "brainwashed" and pose a threat to national security, despite Mr Wu's insistence that the matter had been thoroughly researched by his department.

Mr Wu, meanwhile, continues with his battle to persuade the public of the value of the wide-ranging reforms published at the beginning of the year which he intends will make the education system less of a cramming factory.

The task is an uphill one. "The problem is that everyone on the street is an expert on education reform," the minister commented recently.

Yojana Sharma

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