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What can Taiwan learn from Estonia

Yung Yung Chang and Kristina Piilik
PhD Candidates
Graduate School of Global Politics
Freie Universität Berlin
17.11.2016

Cover photo of the magazine ``Business Weekly`` in Taiwan, June 2016

Cover photo of the magazine “Business Weekly“ in Taiwan, June 2016

Estonia, a small country located far away from Asia, is rarely mentioned in Taiwanese press but this year a picture of Tallinn´s Old Town was used as the cover photo on one of the Taiwan´s most prestigious business magazines[1]. This draws a lot of attention indeed!  The reason the magazine chose to dedicate the biggest part of its content to Estonia was an attempt to understand what this “Fairytale Country”, as the author calls it, has done differently than Taiwan in becoming the most advanced e-society in the world.

In fact, there are many examples from nations, where the support and will of national leaders helped the society to quickly reach the forefront of technological development. However, cases of Estonia and Taiwan are very interesting since sixteen years ago they were the only ones among 42 developing countries in McConell’s e-Readiness ranking[2], that achieved the highest score in all three categories. This means that both countries have not only enjoyed strong government support, but also have employees with high level of IT skills, a great availability of wireline and wireless communication services, and finally, strong laws against cybercrime and software piracy.  Nevertheless, Estonia today has achieved a much bigger scale of digital development than Taiwan.

 

Taiwan and Estonia at a Glance
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How is this possible, if we consider that after its reindependence in 1991 Estonia´s GDP per capita in real terms was around $600 and the country had very outdated technical equipment and services?  Based on the article mentioned above, we would argue that there is one decisive factor that explains why Estonia has done differently than Taiwan. Namely, it is the tremendous degree of engagement of younger generations in the higher-level decision-making processes.  The fact that the average age of the government officials is 43, in 1992 it used to be 35, makes Estonia a country with the youngest state authorities in the entire EU if not in the world.  This does not differ greatly in the private sector where the majority of Estonian entrepreneurs are 25-44 years old. For example in 2012 the average age of entrepreneurs was only 38.5[3]. Most certainly the high rate of involvement of young professionals in the fastest changing fields like the IT- industry, where new developments are constantly taking place, has benefitted Estonia considerably in developing such a strong tech culture.

Contrary to Estonia, Taiwan is a typical example of many Asian countries that follow the idea that “seniors know better” as they are more experienced. The emphasis on valuing elder’s experiences and knowledge has its roots in the cultural background. It is relatively common belief in Asia, both in private lives and in professional ones, that elderly people should be respected and followed. Hence, when it comes to making decisions, the biggest and the most important policies must be approved by those seniors who have more experiences and maturity. Therefore, a right to participate or to have a greater say in the decision-making processes, depends largely on professional positions and experiences which usally come with age. In short, older people are given more chances to have the final word

The concept that seniors are more qualified goes hand in hand with the hierarchical structure that is present in the Asian context. Such a structure suggests that the decision-making process should take place via a top-down approach and follow the corporate hierarchy, where ideas from the bottom cannot reach the top directly, rapidly, and thus effectively. Through reporting tier upon tier, sectors embedded within this hierarchical structure are slower to move and thus, also slower to innovate.  Hence, the hierarchical concept together with the cultural aspects can hinder the voice of younger generations. This voice is crucial in fast-growing and innovation-driven industries, where sticking to old conservative ways will do no good for development and the enhancement of competitiveness.

In comparison to Estonia, in Taiwan the average age of becoming the CEOs or another higher position manager is around 45-50. Often the first thing that a young new-comer to the company in his or her 20s needs to learn is to respect and accept the working morality and hierarchy. Noteworthy is the fact that there is a need to wait many years for a promotion and the possibility to have a right to implement ideas directly on the management level.  Ironically, after the successful breakthrough and integration into the working culture, one easily tends to forget to listen those who just entered the company with big passion. That is to say, the solid hierarchical system and valuing seniors has the tendency to bury young people’s enthusiasms and even their creativeness.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute Taiwan ranks lower on "competition," "startup skills," "internationalization," and "networking" than Estonia.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute Taiwan ranks lower on “competition,” “startup skills,” “internationalization,” and “networking” than Estonia.

At the same time in the public sector, the current average age of Taiwan´s government cabinet is over 60. Accordingly, it is substantial to note that the new government officials grew up in very different circumstances than those who were born in 1980s or 1990s. This suggests a different way of thinking between government officials and younger generation in Taiwan, particularly taking the increasing rapid development of IT and E-world into consideration. While younger people depend a lot on the internet, 3C products, abd online social networks in their daily life, the older generation is inclined to live in the world without too much ‘invasion or disturbance’ from internet or smart phones.  For instance, some of the officials in the cabinet claimed that they had very limited experiences in terms of on-line shopping; and another official claimed that he doesn’t use a cell-phone (a smart phone) at all because it distracts him from work[4]. Unfortunately, those are also the same officials that oversee the regulations of Internet E-commerce industry, the development of Third-party payment, and Peer-to-peer lending policy etc.  Such examples prove the existence of a “generation gap” and that younger people might be more advantageous to fill the positions since the skills of the digital aspects are probably more crucial than age or professional ranking.

Notwithstanding, the intention of this reading is not to deny the importance of experiences and knowledge.  Rather, it is crucial to consider that there are areas where young people without years of experience could offer alternative insights and expertise that are important in today´s fast expanding fields.  It is also not aimed to argue that the younger generation is more qualified than the older generations.  Instead, we try to provide the perspective that the larger extent of engagement from young specialists could be advantageous.  The example of Estonia has proved this. Taiwan should consider to follow suit and as the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 demonstrated, young people in Taiwan have their strength and determination to innovate and reform the country, which can further bring Taiwan into the same kind of digital success as has already happened in Estonia.

The authors Kristina Piilik and Yung-Yung Chang are PhD Candidates at the Graduate School of Global Politics, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.  They can be contacted at kristina.piilik@fu-berlin.de and  yychang@fu-berlin.de

[1] 商業週刊 (Business Weekly) June, 2016. http://bookshop.businessweekly.com.tw/product_mag.aspx?ProdNo=PROD000004936
[2] McConnell International Report (2000) Risk E-Business: Seizing the Opportunity of Global E-Readiness.
[3] Globaalne Ettevõtlusmonitooring 2012 Eesti Raport, Eesti Arengufond
[4] Tsai, North America Intellectual Property Newspaper (NAiP), No. 161. http://www.naipo.com/Portals/1/web_tw/Knowledge_Center/Editorial/IPNC_160615_1501.htm