Written by Yuri Baral.

Image credit: ECOSOC Youth Forum by UN Women (Ryan Brown)/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy’s (NSP) was first conceived, the core initial focus was on the value of cooperating with neighbours to better exploit each partners’ respective comparative advantage, with Taiwan’s main advantages being its status as a major player in the fields of advanced technology, agriculture, healthcare and education. Initial discussions aimed at defining the scope and goals of the policy did not explicitly broach the topic of adopting a new platform for engaging with youths in Asia. However, this changed when Taiwan developed the NSP’s “people-centred” narrative. This shift has seen Taiwan begin to actively work with youths as partners in regional community building.

With 60% or 750 million young people calling it home, the Asia-Pacific region contains what is now the largest concentration of the world’s youths. Depending on how one sees it, this figure presents either a huge logistical liability, or an enormous opportunity. Taiwan sees great potential in working with young people, as they have proven to be an influential driving force behind social transformation and innovation. The current Tsai administration owes part of its success to the active participation of young people in the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which some see as an instrumental factor in then presidential aspirant Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in 2016. The political power of Taiwan’s youth will again be put to the test in the coming 2020 presidential elections, as President Tsai faces off with the Kaohsiung Mayor and Kuomintang front-runner Han Kuoyu. The turnout of young voters will serve as a barometer of where Taiwan’s youth stand on matters concerning national identity and sovereignty in the backdrop of the threat of an ever-encroaching China.

Indeed, it is increasingly understood that there are many benefits to be had in encouraging young people to actively participate in politics. In other parts of Asia, youth involvement has begun to pick up as governments have opened up public office and cabinet positions to younger generations, often in positions that have a direct impact on the interests of their countries’ youths, or that represent the marginalised. In such circumstances, youths serve as a check and balance, as well as a source of fresh ideas that can offer alternatives to conventional ways of doing politics. Such participation can provide a much-needed bridge between an older generation that has often been criticised for being “out of touch,” and a younger generation unfairly considered as “immature” and “lacking experience.” Undeniably, the Taiwan experience of youth participation in recent years has been transformative as well as character building, in that it has prompted the political awakening of a generation that has long been labelled as thin-skinned  “strawberries.

Beyond politics, the world’s young people are also venturing into sectors that have for long been seen as the exclusive domain of their elders. For example, many of the startups which have taken the world by storm in recent years have been led by brave young entrepreneurs. Owing much to technology and innovation, these businesses are transforming industries at a rapid pace, and some of these companies have grown at a rate that has earned them the much coveted epithet “unicorn”. It should be noted, moreover, that many of these businesses are not especially novel, and encompass conventional industries such as transportation solutions, freight, apparel, hospitality, communication, etc. What makes these companies different are their approaches to business development, and the ethos behind their establishment. While conventional businesses would be driven by the goal of making a profit from the get-go, most startups are born from ideas derived from experiences and real-life problems – factors which make the people behind these ventures deeply invested in their business vision or mission.

Through the NSP, Taiwan hopes to tap into this fervour, as well as young people’s special ability to contribute to forming alternative solutions to shared challenges in Asia.

TAYLE in the Yushan Forum

Before holding this year’s Yushan Forum, the third since it was launched, the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF) launched a campaign that called on young professionals from the Asia-Pacific to attend the forum and participate in its activities. Over 1,200 applications were received from across the globe, with enquiries and expressions of interest coming from youths both located in and beyond the NSP target countries. The outcome of the campaign far exceeded initial targets, and represented a remarkable achievement given the Taiwan-Asian Young Leaders Engagement (TAYLE) is just in its second year.

TAYLE, one of TAEF’s five core programs, seeks to bring the importance of youth involvement in regional development to the fore. In line with this vision, the TAYLE Young Leaders who participated in this year’s Yushan Forum represented different sectors including government, community development and peace building, sustainability, international youth mobilisation and manpower. These participants brought diverse perspectives to both official sessions and side discussions.

The Yushan Forum was a great opportunity for the TAYLE Young Leaders to immerse themselves in topics that are relevant to their personal advocacies, as well as their countries’ respective interests. The two-day Forum acquainted them with the NSP’s fundamentals, the progress that has been made over the Policy’s first three years, and a renewed (or new) perspective that Taiwan can indeed play a greater part in regional development. The theme of this year’s Forum, “Deepening Progressive Partnerships in Asia,” comes from the perspective that Taiwan is an integral part of the regional community and, through increased cooperation with neighbouring countries, can help uplift Asia through its expertise and experiences in agriculture, talent cultivation, healthcare, innovative industries and technology and education among other sectors.

It helped that the TAYLE Young Leaders were each from a different country (Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, the United States), as this allowed for a more comprehensive discussion and a greater diversity of opinions on how countries can engage Taiwan under the umbrella of the NSP. Issues that drew widespread interest among this year’s delegates included promoting further engagement between Taiwan and their countries in the areas of enhancing economic and educational opportunities, knowledge transfers in key sectors/industries, cultural promotion and tourism, youth involvement, and talent cultivation.

One participant, Lim Houng from Cambodia, believes that her country could learn from Taiwan’s healthcare model: “I hope that Taiwan considers to partner with Cambodian agencies to assist in the establishment of good hospitals and provide technical training for our medical personnel.” In a similar vein, Min Nyan Shwe from Myanmar suggested creating two-way medical internships, and said that Taiwan was well positioned to assist with the development of a national health insurance program for Myanmar. “Health facilities in Myanmar are still poor, so Taiwan’s superior medical expertise can help modernise health infrastructure and welfare system practices in the country,” according to Min.

Catherine Setiawan from Indonesia and Vorralak Dheeranantakul from Thailand expressed interest in Taiwan’s growing foreign workforce. As of October this year, there are over 700,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, with the biggest share coming from Indonesia (274,970). Setiawan noted “Taiwan-Indonesia bilateral relations are very promising, which bodes well for Indonesian migrant workers or those who are looking beyond the country’s borders for work opportunities. This can be further enhanced by facilitating skills training programs to make migrant workers more competitive”. In view of Thailand’s similar experiences as both a country of origin and destination for migrant labourers, Dheeranantakul believes that “It would be in Thailand’s best interest to engage and exchange experiences and lessons learned in migrant workers management with a country like Taiwan, should such opportunity be present.” She added that existing platforms that address labour standards and practices, like the annual joint labour conference organised by Taiwan’s Ministry of Labour “can be used as stepping stones on which Taiwan can leverage its development experiences to expand regional collaboration.”

As Taiwan aims for a target of 20 million tourists per year by 2030, and for more frequent exchanges with its neighbours, Osama Bin Noor from Bangladesh recommended the provision of on-arrival visas for special cases, and in particularly for “those who have a letter of invitation, travelling for medical emergencies, or further simplifying e-visas.” Azimah Salleh from Brunei Darussalam recognized the potential created by Taiwan’s efforts to improve its understanding of Muslim culture, support Halal tourism by encouraging many establishments in the country to obtain Halal certification, as well as to provide prayer rooms for Muslim visitors. According to Salleh, “The availability and abundance of the imported halal products from the targeted NSP countries could boost the confidence of incoming Muslim tourist visiting Taiwan as a Muslim friendly destination or for those Muslim community residing in Taiwan.”

Mohammad Faiz Alam from India and Kelly Sun Young Park from the United States emphasised Taiwan’s leadership role in its aforementioned areas of expertise. Alam noted that “Taiwan’s well developed technology of mechanisation represents a potential solution to the lack of mechanisation in India, representing huge potential for increasing productivity and income of India farmers.” Park looked into the country’s international outreach, and emphasised that “Taiwan should take a proactive approach to utilise its current capacity in international forums such as APEC’s Human Resources Development Working Group and Emergency Preparedness Working Group,” noting Taiwan’s long history in global talent training and disaster response.

Noting Taiwan’s comparative edge in many fronts, Huyen Ngoc Than Tran from Vietnam cautioned leaders to not rest on their laurels. “Taiwanese should continue to generate innovative solutions for further enhancing their current portfolio in textiles, automation industries, etc. as well as exploring new industries such as smart cities.”

The Taiwan government’s decision to include a youth agenda in its New Southbound Policy was a good decision. The Yushan forum provided an opportunity to make its vision of Asia clear, and in order to move forward and implement this vision, Taiwan will need to work closely with its regional partners—both young and old.

Yuri Baral is an Assistant Research Fellow and Program Manager for Youth Engagement at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation’s (TAEF) Department of International Collaboration.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s partnerships with Asian nations.

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