Taiwan’s link between personal conduct and economic success

What you need to know:

  • Although Kai Shek was a strong military leader, he made many strategic mistakes by attempting to fight off the Japanese in the Second World War while a civil war was raging.
  • Good educational systems attract great numbers of jobs and reduce the burden of unemployment. This is a lesson Africa must learn, and stop whining that it is because of colonialism that we continue to perform dismally.
  • We use ubiquitous mobile technologies to lie that we are in Mombasa while we stand 20 metres away from the caller in Nairobi.

I spent most of last week in Taipei at the Innovation Center for Big Data and Digital Convergence, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan, barely three weeks after Typhoon Soudelor swept through the Island. Amazingly, Taipei has been cleaned up. You wouldn’t think such a powerful natural force had swept through the city.

What this small nation of 36,000km2– about the size of Tana River County in Kenya - of about 24 million people has managed to achieve in a span of 60 years is something we all should be interested in.

It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 650 inhabitants per square kilometre, but it is among the top 20 richest countries in the world today. 

An island formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan emerged in 1949 after the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Party by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in a protracted civil war in mainland China.  

Both leaders, through their political parties, wanted to unify China through different ideological foundations. Whilst Chiang Kai Shek favoured a strong centralised China under the banner of the Republic of China (ROC) and leaning towards traditional Chinese culture, Mao wanted to establish communist rule under the banner Peoples Republic of China. 

Although Kai Shek was a strong military leader, he made many strategic mistakes by attempting to fight off the Japanese in the Second World War while a civil war was raging. 

He also made political mistakes by making his intentions of a strong centralised system known, while Mao told different groups what they wanted to hear.

Chow and Gregory note in China's Economic Transformation that during the latter half of the 20th century, Taiwan experienced rapid industrialisation and economic growth and became known as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” alongside Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Three interventions were key to the restarting of Taiwan’s economy. They included, first, a financial aid and credit package from the United States amounting to $4 billion as well as other indirect economic stimulus of US food and military aid during the formative stages between the 1945 and 1965 period, second, a takeover of Japanese assets in agriculture and industrial infrastructure after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, and third, extensive land reforms.


Besides support on macro issues, Taiwan is ranked second-safest country to live in according to U.S. lifestyle magazine Presscave. According toBBC, Taiwan ranks fourth globally on performance in Math and Science at age 15, just behind its Asian counterparts, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.  

On the Human Development Index, the UN ranks Taiwan 21st out of 188 countries surveyed.  Besides China, Taiwan is one of the largest destinations of outsourced manufacturing, mainly due to its highly skilled manpower.

Good educational systems attract great numbers of jobs and reduce the burden of unemployment.  This is a lesson Africa must learn, and stop whining that it is because of colonialism that we continue to perform dismally when compared with other countries that were equally colonised.

What other lessons can we learn from Asian countries?  The secret behind the success of the Four Asian Tigers was the individual discipline of its people.  After rummaging through Taiwanese newspapers for a week, you begin to note that they too have deep-running differences, some of them ethnic-based.

What helps them most is their cultural demeanour that cuts across all ethnic groups, adherence to the rule of law and a moral code of conduct.  This is where our differences are magnified when compared to Asians.  Rarely do their politicians explode to the extent of going physical in public. 

Let me attempt to explain why we cannot develop as fast as some of these Asian countries until we deal with our own individual, moral conduct. This is not my own unique personal theory; it has been emphasised by virtually all development models that I know of.

The earliest of the Western thinking in economic advancement of “primitive” economies was in the mid-18th century, when the Marquis de Condorcet came up with a model that he called the Sociological and Anthropological Modernization theory.


This model was built around the argument that technological advancements and economic changes can lead to changes in moral and cultural values.  The Western world itself had changed its culture by subscribing to the rule of law.

Simple technologies like traffic lights became the symbol of cultural change.  They took responsibilities for their actions as a basis of their moral conduct. They prospered.

Proponents of this model believed that it could work in developing economies as it did in Western Europe.  It didn’t. Now, well into the 21st century, rule of law remains a foreign concept to us and even more startling, the traffic lights literally are artefacts of tourist attraction, with the spectacle of those who are supposed to enforce the law driving through the red lights as though they were green. 

Motor bikes, another form of transport technology, ride on the blind side of vehicular drivers and when they are crushed, we call it an accident. 

We use ubiquitous mobile technologies to lie that we are in Mombasa while we stand 20 metres away from the caller in Nairobi. Clearly, technology is not helping us to advance by changing our moral conduct. 

Other models, such as the one developed by economist Walt Rostow, argue that development can occur in a linear format if you inject a lot of cash like the Marshall Plan, which was used to rejuvenate Europe, did. As a result, billions have been pumped into Africa over the past 50 years but nothing has changed in terms of development. 

In fact, critics of Rostow argued that development is largely determined by the ‘software’ of persons, or actions of individuals.  Even the World Bank-led Structural Adjustment Programmes, which were meant to transform developing economies from subsistence agriculture to modern, urbanised manufacturing and service economies, failed.

It required a change of mind set.  It was easy to move a person physically from the village to an urban setup but it was difficult to remove the village from that person’s mind.


Asian countries emphasise six key values that can be introduced to young children as well as older people. These include Respect (acknowledging others with simple greetings), Responsibility (taking care of your mess), Resilience (accepting failure and never giving up), Integrity (honesty), Care (helping those around you) and Harmony (accept others who may be different or do things differently), and re-emphasising all the time the living by these values in every decision or action that we take. 

These values can be reinforced by those around us in schools and at home.  These are individual efforts, that when collectively practiced become a culture.

I have observed many cultural tendencies of Asians and they always exhibit some level of respect that almost immediately creates a sense of trust. Europeans often keep their opinions to themselves and as a result there is harmony when looked from the outside. 

It is these simple moral actions that lead to development.  Some may ask how, but here is a simple explanation.  If we were honest with our insurance, premiums would be cheaper and more people would afford insurance and reduce the burden of disease. 

If we obeyed the rule of law, there would be less fatalities on our roads and reduced cost of morbidity.  If there were more trust among us, bank interest rates would be lower and more people would borrow to create enterprise which would in turn create jobs. 

If we cared more, we would fulfill the will of God as is in Philippians 2: 3-4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

If we remember these words when we drive on our roads and exercise humility, cultural change will have come and it is at this stage where we can introduce rational discussion on land use, which in the initial stages requires that we stop sub-division in the long journey of development that could enable thousands to do something more useful to their lives.


Many rich people in this country have large tracts of land that are idle when there are many poor people around who could be mobilised to make use of the resource. 

If we can accept to own land shares as we own corporate shares, land consolidation will help move to large scale production.   

With the use of use technology, we can mechanise agricultural production and increase our food output sufficient to start large-scale value addition.  This would become the basis of industrialisation.

It is illogical to ask recovering addicts to go back and till a half-acre of land that cannot feed even one person. Rather, some of these people need to be retrained on driving different types of machinery, which would be more fun and productive.

Such training would create much faster industrialisation than any economic model that has ever been proposed.

Just like Taiwan did with Land reforms, Kenya must begin to deal with this reality.  Our cultural practices with respect to land ownership are the basis of our backwardness.  We must stop the process of land sub-division below five acres as a strategy for sustained food security and greater productivity. 


We can also impose taxes on idle land and develop a national spatial data infrastructure that will be key to sustained resource management in our country.  If we digitise all of our transactions, it will be possible for the Kenya Revenue Authority to collect all the taxes, something that may in the future lead to lower tax rates.

At Yuan Ze University, they have a 2020 Vision, with four pillars.  They are: cultivation of talent; building a bilingual university; devotion to application oriented research contributing to society and industry; and creating a high quality and globally competitive university. 

To do this they invite faculty from parts of the world and build global capacity. These are noble ideals that many African universities must begin to embrace to avoid inward-looking destructive education that we now experience in Kenya. 

A pupil attends Kamusi Nursery, Kamusi Primary, Kamusi Secondary, Kamusi University for undergraduate, Kamusi University for Masters, Kamusi University for PhD and works at Kamusi University as a lecturer, all within an area of three square kilometres.


Inbreeding is not just bad for livestock; it is particularly bad for scholarship. So when faculty like these see anyone from any other university and attempt to chase them away as foreigners, they become antithetical to development.

Kenya could very easily break away in Africa and become the first African Cheetah that every other country in the continent will want to emulate, but we must begin to build on the simple values that I proposed earlier. 

Even if our agricultural output goes up 10 times, there will still be a market for it. A vast majority of African countries are importing food from Europe that is expensively produced. The Middle East is importing food from as far away as Brazil. Let us mechanise our farming and provide competition to Europe and South America. 

It is such healthy competition that will eventually take Africans out of poverty. We ought to begin by re-evaluating our individual moral conduct that collectively will become our new culture, and possibly stimulate an African social and economic revolution, just like the Four Asian Tigers did.

Che Guevara once said, “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”  We must make it happen for Africa.

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.


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