This article was first published in The News Lens International, a Taipei-based bilingual digital media that provides news, analysis, views and deep reporting from Greater China and Southeast Asia. You can read the original here.
Can you remember the first time you thought about coming to Taiwan?
Which websites did you use to research the idea? What language were you reading? Are you one of the handful of people who successfully applied for Taiwan’s Entrepreneur Visa individually, and if so, how did you manage it?
The fact is that information about how to come to Taiwan and the resources that might be available to you when you do is fragmented and confusing.
Contact Taiwan, the official portal that is meant to handle outreach to foreigners is executed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA), and is squarely aimed at attracting investment. The web design is busy and, in short, undeserving of being the official face Taiwan shows to the world. For example, the site is currently running a barrier proclaiming: “Taiwan has passed a NEW STATUTE that offers many BENEFITS to foreign talent…Making their life and work in Taiwan more convenient.”
Taiwan's digital face lacks input from professional designers and copywriters.
It's a message that captures both the gulf between the government and Taiwan’s foreign community and a slapdash approach that undermines Taiwan’s best efforts to better appeal to people overseas.
The current Democratic Progressive Party government is well aware that this will not do, especially given the pressing need to attract foreign talent to Taiwan in order to keep the economy competitive and counter the ongoing brain drain, and the Executive Yuan has tasked the National Development Commission (NDC) with rectifying the situation.
Spearheading this effort is NDC Deputy Minister Gao Xian-gui (高仙桂), who recently convened a meeting of officials from the MoEA, the ministries of labor, education and science and technology, as well as Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council and representatives of the foreign community this effort is supposed to help augment.
Among the latter group was David Chang, the 36-year-old Taiwanese American CEO of Wordcorp, a Taiwan-based integrated translation company.
Chang’s presence at the meeting can be traced back to his time working in politics in New York State with the now-retired Senator Thomas K. Duane, and on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008, experiences that brought home how underrepresented Asia, and the voice of Asian Americans, was in Congress and state legislatures.
On his return to Taiwan, Chang recognized a corresponding need for Taiwan to improve efforts to communicate its values and attributes to the outside world, and set about building his translation platform.
“It dawned on me that there was a language issue,” he tells The News Lens. “Taiwan has a political and historical chronic issue with communicating and marketing itself to the rest of the world.”
With the business-to-business translation service up and running near automatically, Chang turned his attention to rectifying Taiwan’s marketing problem.
“The idea was to integrate our translation tech and resource network to provide a platform for SMEs to market themselves in 36 different languages, and have analytics showing which people from which countries are reading those articles as a guide to which market to target – a global market intelligence tool,” Chang recalls.
But the project encountered a stumbling block familiar to anyone who has worked closely with Taiwanese companies: a lack of marketing savvy, itself underpinned by a modesty that precludes trumpeting success.
Seeking to pivot, Chang drew inspiration from French President Emmanuel Macron, who in June 2017, thrilled social media with an open invitation to environmentalists disappointed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords to visit France.
“He basically said, 'Come to France,’ and promised a website would make that process as easy as possible,” Chang recalls. "I thought, 'Why can't we do something like that in Taiwan?'"
As it stands, finding your way into Taiwan online through the National Immigration Agency and Bureau of Consular Affairs websites is a complicated process, made all the more taxing by what Chang describes as "a governmental approach to website design", which involves putting all the required information up across several websites as "a form of due diligence.”
The much-vaunted Entrepreneur Visa scheme, designed to attract startup founders to base themselves and their companies in Taiwan as part of the government’s economic transformation efforts, perfectly illustrates how the best intentions can got to rot given a lackadaisical approach to implementation.
In the more than two years since the visa was launched, less than 100 people have applied, and while more than 80 percent have been successful, the vast majority have done so with the assistance of accelerators and incubators rather than flying solo.
The process of getting the visa is convoluted and opaque, a consequence of the processing being handled by a bevy of government ministries and the implementation by outsourcing companies that do not care one way or another if people are able to navigate the system.
“No one had a clear series of steps to follow,” recalls Nate Maynard, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar who looked into applying for the visa in order to establish a sustainability consultancy in Taipei. “The criteria seemed very vague, and if you clicked on more info it sent you to other immigration websites.” Maynard says that it was also unclear how much money you needed, and that while people working in key industries were promised easier qualification, he was unable confirm what these industries were. He ended up abandoning the attempt.
Many of the same problems plague the implementation of the Employment Gold Card for Foreign Professionals, the so-called “four in one” card, which was launched on Feb. 8 as part of The Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals.
The card offers so-called “special professionals” benefits including a work permit, residence visa, alien residency permit and re-entry permit ability as well as the ability to freelance and enjoy tax breaks. Early adopters include celebrities like YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, a Taiwanese-American, and Jason Wu, the fashion designer best known for designing the dresses of Michelle Obama, but The News Lens understands there has been a disappointing overall response.
That is in part because people outside Taiwan simply do not know the scheme exists, and those that do find applying for it baffling.
A consultant who wished to remain anonymous because his Gold Card application is currently pending, even had trouble finding the website. “It wasn’t searchable – the only way I could get to it was through a Taiwan News article,” he says. “It’s not obvious how you even apply. The page headers didn’t make any sense, and you would end up going in circles.”
Applicants are expected to pay the fee, in the consultant's case NT$5,700 (US$195), before they are approved or rejected. “I am still not fully confident that even if I did all the right things that I’ll be successful [because] the criteria is not clear. You have to have a salary of NT$160,000 per month in a previous role. I thought I shouldn’t bother applying but a man at immigration said that stipulation was not compulsory, a claim later countered by a more senior official.
"To a certain extent it’s understandable because it’s new but I would rather be told 'I don’t know and I will check' rather than what they think might be the case so it looks like they know what they’re doing. That’s OK when asking for directions but when my future life and career hang in the balance, I need certainty, absolute facts, with which I can make an informed decision."
Throwing up reams of information and hoping foreigners will work it out is just not good enough in an era when it is possible to become a citizen and open a company in places like Estonia without even setting foot in the country.
Since its launch in October 2014, Estonia’s e-residency scheme has had 33,000 people apply and helped establish 5,000 companies in the country, lured by the promise of zero tax for companies that re-invest rather than distribute their profits. Deloitte estimates that e-residency will bring in 31 million euros in net income and 194 million euros in net indirect socio-economic benefits by 2021.
Estonia's digital engagement with the rest of the world is easy to navigate and well presented.
That system is the result of a “small country thinking big”, according to Julia Vassiljeva, the Estonian chairwoman of the European Business Association in Taiwan. Unlike in Taiwan, where matters foreign and domestic are kept resolutely siloed, Estonia’s e-residency system is an extension of an existing citizens ID card scheme that allows Estonians to enjoy mobile parking, pay tax and even vote online.
Moreover, Estonia has put government data on a secure blockchain under a system called X-Road. The system is billed as the “backbone of e-Estonia … [allowing] the nation’s various public and private sector e-Service databases to link up and function in harmony.”
This means, for example, that should a state authority want to access a person’s data they must first obtain that person’s consent, which is conveniently sought via an app, a system Vassiljeva describes as “life altering” in terms of the efficiency and ease with which it enables citizens to access government services and information.
Vassiljeva has introduced e-residency to the Ministry of Interior in Taiwan and there is precedent for Estonia lending its expertise to Asian governments, notably Japan and Singapore. “We are working with more than 40 countries to help improve their digital systems,” Vassiljeva says, adding that the greatest obstacle to implementing such a far reaching system in Taiwan is the lack of trust between the public and the government.
“People need to see that government is working for their benefit," she says. "Taiwan’s government should start with something that people can live without. If Taiwan could implement on a small service — or digitalize one city at a time, that would generate support for the idea.”
In the meantime, Chang has proposed that the NDC adopt a multilingual intuitive interface that would teach applicants about the visa application process as they applied, eliminate excess information and provide useful ancillary resources that would assist potential entrepreneurs with accessing funding, banking services and other essentials.
“The NDC setup a research project for public bid, which we won and gave us a month and a half to complete – the main point was to suggest to the government they should stop wasting resources creating content and trying to reach audiences that perhaps they do not understand,” Chang says, “There is already an expat and international community in Taiwan and a more effective way would be to collaborate with them.”
Crossroads hopes its interface will make life easier for people interested in coming to Taiwan.
Chang is awaiting an NDC decision on his proposals, but is pressing ahead with launching the platform, known as Crossroads, anyway. “If we can successfully help people arrive and integrate then we can find ways to work together so the government can focus on policy,” Chang says. “We’re going to start with Chinese and English then Japanese and Southeast Asian languages, starting with Malay.”
The Crossroad’s visa interface overlays the complicated government system and streamlines the process, showing applicants need to know information only. The company partners with Taiwan EZ Permit to help make it as simple as possible for businesses and their staff to set up shop in Taiwan.
Whether or not the NDC chooses to back Chang and his work remains to be seen, but at least there is a growing sense of government openness to taking input and ideas from more varied sources, including the foreign community.
Keep an eye on Contact Taiwan to see just how far that sense of openness really goes.