Discussions about Taiwan’s stagnant economy and how it causes countless young Taiwanese to seek better opportunities overseas are no longer news these days. While most media outlets are quick to throw criticism at the government, not much about Taiwan’s potential to attract high-value foreign labor and creative talent has been mentioned in local media coverage.

Once dubbed one of the Four Asian Tigers alongside Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, Taiwan’s glory days may be over and the country can no longer satisfy its own people.

At a time when the number of young Taiwanese people establishing their careers overseas is at a record high, it is critical to see how Taiwan can reverse its fortune through progressive mechanisms such as lowering the threshold for foreign talent to work in Taiwan, a move championed by several labor rights groups.

Create a More Competitive Workforce Through Diversification

Holly Harrington, the General Manager of Taiwan Startup Stadium, probably never thought that she would spend more than a year in Taiwan when she arrived here 12 years ago. When asked about what has made her decide to stay for more than a decade, Harrington simply said that she likes her life here.

“I don’t have to fear for my life here,” Harrington said. “Comparing [Taipei] to other cities, the environment in Taipei is pretty clean, and there is a lot of nature outside of Taipei.”

However, Harrington thinks that these aren’t things that will convince anyone to move to a new place, since most people consider factors such as whether the new place offers a salary comparable or higher than their residing country, or whether it has opportunities for growth when deciding on a move. These are things that Taiwan currently can’t offer. Despite the lack of these decisive factors, many Taiwanese workers have been expressing concerns over the potential threat that can come with growing influx of foreign talent in Taiwan.

“Some people are worried about Taiwan being overwhelmed by foreign talent, but it’s actually not something to worry about,” Harrington said. “If you can attract that many foreign talent to come to Taiwan, that would actually be an achievement.”

And the statistics support her statements. In 2016, less than 40 foreigners applied for the entrepreneur visa, which has a cap of 2000 accepted applicants.

The low application rate reflects Taiwan’s lack of recognition among internationally mobile talents in general. Harrington believes that opposition to allowing more foreign talent come to Taiwan usually stem from those who don’t have experience competing internationally.

“To me, the solution isn’t blocking foreign talent, but rather, looking at ways to make local talents better,” Harrington explained. “You can’t do that without competition. If Taiwanese people have to go up against foreign talent, they will actually be more motivated and think more creatively.”

Because of her role at Taiwan Startup Stadium, Harrington knows all too well why protectionism is never going to work. She argues that the reason behind Silicon Valley’s success is its large number of immigrants who bring talent from around the world, and such an open culture helps to attract some of the world’s best minds. It has also enabled companies in Silicon Valley to be more globally aware. According to her, Taiwan needs to change faster and show its commitment to being more foreigner friendly.

“If you change so slowly, then it tells people that the bad things now might change but it’s going to take a long time,” Harrington said. “If Taiwan takes quick actions to show that it is committed to becoming more foreigner friendly, then people will be more interested in coming to Taiwan.”

Harrington believes that by having more foreign talent in Taiwan, Taiwan can build up a strong group of international allies who can help introduce the island nation to the world. “Most of the foreigners that have lived or are currently living in Taiwan are the best ambassadors for Taiwan,”  Harrington said. “Because they go around telling people how great Taiwan is.”  

Taiwan as Asia’s Social Innovation Hub

However, not everyone believes that actively recruiting more foreigners should be Taiwan’s priority. Instead, working on how to retain local talents by building a supportive environment for them, while increasing Taiwan’s exposure internationally are what some entrepreneurs believe can benefit Taiwan more in the long run.

As Taiwan’s affordable living standards and healthcare have repeatedly been praised by foreigners in Taiwan, Jane W. Wang, an entrepreneur in Taipei, thinks that Taiwan possesses the potential to become a social innovation hub in Asia.

“Taiwan has the hospitality, civic trust and the desire to fix social problems that are key to launching successful social innovation initiatives,” Wang said. “These are the reasons why a lot of foreigners come here not knowing much about Taiwan, [but] they stay for a long time.”

In order to better leverage these unique advantages that Taiwan possesses, Wang founded her own startup, BGBridges, which grew from a community hub that works to connect people who want to solve problems facing Taiwan.

“I want to create a community of thinkers and doers,” Wang said. “If these people care about Taiwan, they can come to Taiwan to solve the problems or solve them from wherever they are.”

Unlike some who argue that attracting more foreign talent can help improve Taiwan’s economic situation, Wang believes that Taiwan should make retaining local talent its priority. According to Wang, instead of focusing on how to attract foreigners, the Taiwanese government should think about how to build a society that can convince overseas Taiwanese talent to return to Taiwan.

“I don’t think more foreigners is necessarily a good thing,” Wang explained. “I believe it is only better if the government figures out a way to integrate them better in Taiwan. The government needs to create a roadmap that allows foreigners to not only thrive in their own little bubbles, but also to really interact with Taiwanese people.”

To help transform Taiwan into Asia’s social innovation hub, BGBridges aims to unite existing institutions, organizations and people, multiply their impacts and connect resources and information. “We are building a platform that’s going to connect individuals and form a community, and that will connect them to solve problems in society,” Wang said.

Better Marketing and Branding for Taiwan

Taiwan is often known among foreign visitors for its hospitable and friendly people, something that Elisa Chiu, an entrepreneur, always feels proud about. But, internationally, certain obstacles remain in place that often prevent Taiwan from being discovered by more people around the world. One of the contributing factors is Taiwanese people’s inability to market Taiwan effectively. This, plus the political pressure coming from China, results in a low international visibility.

“I really feel like we are not very good at marketing ourselves,” Chiu said. “I think it might be partly due to our humble nature. Because of that, we usually are not putting ourselves out there.”

Hoping to help expose Taiwan to a wider international audience, Chiu began her startup, Anchor Taiwan, which aims to bring entrepreneurs from other parts of the world to Taiwan. She believes that Taiwan can not only benefit from their visits, but that the island also has the right resources to help many of these foreign entrepreneurs.

“I think this is a mutually beneficial situation,” Chiu said. “I don’t see bringing foreigners here as a way to beg for their money and contracts. I believe that we can also offer them a lot of stuff that can help them to be successful in their businesses too.”

Chiu thinks that Taiwan’s unique advantages, such as its hospitable people, can be the decisive factors to convince foreign entrepreneurs to set up their businesses here. However, in order for this to happen the government needs to create some incentives to benefit foreign entrepreneurs.

“When you look at countries like New Zealand, they offer incentives to entrepreneurs such as providing flights for tech talents that have already secured interviews,” Chiu stated. “For countries lacking resources, they know using different incentives to attract foreign talent is their only chance. Chiu added, “I really think that part of the Taiwanese government should operate more like a startup, which always stays on top of the latest global trends. Otherwise, they just can’t keep up with the speed that the world is moving.”

In order to help Taiwan build a more visible and unique image, Chiu plans to dedicate some efforts to identify more Taiwanese entrepreneurs, and unite them together through Anchor Taiwan. The ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive and unique Taiwanese experience for foreign visitors.

“My goal is to give them a stage to shine,” Chiu said. “We, as a platform, unite them together so they can focus on what they are really good at. And together, we can create really cool experiences for foreign friends.”

While the debate over international talent recruitment is likely to go on for quite some time, local efforts to help reform Taiwan’s economic system are already well underway. With plans to unite local resources by forming a community and create a uniquely Taiwanese experience for foreign visitors, Taiwan’s future may look promising even before official plans to increase the number of foreign workers allowed in the country.

 

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William Yang

William is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.