Taiwan youth ambassadors assemble at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in August 2019 before departing for overseas missions. (Photo courtesy of Tsai Pei-hsuan)
Groups of young talents are journeying abroad and expanding Taiwan’s engagement with the world.
As an only child placing enormous value on filial piety, Tsai Pei-hsuan (蔡佩軒) was initially hesitant about traveling to places far from her home in Taipei City. But after much soul-searching last year, she threw caution to the wind and embarked upon a 10-day trip to India and Thailand as a member of the International Youth Ambassadors Exchange Program.
“I decided to leave my parents in Taiwan and put preparations for graduate school entrance to one side,” the 20-year-old business administration major at National Taipei University said. “The calling of the wider world was irresistible.”
Initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 2009, the program for college and graduate students aged 35 and under encourages participants to develop an interest in international affairs, promote Taiwan’s profile overseas and strengthen ties between the country and its like-minded partners. Initial trips took members to all corners of the world, but in recent years the focus has been New Southbound Policy (NSP) target countries.
A key plank in the government’s national development strategy, NSP seeks to deepen Taiwan’s agricultural, business, cultural, education, tourism and trade ties with 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.
While meeting with the latest batch of youth ambassadors in late October at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) said the program enables younger generations from Taiwan to closely observe current developments in NSP target countries while making friends with foreign peers. “When abroad, they can better understand the country’s strengths, as well as the crucial role Taiwan plays strategically and economically in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.
Taiwan Night in New Delhi showcases the ambassadors’ outstanding talents. (Photo courtesy of Department of NGO International Affairs)
It is not easy to join the ranks of the youth ambassadors. Last year, about 1,100 applicants vied for the opportunity, up from 800-plus in 2018. Only 75 made the grade after undergoing rigorous assessment via interviews and demonstrations pertaining to the core areas of attitude, English language proficiency and special talent. The fortunate finalists were then divided into three teams, each of which spent 10 days visiting two countries.
According to Lai Ming-chi (賴銘琪), director-general of the MOFA’s Department of NGO International Affairs and the official tasked with overseeing the program, there is a growing trend for participants to speak Southeast Asian languages like Malay and Thai. “We feel the need to diversify the talent pool, so there is better interaction with foreign youths.”
All members receive on average four weeks of intense training before departing Taiwan. On the campus of Ming Chuan University in northern Taiwan’s Taoyuan City, the ambassadors are instructed by MOFA officials in subjects ranging from current affairs and politics to international etiquette, as well as briefed by foreign ambassadors and representatives on target countries. In addition, staffers from Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation based in eastern Taiwan’s Hualien County share experiences in delivering global humanitarian aid.
One of the most difficult challenges for participants is designing and rehearsing performances showcasing special talents. Li Zong-han (李宗翰), a 22-year-old 2018 youth ambassador to Palau—one of Taiwan’s Pacific allies—and the Philippines, said some members can do a great job of communicating with locals using foreign language skills, but they also break down barriers using more creative means.
Li, who developed a following for his breathtaking diabolo demonstrations, said many in the audience were so impressed they wasted no time in talking with him about his off-kilter juggling style. Tsai is quick to agree, citing traditional dance performances, plays and songs as the secret to the program’s success.
Youth ambassadors help recycle plastic bottles in September 2018 at the Manila chapter of Taiwan-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. (Photo courtesy of Department of NGO International Affairs)
The exciting display of talent is mainly showcased during Taiwan Night, a highly anticipated event attended by local officials and movers and shakers from the country’s expatriate community. It is so effective in promoting Taiwan that the Department of NGO International Affairs wishes to add an extra date to each target country’s youth ambassador itinerary.
Another invaluable platform for enhancing mutual understanding between the ambassadors and host populations involves visits to educational institutions, according to Li. “Face-to-face contact with the students made me feel especially close to them,” he said, reflecting on his group’s visit to Palau Community College and the University of Santo Tomas in Manila—the oldest university in Asia. “I seized the chance to tell them whatever they wanted to know about Taiwan, as well as ask them questions regarding student life and plans after graduation.”
People in Palau and the Philippines are extremely friendly and sincere, Li said. “But my experiences in the Philippines were especially touching given the country isn’t a formal ally of Taiwan.”
An equally important assignment for the youth ambassadors is media, nongovernmental organization (NGO) and political engagement. Members tour news outlets, as well as meet with NGO representatives and political leaders. The latter includes such luminaries as Palau’s Vice President Raynold B. Oilouch and the Delhi Study Group, a youth think tank affiliated with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Volunteerism is also coursing through the youth ambassadors’ veins. The class of 2018 cleaned up a beach in Palau, helped process and recycle plastic bottles at Tzu Chi’s Manila chapter and the 2019 edition taught Mandarin in the Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability in Bangkok. Tsai said such undertakings instilled in her a greater desire to take the Taiwan Can Help mantra to heart and do more for those in need.
The world is an oyster for Taiwan’s young and energetic ambassadors at a beach in Indo-Pacific ally Palau. (Photo courtesy of Department of NGO International Affairs)
Lai believes this feeling is shared by all program participants. “It affords a unique chance to understand what MOFA civil servants on the front line actually do to promote and defend Taiwan,” he said. This in turn fuels interest in the country’s foreign policy, hopefully inspires members to pursue a career with the MOFA and adds fresh impetus to the country’s diplomatic efforts, he added.
One example is Hugh Wu (吳榮脩), who cut his teeth at age 20 as a youth ambassador in Latin America six years ago. During the trip, Wu said he spent hours and hours picking the minds of his team’s three mentors, all diplomats. “That’s quite an experience for a university student, and one that led me to join the MOFA in 2018.”
Wu cannot speak highly enough of the program and its role in preparing him for his duties in the MOFA’s Department of North American Affairs. “My experience base and horizons were dramatically broadened,” he said, adding that the program is a must for anyone seriously considering a life of serving Taiwan.
Lai said program members like Wu, Tsai and Li give him great hope for the future. “They’re young, energetic and perfect promoters of Taiwan,” he said. “No matter where life takes them, they’ll continue representing the country with aplomb and making a difference.”