Taiwan Political Drama Draws Southeast Asian Viewers

Shoes fly and blows rain down, while a kung fu style kick sails across a room thick with jeers, jibes and coarse language.

It's fight night on Taiwan television as parliament gets in session and crowds of fans are tuning in across the oceans.


In Southeast Asia, government and trade ties with China may be at an all-time high, but Taiwanese legislative fight scenes and political talkshows are a big hit on cable television.

The run-up to Taiwan's presidential election on Saturday has been no less eventful. An education ministry official had to resign for saying opposition Nationalist Party candidate Ma Ying-jeou's father was a whoremonger.

Laughs are certain and entertainment guaranteed, but these Taiwanese shows are also regarded as a picture of true democracy at work, with lawmakers free to trade barbs and punches in parliament and politicians to sling muck on talkshows.

The sight of stiff suits in fist fights is a big pull in Malaysia and Singapore, where about a quarter of Malaysia's population of 26 million and more than three-quarters of Singapore's 4 million are ethnic Chinese.

Lively debates on politics and TV shows with entertainers imitating key political figures are rare in Malaysia and Singapore, with the media and legislature largely controlled by the government.

"I like watching Taiwan's parliament better than ours," said Wong Wei Hoong, a 37-year old Malaysian ethnic Chinese data maintenance executive. "They can say whatever they want about President Chen Shui-bian or his rival Ma Ying-jeou, which is not done in Malaysia," he added.

Many overseas Chinese in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand also speak Hokkien, essentially the same as the Taiwanese dialect once marginalised in favor of Mandarin and now increasingly spoken in the island's political arena.

Taiwan's colorful political scene contrasts sharply with most Southeast Asian countries, as well as Communist-run China.

"It's funny and actually quite intelligent because they leverage on real political events and make fun of it. I watch it because it's something we don't get on local TV. Our TV stations can't do it," said 20-something Singaporean Tyler Thia.

Malaysia's parliamentary sessions are usually a dull affair, with middle-aged men in drab suits giving rambling speeches while some of their counterparts doze or simply do not turn up.

In Singapore, the ruling People's Action Party has almost every seat in parliament.

Malaysia and Singapore do not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, yet trade and cultural ties are close.

But not everyone is a fan of Taiwan's political antics. "I feel embarrassed as a Chinese," said Malaysian Wendy Wong, a 56-year-old housewife. "How can educated people behave this way?"