Idi Amin, Uganda, Africa, dictator, African dictator

Just call me "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."

Leaders like titles. And if they don’t get them, they embellish.

Elizabeth I, of England, declared herself “no lover of pompous title,” before adding, with not a smidgeon of irony: “I only desire that my name may be recorded in a line or two, which shall briefly express my name, my virginity, the years of my reign, the reformation of religion under it, and my preservation of peace.”

Perhaps she felt this pretty succinct compared to lengthier appellations like: “The most high and mighty Princess, our dread sovereign Lady Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland, defender of the true, ancient, and Catholic faith, most worthy Empress from the Orkney Isles to the Mountains Pyrenee.”

African tinpots of the late 20th century provide some of the most colorful examples of aggrandizement through self-bestowed honorifics. The late “president for life” Idi Amin weighed in with a respectable 50-odd words that included such gems as “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” and, in some accounts, the now infamous, yet no-less baffling “King of Scotland” (he once claimed to have had sex with the queen).

In Taiwan there was our own dear Generalissimo. It’s just one word – and admittedly not coined by old peanut himself – but the Italian superlative is a nice touch.

Though far less ostentatious in their choices than these trailblazers, our current crop of politicians are not averse to awarding themselves titles to which they are, well, not entitled. The most flagrant example is the near ubiquitous use of the title “minister” by the heads of “Cabinet-level” bodies in Taiwan.

In fairness to embattled MOH head Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良), health gets the nod in most countries. But not here – at least not officially. The Executive Yuan’s organic laws allow for eight ministries and two committees, the heads of which can legitimately call themselves “minister” His is demonstrably not one of them.

Articles 3 and 4 of the organic laws also afford the heads of the Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission and the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission the privilege of the title – the latter doubtless to mollify the few Chinese CKS vets still delusional (and alive) enough to claim the two countries as ROC territory.

As in many countries, there are at any given time five to seven ministers without portfolio, some of whom are de facto Cabinet members, with vote-casting powers. They usually serve concurrently as the head of Cabinet-level bodies and participate in the inter-ministerial council. Minister Without Portfolio Tsai Hsung-hsiung of the Council for Economic Planning and Development is an example of one of these. This is also catered for by Article 4.

Other than these cases, whatever might be emblazoned in ornate calligraphy on your name card (one civil servant once po-facedly cited this as “proof” to me), you’re a bureau or department head (shuzhang, 署長)), like Yaung, a director (zhuren, 主任), or perhaps a chairman (dongshizhang, 董事長) but, categorically, not a minister (buzhang, 部長).

monty python, ministry of silly walks, john cleese

A British minister, yesterday

Further down the food chain, there are people taking real liberties, with Wang Yu-ting (王昱婷), Huang Yu-Cheng (黃玉振) and General (yes, that one’s legitimate) Tseng Jing-ling (曾金陵) – directors of the National Youth Commission, the Council for Hakka Affairs and the Veteran Affairs Commission respectively –  all affixing the ministerial badge to the flimsiest of lapels.

Kuo Wei-yun, a spokeswoman for the National Youth Commission, defended Wang’s use of the title.

“There’s no formal rule but as far as I’m aware, the heads of any body at the first level under the Executive Yuan are ministers. The heads of second-level bodies, for example agencies under the Foreign Ministry – itself under the Executive Yuan – are more properly called directors,” she said.

Chao Yung-mao, a constitutional expert and dean of social sciences at National Taiwan University, agreed with Kuo’s analysis but added that the crux of the matter was the internal structure of the bodies concerned.

 “Some council’s organization is a committee system, also known as the collegiate system; their chief will be called the director of the committee,” Chao said. The other council is leadership system, also known as the single system; their chief will be called Minister.”

Though I take their point about different levels within the Yuan, none of this appears to negate the aforementioned laws governing Cabinet status.

There are, I accept, ambiguities in the translations of titles, but it is interesting that most of the suspects do not use buzhang on their Web sites. And even if they did, we’re still back to the name card horse-and-cart logic. Chao, for all his patience with my nitpicking, was frustratingly non-committal over the more spurious cases. “You can check the Web site …” he told me, patently begging what is in question. In any case, it is primarily the use of the word in English that I am tilting at here; and in Western parliamentary systems, it unequivocally denotes a Cabinet member.

Time and again, I have been told that – rather than indicating delusions of grandeur, these are innocent mistranslations, or that the person probably knows nothing about their organization’s Web site. (How about the name cards?). But the uniformity of the word’s use indicates otherwise.

Is all of this pedantic? Is the link from the regal pomposity of yore to the far less colorful chest-puffing of today’s technocrats a bit tenuous? Sure. But there are some genuine points here. First is the demeaning attempt to ape the traditions and honorifics of Western polities. In the end, this achieves the opposite of what is desired, demonstrating at best ignorance of these traditions, and at worst conceit and a whopping great inferiority complex.

But more important is the disingenuousness of it all.

Speaking of the need to eschew false titles, Confucius remarked: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

Half a millennium later, an even more influential pedagogue made a similar observation, explaining:“He who is faithful in what is least, is faithful also in much.”

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