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Taiwanese diplomat gobbles up Canadian politics

By Kristen Shane      

The new head of Taiwan’s information division has spent the last year building his parliamentary Rolodex.

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Simon Sung hasn’t been in Canada that long. He started in July 2014 as deputy executive director of the public affairs division at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada.

But he likely knows a lot more about the intricacies of Canadian politics and parliamentary procedure than a lot of Canadians.

In that job, he acted as his office’s parliamentary liaison, working with MPs and senators to ensure friendly relations between Canada and Taiwan.

That meant more than 200 engagements with parliamentarians from last September, excluding big annual events that his office organizes, which attract flocks of parliamentarians, like Taiwan Night.

He used to have in his office a big map including the MPs, their names and photos.

“I try to memorize all their faces and their ridings, parties, age or their hobbies,” says Mr. Sung.

He uses the accumulated knowledge to inform his boss, TECO Representative Bruce Linghu, so he’s well briefed to speak to Canadian officials.

Taiwan sends about 20 parliamentarians to the island every year to see it firsthand. Taiwanese officials like to highlight it as a democratic, rights-respecting ally to Canada.

All that friendship-building is for a reason, of course. Taiwan and Canada don’t have formal diplomatic ties. Canada has a one-China policy, meaning it recognizes the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), not Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China.

While Mr. Sung says his office regularly works with Canadian foreign ministry officials in the North Asia trade and diplomacy bureau (headed by director general Graham Shantz), it also emphasizes parliamentary diplomacy, building up ties with everyone including backbenchers who may one day rise to cabinet. 

“We need friends, given our special circumstances,” he says.

The Taipei-born diplomat, who turns 50 this year, seems genuinely interested in Canadian politics not only for work but for his own personal knowledge.

He was a diplomatic and political reporter for Taiwan’s Capital Morning Post and Liberty Times in the early 1990s before becoming a public servant in Taiwan’s foreign ministry. So asking questions and soaking up information is his longtime occupation.

His home and office are filled with biographies of Canadian politicians, he says. He mentions The Longer I’m Prime Minister by Maclean’s political writer Paul Wells, and says he hopes to soon dig into Globe and Mail journalist John Ibbitson’s new Stephen Harper biography and NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s autobiography, Strength of Conviction.

“I try to have conversations with as many people as I can. So quite often I will invite MPs’ assistants, just like this, [to] come out for a quick lunch. So I just throw my questions: why do you call that ‘drop,’ the writ has dropped? Why do you call the Liberal a Grit?” he says, speaking over a seafood-sandwich lunch last week with his colleague Sylvie Hsiao at a restaurant inside the Sheraton hotel in downtown Ottawa, a stone’s throw from his office in the World Exchange Plaza.

Another one: what’s a lieutenant governor? In the United States, where Mr. Sung was previously posted in Chicago and New York, it’s the second-in-command after the state governor. In Canada, it’s the provincial equivalent of the governor general, the queen’s representative in Canada.

“We don’t get involved [in Canadian politics], but [because of] my journalist background, I am more curious than other people,” says Mr. Sung.

He also uses his journalistic skills to take notes about his conversations and observations while they’re fresh.

Now, he’s set to be working with reporters much more, having recently started as executive director for the TECO’s information division. The division organizes film screenings and lectures and liaises with Canadian journalists.

He takes over from Emily Wang, who was set to leave for Taipei on July 28 after five years in Ottawa. Upon return, she expected to post in the foreign ministry’s department of international information services.

Their switch is among several other recent staffing changes at the Taiwan office.

Among them, deputy representative Bill Chen is set to return to Taiwan, after a farewell party Aug. 15. His successor, Frank Lin, comes to Canada from Chennai, India, where he had been the equivalent of a consul general since 2012. He’s held previous postings in the United Kingdom, Australia and Gambia. He’s familiar with Canada, having already worked at the Taiwanese office here between 2001 and 2008.

While he’s taken on a new title, Mr. Sung maintains duties at his old job too, supervising the day-to-day parliamentary liaison work of his new colleague Stephen Hsu, who just arrived three weeks ago. And he has help in the new job in the form of his full-time staffer Grace Kuo, as well as Ms. Hsiao, executive assistant director for public diplomacy, and Christine Cheng, assistant director for public diplomacy.

Mr. Sung will need all the help he can get after October’s election. He is expecting more than 100 new MPs, given the number of those not running, the 30 added seats and the fact that some incumbents may lose.

He says his office will likely plan a party for the new MPs once they settle back in to Ottawa to start getting to know them, like they did after the last election in 2011.

“This time, we need to book a bigger room,” he says with a chuckle.

There will be lots of issues to talk about. Taiwan is hoping to eventually clinch investment and free-trade deals with Canada, called “arrangements” instead of the normal “agreements,” given the lack of formal diplomatic ties. Taiwan is also keen to get into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated by 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Canada.

Mr. Sung lives with his wife Bao-ju Wang, and son David Sung at a downtown Ottawa condo (a great place to meet prominent Ottawa residents, he notes).


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