President Ma Ying-jeou, marking the Republic of China's centenary and New Year's Day yesterday, mapped out the course of the nation's future, stressing the importance educational reform, Chinese culture, democracy and cross-strait peace.
"I want educational reforms that provide a lasting solution," said Ma in a national address that recounted the nation's setbacks and achievements of the last 100 years, and spelled out his vision for the next century.
"Education is the cornerstone of national power, and children are our hope for the future," he said.
Education is one of the "four hopes" to turn the next 10 years into a "Golden Decade" that lays the foundation of prosperity for the next century, the president said.
Cross-strait peace, environmental protection, and lasting justice are the other three foundations, Ma said.
"Peace in the Taiwan Strait is the foundation for peace and prosperity throughout East Asia, and is the joint responsibility of both parties in the relationship," said Ma.
"In the next century, the R.O.C. will be the standard-bearer at the leading edge of Chinese culture. ... The R.O.C. will serve as a paragon of democracy for the Chinese-speaking world," said Ma.
Earlier at dawn, tens of thousands of people - both locals and foreigners - braced the cold, joining Ma in a flag-raising ceremony at the square in front of the presidential.
Mohandi, a 50-year-old man from Egypt who has lived in Taiwan for 25 years, said he stayed up all night in order to attend the ceremony. "I love Taiwan. This is a very special event, a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he was cited by the Central News Agency as saying.
A new orchestra version of the national anthem made its debut, with video clips showcasing the history and the people of the country, including the picture of the republic's founding father Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
The flag-raising ceremony also featured a touch of romance when 100 couples were married in a mass wedding - the first ever during the annual event.
Ma, accompanied by first lady Christine Chow, told the crowd that he felt this year's flag-raising event was completely different from all those he had attended before.
"It's a milestone for the R.O.C. Dr. Sun Yat-sen ended 5,000 years of monarchy and founded the R.O.C. on Jan. 1, 1912. One hundred years later, we have turned into the most democratic, diverse, educated and prosperous (Chinese) society in history," he said.
He reminded the newlyweds to respect and love each other, and to produce more children as soon as possible, bearing in mind Taiwan's low birth rate.
Boosting the birth rate is tightly related to Ma's educational reform.
"The government will work to boost the birth rate by simultaneously addressing each aspect of the problem: marriage, birth, childrearing, and education," Ma said in his national address.
Starting this year, the government will begin a phased implementation of 12-year compulsory education, starting with vocational high schools, according to Ma's plan.
The tentative plan is to by 2014 make attending high school and vocational high school tuition-free and in most cases require no entrance examination.
The government will also expand support for preschool education. Beginning this year, school tuition for five-year-olds will be waived.
As fiscal resources permit, this will gradually be extended to three- and four-year-olds to further alleviate their parents' financial burden, although preschool education will not be made mandatory.
The republic saw years of turmoil following its establishment. The country was split into two in 1949 when the Chinese communists drove the Kuomintang troops to Taiwan and founded the People's Republic of China on the mainland.
Cross-strait tensions have eased after Ma became president in 2008.
"The two sides of the Taiwan Strait should not quarrel over political power, independence versus reunification, or Taiwan's breathing room on the international stage," the president urged.
"We should instead focus on encouraging and helping each other grow in terms of the core values of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.
"We care about how human rights develop in mainland China because it is a core value we hold dear. It is a key yardstick with which to measure the distance between us, and a tool for bringing us closer together," he said.
The president insisted that the R.O.C. is a sovereign country aspiring to serve as a paragon of democracy for the Chinese-speaking world.
"The existence of the R.O.C. not only ensures the security and dignity of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu, but also proves that ethnic Chinese can indeed tread a new path of freedom and democracy," Ma said.
"Our democracy is young, but it has given birth to a vigorous multiparty system. Democracy is Taiwan's strength and pride, and is the foundation on which ruling and opposition parties compete and cooperate."
He expressed the hope that one day that all Chinese will enjoy freedom, democracy, and rule of law.
"This is not a far-off dream, because these values have all been realized in Taiwan. They are not exclusive to the West," the president said.
The R.O.C. is not only seeking to become the champion in democracy among Chinese-speaking people, but also the standard-bearer of Chinese culture, he said.
He noted that Taiwan has never experienced anything like China's Cultural Revolution, and has "preserved the rich roots of Chinese culture intact."
"Confucian values are practiced more widely and more seriously in Taiwan than anywhere else. The virtues espoused by Confucianism - benevolence, righteousness, filial devotion, respect for teachers, diligence, kindness, and simplicity - have long been deeply ingrained in the fabric of our lives," Ma added.