A Conversation with Dan Silver

In recent years, Dan Silver played a central role in the AmCham Taipei leadership. Besides serving as Chairman in 2016, he fulfilled two two-year terms as a member of the Board of Governors (2014-2017) and at different times was a co-chair of two committees, Medical Devices and Public Health.

A graduate of Brandeis University in history and Chinese studies, he earned an M.A. from Harvard in East Asian studies and studied at Peking University in Beijing from 1991 to 1993. Silver was based in Taiwan for nine years, working in the healthcare industry, before being transferred to Tokyo this summer. Before his departure he sat down for a chat with TOPICS editor-in-chief Don Shapiro. A condensed and edited version follows below: 

At his farewell party, Dan Silver receives a gift from AmCham President Bill Foreman and Public Health Committee co-chair Joyce Lee.

What’s impressed you the most about Taiwan over the time you’ve spent here?

I’ve lived here since November 2009. Before that I had visited a number of times when I was living in Hong Kong and subsequently, but I didn’t have any particular feeling about the place, despite my speaking Chinese. It was only after I’d lived here for a while that I began to understand how special Taiwan is. I think the reason is that Taiwan doesn’t fit people’s mindset of a major international center. It doesn’t have the many flashy building of Singapore and Hong Kong, or the same upscale shopping.

What makes Taiwan special is the people. Until you’ve lived here and interacted with Taiwanese people in every facet of your life – at work, at home, in school, in sports, you name it – you really can’t appreciate what makes Taiwan different. As a visitor you’ll have pleasant interactions, but in most cases nothing that’s going to leave lasting impressions. For me the thing that’s stood out the most from the early days is just how smart, warm-hearted, and hospitable people here are, as well as their open-mindedness and willingness to engage people from anywhere without bias.

Are there ways that Taiwan could capitalize on that more than it has?

On the one hand, it would be good to make international investors more aware of Taiwan’s attributes, but on the other hand part of Taiwan’s charm is that it doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in what people expect to see. That’s not its way. It does things that it feels comfortable with, and it is authentic for that reason.

There is a tendency among some Taiwan officials to think that we need better public relations or global media relations – that we need to get the word out. But the challenge is that every country in Asia has some similar agenda. All of them make themselves out to be special and different. You’ve seen the ads. In most cases it’s going to go in one ear and out the other, so I don’t think that’s the answer.

What comes to mind is that unlike Malaysia or Thailand, there is a massive Taiwan diaspora living and having important roles of different sorts all around the world. Most of those people, whether they themselves are from Taiwan or their parents or grandparents were, feel a strong attachment to the place. Finding a way to tap into and make use of that very substantial reservoir of good will would probably be the easiest thing that Taiwan could do to promote itself.

There’s a massive wealth of expertise and global relationships that exist in that diaspora. If you have X dollars to invest in promoting Taiwan, rather than one of those advertising campaigns or another tourism publicity effort, you might want to find a way to mobilize that global diaspora and make them champions for Taiwan. Identify what challenges or aspirations Taiwan has as a country and turn to that group, recognizing their expertise, and ask: “What are your suggestions? Help us figure things out.”

If time and attention are devoted to that group, I think things like developing an Asia Silicon Valley could be substantially more successful. Ensure that there’s an ongoing interaction between that group and Taiwan.

What are your thoughts on how Taiwan could be an even better location for those investing here?

In terms of working in Taiwan, my experience has been exceptionally good, and that’s because of the people I work with. In virtually all my interactions, there’s been a level of optimism and can-do spirit and positivity that is really rare elsewhere. Even when people are facing difficult challenges, the next day they come back in with a smile and are happy to be interacting and solving problems together.

Also, the fact that there’s such a highly educated workforce means that people can instantly understand what others are trying to say. And people in Taiwan can be as innovative as in any place I know, if not more so. It’s a sense of optimism combined with trust that makes it possible. It’s a very honest place. People try to deal in facts, and ultimately that leads to much better, more practical solutions to problems, and to a better business environment.

The challenge is it’s a comparatively small market, and also a market that has its own unique set of complexities often imposed by the government. When the relatively small size is combined with a relatively challenging environment, for example in the medical devices industry where I’ve been involved, it makes it harder and harder for Taiwan to get resources and attention from parent companies – and so the ability to truly grow can be very difficult despite all the good things Taiwan has to offer.

This could be a misperception, but it seems to me that officials often believe that if a multinational business is making sales and earning revenue in Taiwan, then that’s enough. Whether the amount is bigger or smaller than last year, as long as you’re selling you’re doing well and you should be happy.

But so much of business today comes back to what can you tell your shareholders, and what they care about is the promise for the future, which equates to growth. If you’re a good-sized business in Taiwan but are not growing, you aren’t meeting the demands of today’s multinationals.

And if you aren’t able to show growth, and if that growth isn’t substantial, you will be losing out for resources to other places. The calculation is: if I invest a dollar extra in Taiwan versus a dollar extra in China or India, what is my return? And if your return is relatively flat growth, why not give that dollar to China or Korea?

What conclusions should the authorities should draw from that?

To make Taiwan a place that is moving up the priority chain rather than down, the government needs to acknowledge this reality and then decide if it is ready to make changes in those things that it controls. It cannot control population. 23 million is 23 million, and it’s actually not growing but declining. But what it can control are practices in the regulatory sphere, especially those that will make Taiwan an easier, and I should say a more familiar, place for multinationals to work.

There are best-in-class practices that have been established, not just for America or Japan but internationally. Taiwan needs to make a real effort to study those practices, and then adopt them with enthusiasm. Again, tapping into the Taiwanese diaspora would help move this along faster. Until that happens you have sort of the worst of everything combining in Taiwan: the growth rate is not high, the population is relatively small, and regulations are relatively difficult.

What would you say to people who question why an effort should be made to make this a better environment for multinationals?

The simplest answer is that these best regulatory practices are also important for the local companies that Taiwan wants to nurture. They need to be competitive in an international space. In most cases they can’t just thrive in Taiwan.

An example in our industry would be that reimbursement decisions on medical devices or pharmaceuticals should be made on the basis of solid clinical data and good analysis of how that data translates into economic benefits for the patients and for the system in Taiwan overall. If decisions here are not made on that basis, then the companies that Taiwan is trying to nurture won’t have the knowledge or the data to make their products and their ideas successful in global markets. They won’t ever be able to compete on the same playing field as multinationals.

From your experience with AmCham, what are your impressions regarding the effectiveness of the organization and what you’ve gotten out of your participation?

It is a fact that the U.S. is by far the world’s largest economy. The companies that come from it tend to bring very competitive practices, oftentimes some of the best technology in the world, and they tend to have a level of integrity that has been fostered by the system in the United States.

AmCham is the voice for that very large and important set of U.S. companies. An American Chamber of Commerce helps raise, as a single voice, the expectations or ideas of this important economic group of companies and what they represent, and that’s important in and of itself. But in Taiwan it feels even more important because the international space and the bilateral space in the Taiwan-U.S. relationship are so restricted. A lot of what we do between the United States and Taiwan ends up being in the economic and business sphere.

As a result, as a business community we have a disproportionate influence and an important voice in the relationship. On that level, what AmCham does in the bilateral relationship is probably more important here than almost anywhere else that I can imagine. And I believe it’s vital, whether through publications like TOPICS or the White Paper or in person through the Doorknock or meetings with senior U.S. officials who come to Taiwan, to make clear how much this place matters to us.

It matters to us as individual companies, and it matters to us as industries, and it matters to us as the whole U.S. business community. Having a way to express that to so many stakeholders in the United States and in Taiwan helps to ensure that the relationship continues to get the attention and resources it deserves.