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Not everyone in Taiwan is appreciative of Justice Minister Ma Ying-jeou, the 45-year-old Harvard law school graduate who tops ratings among government officials in public opinion polls.

When he first took over the ministry in 1993, he was pitied. Now he's feared."I think our investigators and prosecutors have really done their job," he said in an interview. "And in doing so, our ministry and myself have created a lot of enemies and they seek my departure as minister."

Ma vows to change what he calls Taiwan's "deep-rooted corruption culture." He says he wants to make corruption merely "a fact of life, not a way of life."

During his three-year tenure, he successfully took on electoral bribery and drugs, which led to thousands of convictions and a substantial reduction in such crimes.

Voter turnout was down 5 percent in the last parliamentary elections, considered a sign that candidates had cut back on "zou lu gong" to voters - a "fee" just for walking to the voting booth.

And illegal amphetamine labs have transferred their operations from Taiwan to China, driving the local price so high that most users have been priced out of the market.

Using these campaigns as a blueprint, he has now mapped out a strategy to tackle organized crime - a mission which has struck a little too close to home for his own ruling Nationalist Party.

"Taiwan must undergo a major transformation in this regard in the next few years. Otherwise, we cannot say we are a truly democratic society in which the rule of law is respected," Ma said. "If we don't clean up our society, I argue we will lose our competitiveness."

Economics Minister Chiang Pin-kung recently admitted that corruption is a drag on the economy.

Some of Ma's enemies are senior members of his own party. Others are political rivals who want to push the photogenic Ma - who once ranked just behind a local movie star and a Cantonese pop star in a survey asking Taiwanese women whom they found most attractive - out of the limelight. Still others are politicians, powerful businessmen and underworld figures.

"Members of the underworld have become elected representatives of our government, at the local, provincial and national levels. This is a problem that is well known to our citizens," said Ma. "A thorough housecleaning is vital to regain the trust of our people."

Ma is dissatisfied with police response to crimes related to the triads, or organized crime groups.

"The current campaign by police against the underworld seems to have been confined to small potatoes - the cases that can easily show their performance," he said. "But they do not target big shots."

He has proposed to the ruling party a comprehensive strategy of attack involving both legal and operational measures.

"In the next 19 months, we will have no elections. That is a good opportunity for us to get the necessary laws passed and to take vigorous action to clean up this society. This is a critical moment," he said.

Public confidence in law enforcement and the integrity of government officials has fallen sharply recently in the wake of a spate of controversies highlighting gangster influence in politics.

One was a bid-rigging scheme allegedly involving the Bamboo Union Gang, one of Taiwan's biggest triads, in an airport expansion project. An executive of a leading Nationalist-run company and four legislators including the Nationalist Party whip are among those being investigated.

Gangs have become increasingly public in their activities. At the February funeral of the assassinated leader of the Four Seas Gang, an estimated 10,000 gangsters joined a funeral procession across Taipei. Numerous senior politicians attended or sent condolences.

"Here the underworld has been more involved in public construction projects than in drugs, which is unique," Ma said. "Public construction projects usually involve large sums of money, so they are as lucrative as or more so than drug trafficking."

First, he says, laws must be changed to make the formation of, and participation in, an organised crime organisation itself a crime. Next, the government should carry out an island-wide swoop.

"We should do it in one shot, on a national scale, so they don't have time to conceal their illegal activities ... and it should be aimed at the big shots," Ma said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)