Monday, September 28, 2009

Honest civil servants seen as "eccentric fools" in Vietnam

Ask most Vietnamese what their biggest complaint about the government is and they're likely to tell you it's the rampant and deeply-entrenched corruption among public officials.

A popular Vietnamese play on words mocks the term for Administration ("hành chính") in rather biting fashion: "hành là chính" - "causing trouble is the top priority".

This corruption - often under the guise of red-tape - is also holding back the pace of foreign investment and putting a big drag on Vietnam's economic development.

Earlier this month VietnamNet, one of the country's more ballsy news websites, launched a campaign against the scourge of corruption and punitive red tape, opening an online public forum for complaints about bent officials called "Joining hands to reject absurd administrative formalities".

Some of the responses are very insightful. Several correspondents noted that the minority of honest civil servants are regarded as "eccentric fools" and "idiots" by their colleagues who are on the take.

The flipside is that it is not the competent and trustworthy officials who are promoted but those who are good at playing the game and ensuring smooth (and profitable) relations with their bosses.

Hoang Nga from Hanoi argued that bad pay - often cited as a rationale for corruption - was no excuse: "Don’t excuse immorality as the consquence of low salaries. Many people live purely and keep their self-respect. It is regrettable that such officials are rare today and they may be thought of as 'stupid' by their colleagues."

It seems ironic that given Vietnam's Confucian heritage, it is now those civil servants with good connections and lucrative "extra-curricular" incomes who are most valued rather than those with the best education and the most moral fibre.

"It is painful how often rich officials return to their home villages openly boasting about their talent in building relations with their superiors," explains another VietnamNet reader. "They are proud because the whole village and their relatives admire and honor them as talented people – or so they seem, since they are richer than many who have high diplomas."

VietnamNet concluded its most recent story with a muted call for change, noting that "the prayer of nearly every reader is that the government will strongly commit to the reform of ‘administrative procedures’ and take resolute action".

I've heard such sentiments many times on previous trips to Vietnam. But despite pressure from its own people, as well as international institutions like the World Bank, the government continues to drag its feet, perhaps because today's leaders only got to the top by climbing the self-same greasy pole.

While some hope that the next generation, who have been brought up in the globalised, internet age, will be cleaner, the signs are not that positive.

As an ambitious and bright Vietnamese friend told me recently, "I used to fight against the system but got nowhere and now I've realised that if you want to be successful, you have to join the system".

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