Eroding the sanctity of laws

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A retired senior official burst out laughing when I asked for his comment on a recent decree stipulating the organization of funerals for state employees, including retired ones.

He called the decree issued by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism a "bureaucratic and short-sighted thing."

The former official was not the only one who found new regulations silly, because the decree, serious as it sounds, should have never been issued in the very first place.

A system of legal documents actually is already in place with lots of regulations related to this cultural and spiritual activity. And civil servants are also citizens after all, so whatever they do, they still have to follow laws and rules that apply for all Vietnamese citizens.

Thus, it is totally unnecessary to issue a decree to target a certain group of people and make them different from the rest, violating their rights, especially when it comes to very common rituals.

While there were those like the former official able to shrug the decree off as a short-sighted move, others found its provisions shocking. 

One regulation says coffins are not allowed to have glass faceplates. Explaining the ban, a culture ministry representative gave three reasons to the media: First, to set a glass faceplate on a coffin is not a Vietnamese tradition, given that such a feature did not appear in Vietnam until a decade or so ago; second, looking at the body of someone who may have died many days before will affect the environment and the health of people who attend the funeral; third, the plate can break and collapse if it is not fixed properly.

Commenting on the ministry's explanation, many scholars said the glass faceplate is a matter that should be decided on by the families of the deceased; there is no need to mention it in a legal document.

Apart from its redundancy and unreasonableness, the decree, which has a lot of regulations, does not clearly say how they will be enforced, or who will enforce them and take action when violations take place.

Shocking as it is, the decree is something that can be expected here in Vietnam, given that many regulations have been issued by different agencies earlier that invite public ire and scorn.

For instance, the Health Ministry's regulations issued in 2008 said people with chest measurements smaller than 72 centimeters were not allowed to ride 50cc motorbikes. They were cancelled soon after causing a stir.

Then there are regulations that have never been enforced like the ban on public smoking, or the ban on using mobile phones at gas stations.

Obviously, the reason for so many unfeasible legal documents in Vietnam is that local government agencies fail to consult the public properly before issuing them. They simply come up with the regulations, acting from the viewpoint of authority, without spending time looking at things from the public's point of view.

There are several regulations that have been scrapped because they have found to be impractical.

The Agriculture Ministry, for example, issued a rule on fresh meat sales that was supposed to take effect in September, but was scrapped in time. In fact, the ministry considered punishing those officials who advised the issuance of the rule requiring fresh meat to be sold within eight hours after slaughter.

The rule was criticized for being highly impractical, because, apparently, no thought was given to how it would be implemented how would an official be able to decide if the meat had been unsold for more than eight hours after slaughter, or how would customers decide the same thing and inform authorities? Or did concerned agencies have enough people to test slaughterhouses and follow the meat till it reached the end consumer?

Even though laws are written to manage human affairs better, there is a sense of sacredness to them. If they are issued and revoked repeatedly or issued but not enforced, people will tend to ignore laws and take matters into their own hands. 

And, when anti-social elements get into the act, mayhem results.

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