Public servants think they are born to rule, not serve

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A health official screens the temperature of visitors at the Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi. Many complained that they have been treated unfriendly, sometimes badly, by immigration officers at Vietnamese airports.

Early this week, the immigration department at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City officially apologized to a Vietnamese-French woman for the highly inappropriate treatment meted out to her by one of its officers.

Senior Lieutenant-colonel Nguyen Van Chuc, head of the department, issued the apology to Tuoi Tre, after the newspaper carried Truong Bich Ngoc's complaint that she and a Korean man were very badly treated as they were completing immigration procedures at the airport last month.

Ngoc said she was returning from a trip to Singapore with her family, and was waiting to pass through immigration when she noticed that a foreigner was being inordinately delayed by the officer.

Ngoc said that even after the man, who was from South Korea, had presented the papers demanded, including a certificate of his permanent residence in Vietnam, and read out the number of his flight, the officer kept him waiting, thus she and others in the line had to wait, too.

After a while, the foreigner asked the officer in English what else he was checking.

At that point, another officer from a nearby counter came over and snatched the passport from his colleague's hand, asking: "What's up? Where is this bastard (loose translation of thằng) from?"

Ngoc said the newly arrived officer, Nguyen The Tam, had a "cruel" attitude. He told his colleagues to keep the Korean waiting and send him to their office, although the man was trying to explain the issue to him.

Tam's attitude shocked Ngoc and others, including foreigners, and made them feel sorry for the Korean, she said.

When she got to the counter and presented her passport, Ngoc told the officers to calm down and solve the Korean's case quickly, if his papers proved were valid. She also said that there was no need to be so cruel and rude toward him. 

Enraged by her "interference," Tam asked his colleague to keep her waiting and create difficulties, even accusing her of being related to the Korean man.

Despite her objections, another officer accused her of "disturbing security," Ngoc said.

Against her will, she was sent to the immigration department's office, where they disrespectfully ordered her to go upstairs to answer their questions and collect her passport.

Ngoc said having traveled to many foreign countries, she always saw immigration officers check visitors' papers very "politely" and address them as "sir" or "madam" with respect. It was only in Vietnam she saw immigration officials being rude and disrespectful, she said.

In response to Ngoc's complaint, Chuc said while making the public apology that Tam has been disciplined and transferred to another position.

He said Tam's inappropriate attitude and behavior was caused by the language barrier between him and the Korean man. He also explained that Tam was in a bad mood after having worked the whole day.

Chuc's apology is fine, but his explanation is not. It is unacceptable that immigration officers treat people badly either because of a language barrier or because they are tired.

In fact, it has for long been a problem with officers who work for state agencies dealing with administrative procedures. More often than not, they are unfriendly, disrespectful and unprofessional in how they deal with people.

They sometimes use thằng, con, mày Vietnamese terms for addressing others who are younger or inferior in a disrespectful way, even when the people are much older than them.

This is true even at places like airports and seaports where these officers are the ones who give foreign visitors their first impression of Vietnam.

One reason for the problem that I can think of is that it never occurs to the officers that they are public servants; that what they are doing is for the sake of the people. Instead, they see people as troublemakers and treat them accordingly.

Some may argue that respect is not really a big issue in the relationship between authorities and the public, because those in authority are supposed to lead and order people to act in compliance with the nation's laws.

However, in my opinion, without real respect, public servants can never see things from the public's perspective and work to serve the public, which is what they are supposed to do. If this does not happen, a country can never become strong.

Worse, if this continues, there is a very big chance that clashes erupt between authority and the public. When people show no respect to each other, they easily find fault and become hostile.

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