I have been living in Vietnam for twelve years now, and throughout my stay here, I have been a regular reader of Viet Nam News, later the Thanh Nien Daily and now Vietweek.
And every week, I see empty promises made by every conceivable government agency, and I repeatedly see the same complaints by Vietnamese, tourists and expats followed by assurances from all types of officials in all capacities to "crackdown" on crime and other "social evils."
In the same breath, however, the same officials whine about how it is so difficult for them to enforce the law: not enough people, not enough money, no expertise, lack of training, lack of time, and so on.
It appears, and from my conversations with many Vietnamese people, most locals are also dissatisfied with the efforts made to improve the country, but, for many, the fact remains that their lives may be better than a generation ago; they rationalize their discontent thus because they feel impotent in their power to effect change.
On the other hand, many in power are doing quite nicely at everyone else's expense. I don't think we can expect any change until there is a combination of both penalties and incentives for those abusing the system. Perhaps even more serious a problem is the fact that while these people exploit the country and its citizens, they don't believe they are doing anything wrong.
There are ample examples, from the top of society to the bottom, about unrelenting crime and corruption. One only needs to read the newspaper. From taxi drivers threatening foreign visitors to reckless greed at Vinashin and Vinalines. Both past and recent attempts to enforce a law mandating that government officials declare their wealth seem to have gotten nowhere. It is a mystery how officials can have such great wealth on very meager salaries.
A lack of transparency, integrity and honesty has led to massive corruption that has now shaken the entire economy. There are apparently too many people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
A once hopeful nation is declining in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of its own people. Numerous stories in the Western press have now tagged Vietnam as a has-been because of the apparent unwillingness to give its laws "teeth" with proper enforcement. Lame excuses will no longer work, and business interests are no longer willing to invest in a losing proposition. Government policies, transportation problems, as well as problems with customs, taxes, non-productivity, extortion and untrustworthy partners have all tainted Vietnam's once bright potential.
The entire country has been on notice from world agencies, economists, and local experts for years that positive change, primarily a reduction in corruption and increased competitiveness, is vital. Cheap labor can no longer sustain the economy. Inexperienced and incompetent managers, often given key positions based on "relationships," not ability, combined with a hierarchical, authoritative system of management, does little to improve productivity or profitability. Nor does it encourage young talent to join these organizations where their skills and knowledge are ignored. Again, this is not a system of merit, but one of nepotism.
On the social side, we now see vigilante groups cropping up around the country as the public has grown impatient with the lack of police protection. As anyone who lives here knows, the police often have other priorities. Need we mention the empty promises of "cracking down" on crime? A reader who wrote to Vietweek last Friday was on to something when he feared bribery would preclude crackdowns.
I am personally tired of hearing people in charge repeatedly say they are going to do this and that to deal with the problems and then repeatedly see nothing done. The people of Vietnam are well aware of what is happening and who is working with who to maintain a system of crime and corruption. Recent attacks on police may simply be an acting-out of their animosity towards a system that ignores them. The police are simply an easy target to lash out against.
Everyone knows the issues and everyone knows the solutions. What will the catalyst be to bring long overdue change?
By Roy Little
The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own
(The story can be found in the November 9th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)