High hopes as two Vietnam young ministers nominated as deputy PMs

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Both are foreign educated and rose from the bureaucratic rather than Party system, and bring promise of professionalism and competence


Vu Duc Dam (L), minister and chairman of the Government Office, and Pham Binh Minh, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Analysts are hopeful that the likely parliamentary approval of the appointments of Dam and Minh, both foreign-trained and familiar young faces in the West, will usher in a more professional administrative service in Vietnam. Photo by Ngoc Thang

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, is set to vote on the nominations of two deputy prime ministers both foreign-trained and familiar to the diplomatic and business communities as the government focuses on international economic integration to resuscitate the sagging economy.

Analysts are hopeful that the likely parliamentary approval of the appointments of Vu Duc Dam, minister and chairman of the Government Office, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh will usher in a more professional administrative service in Vietnam.

"The appointments are valued by the international community," a foreign diplomat told Vietweek on condition of anonymity.

"Both Dam and Minh are bureaucrat types, rather than Party apparatchiks... This suggests that the Vietnamese government will be imbued with more professional expertise and this should help push Vietnam's development and integration strategies," she said.


Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's nominations of Dam and Minh and his removal of incumbent Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, who took on the presidency of the Vietnam Fatherland Front last September, comes as part of the biannual house session that opened October 21 and will close on November 30.

If Dam and Minh get the house sanction and Nhan gives up his post, Vietnam will have five deputy prime ministers. Three of them were educated in the West Hoang Trung Hai in Ireland, Dam in Belgium and Minh in the US and are all aged less than 54, considered young enough in Vietnam's political apparatus to serve for a decade in high-office following the next Party congress if it is held in early 2016.

"I also think we will begin to see more and more of such appointments in the future as there are many promising and more cosmopolitan younger officials, who are moving up the ranks in the government and state," the diplomat said.

High profiles

50-year-old Vu Duc Dam, a Belgian-trained technocrat, was the youngest minister in the cabinet when he got elected as minister and chairman of the Government Office in 2011. He has been since the de facto spokesman for the government, hosting monthly press briefings where he fielded questions on the country's bread-and-butter policies.

He used to be a secretary and then assistant to the late prime minister Vo Van Kiet. He moved up rather rapidly in the hierarchy and took charge of a wide range of postings ranging from deputy minister of posts and telecommunications to leader of Bac Ninh and Quang Ninh provinces.

He was credited with improving the IT sector and being part of significant developments in the country such as launching the Internet nationwide and licensing US companies Intel, Foxcom or Microsoft to invest here.

"Dam is exceptionally well qualified in telecommunications and related technology," Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Vietweek.

Thanks to his IT savvy, while being leader of Quang Ninh Province, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, from 2008 to 2010, he became the first provincial leader to organize a teleconference with local officials.

Of leaders in 64 provinces and cities, Dam called himself one "with the most leisure time".

"I still have time to play soccer in the afternoon, and learn how to dance or sing or interact with my friends in the evening," he once told the media.

Pham Binh Minh, 54, is the son of Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's former deputy prime minister and foreign minister who died in 2006.

Unlike Dam, who has been through different postings, Minh underwent diplomatic training in the late 1970s and has been a diplomat ever since.

He is a familiar face for the west after being posted to the UK in the 1980s and the UN and the US more than a decade ago.

Minh was the first Vietnamese cohort to study in the US under a Fulbright scholarship. In 1994, he received a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, one of the leading international relations programs in the US.

"He was smart and hard working, eager to take advantage of coursework unavailable in Vietnam," Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst who was Minh's classmate at the time, told Vietweek.

"I think Minh was inherently more cautious than his colleagues because of the weight of his father and that he was clearly being groomed for big things," Abuza, who said he knew Minh "fairly well," said.

In an interview in 2006, Minh acknowledged that his father, considered instrumental to the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the US in 1995, had "largely influenced" his working style.

Two months after taking office as foreign minister in July 2011, Minh toured the US and interacted with an American audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. At the question-and-answer session, he called the normalization of the two former foes a "dream [that] came true."

"We very much depend on export. And that's why we depend on the market outside," Minh told the audience.

"If the demand [goes] down, like in the [US] if you don't spend your money on consumption, that's hard for us.

"We welcome all kind of investment in Vietnam. There is no distinction between the state-owned enterprises [and] the foreign"¦ companies."

"˜Against an entrenched system'

If elected, Minh will serve as both deputy prime minister and foreign minister like his predecessor Pham Gia Khiem. It is not clear yet if Dam will have to give up his current portfolio.

The lawmakers are set to vote on the nominations on Wednesday with the outcome to be announced the same day.

90 percent of National Assembly deputies are Communist Party members. In Vietnam, it is the Party Central Committee a powerful grouping of 175 senior Party members and its decision-making body Politburo, that have the final say in the appointment or dismissal of officials of the rank of deputy minister and above.

Before the prime minister brings his personnel recommendations to the National Assembly table, the Party Central Committee must sign off on them.

The appointments came amidst a backdrop of public unhappiness with an economic slump that has continued to punish average people and has pushed hundreds of thousands of companies across the country out of business and into bankruptcy.

Vietnam's economy, once seen as a rising tiger in the region, recorded an economic growth rate of 5.03 percent last year, the lowest in 13 years.

Last April, the Politburo adopted a resolution on international integration, highlighting the role of the major powers and key multilateral institutions. A month later, the Party Central Committee for the first time since its national congress in 2011 started to debate the planning and grooming of key personnel until 2021.

Analysts say the installment of the younger generation of leaders like Dam and Minh is clearly having an impact as they are cognizant of the challenges Vietnam faces in the global marketplace.

"Many of the challenges, such as reform of the banking sector and state-owned enterprises will rest on the political will of the Politburo to ensure that these policies are carried out effectively," Thayer said.

"I do expect better advice to flow to the prime minister and a more sophisticated presentation of Vietnam's external policies."

But the analysts say they are not expecting any miracles or radical changes following the appointments of several individuals, no matter how high profile they are.

"Dam and Minh are only two men and they will be going up against an entrenched system," the diplomat said. "Change will therefore still be slow."

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