Disaffected youth?

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Outpouring of frustration and disappointment among youth indicates a need to strengthen pride and confidence in the nation, experts say

Young people at an enlistment ceremony in
Ho Chi Minh City last September. A national enlistment program this year saw thousands of youth voluntarily join the army. Experts say the sense of national pride among the youth should be sustained and nurtured by the government.

They were upset, disappointed, and ashamed.

Thousands of netizens expressed these feelings after the story of a Hong Kong couple being robbed and left penniless in Ho Chi Minh City was posted on the Internet by a blogger.

"If such robbery cases continue, I would never dare to admit that I'm Vietnamese whenever traveling abroad. I don't think I'm speaking only for myself," one netizen wrote.

"I just feel too ashamed for the Vietnamese people as a whole. I'm not sure if I would be willing to talk to any foreign friend after this case," another commented.

There were a few who expressed some doubt about the story, but the overwhelming majority saw no need to question its credibility, and vented their feelings in no uncertain fashion.

The negative comments have raised a debate in adult circles. Were the Vietnamese youth, who comprise a majority of the netizens, losing a sense of national pride and history or was this a hopeful sign that they cared, amidst all the apparent disengagement?

Tran Thien Chuong, a 12th grader in HCMC, said he believed the story without hesitation.

"That's just the way of life in Vietnam," Chuong, who had not commented online on the entry, said. "Vietnam's tourism has been infamous enough and this case is just another vivid example adding to a long list."

Experts say the adverse comments garnered by the blog entry about the Hong Kong tourists' fate are more a knee-jerk reaction of the youth.

"The reaction of the youth in this case is spontaneous as usual and it is because they are not mature and experienced enough," said Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, a Hanoi-based sociologist who directs the nonprofit Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives.

"On the bright side, I take it as a sign that the Vietnamese youth still care about the image of their country," Oanh said. "The older generations in Vietnam often tell me there's no point in complaining or criticizing as it doesn't change anything; that may be true, but if you don't do or say anything then you definitely won't change anything.

"So when something happens that appears to show Vietnam in a bad light, for instance tourists being robbed, they are shocked and want to talk about it and spread the word in the hope that it won't happen again."

Experts were also agreed that the government plays an important role in shoring up youth confidence and pride in the country.

Van Duong, a 26-year-old IT graduate who studied in the US for five years, said in the case of the Hong Kong couple, she might not have as harsh a judgment on it as the netizens, but was still very "troubled" by it.

"This case is just a sad reminder for me about the bad image of Vietnamese cops," Duong said. "I think the big problem for tourists is not the robberies themselves but is the response (or lack thereof) by the police. Before going to study abroad, I had been told quite a few stories about what happens when tourists report a crime to the police they are met with indifference and worse.

"Now I'm back and not convinced that a sea change has happened."

According to the World Bank's Vietnam Development Report 2006, companies rank the traffic police as the most corrupt institution in Vietnam, with many respondents stating that corruption is widespread and that bribes or gifts are typically both expected and required.

Four years later, Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer confirmed that the Vietnamese police are considered to be the most corrupt public institution in the country.

Experts say Vietnam has to do more to engage and motivate the Vietnamese youth, given that the country has entered a period known as the "demographic bonus", recording the highest proportion of young people entering the workforce in the country's history. Today, young people between 10 to 24 years represent almost a third of the total population of around 88 million people, the UN said. Two-thirds of the country's population was born after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

David Marr, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian National University, is in the middle of selecting illustrations and preparing maps for his upcoming book on the 1945-46 period in Vietnam.

"To be thanh nien (youth) at that time was an honor and tremendous opportunity. But that was a very unusual time," Marr said.

"Young educated men and women today have considerable advantages when it comes to surfing the net and exchanging ideas at a distance. But I'm not sure that helps them figure out where they belong or what they should be doing, beyond finding employment, getting married and having children."

The Survey Assessment on Vietnamese Youth, commissioned by the General Statistics Office and released last year, has confirmed that in general, youth in Vietnam have high expectations about future and feel self-confident. They also appreciate their family values and their roles in the society, the survey found.

Meanwhile, other studies have indicated the lack of public citizenship among the youth.

Vietnam's former party chief Nong Duc Manh once publicly commented on the growing number of students neglecting their studies, lacking political consciousness and indulging in excessive materialism.

But Oanh, the Hanoi-based sociologist, said she has never thought that the Vietnamese youth nowadays lack national pride.

"Their pride and confidence in the country is always there, though it could be wobbling at times," Oanh said. "[But] once they see the national situation in Vietnam improving and attaining great results, they will definitely be celebrating for Vietnam."

Mere slogans will not do

Analysts say it is important now that, to shore up youth confidence, the Vietnamese government as a whole maintains a good reputation of competency, honesty, integrity, and transparency.

"When that happens, more of them [the youth] would tend to believe the government than others," David Koh, another Vietnam analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said. "It's a matter of trust, a political capital that any regime must work to have more of.

"The way to motivate youth is not through slogans and banners, not in telling them only the good stories," Koh said. "For newspapers and media to only feed them good news is tantamount to feeding them lies."

Oanh urged adults in general and Vietnamese leaders in particular to heed the legitimate concerns of the youth and try to accommodate them as much as they can.

"We have to show them what Vietnam has and could have for them to take pride in," Oanh said.

Duong, the US-trained graduate, concurred. "I think the youth's national pride would never diminish as we are always proud of every remarkable achievement of the country.

"But the key question is: Is the government really listening to us and caring about our interests?"

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