Laws that shoot themselves in the foot

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Unfinished villas are pictured at a development project on the outskirts of Hanoi last September. A government decree on funeral restrictions, which has een called 'unrealistic', has prompted analysts to note that there have been an increasing number of unfeasible regulations drafted in thenameof fighting government waste and corruption.

A ban on glass windows on coffins, a limit on the number of wreaths placed at an official's funeral"¦ what's next?

One popular blogger wisecracked: a directive that allows government workers to yawn only once during their eight-hour shift; or one that forces them to wash their hands after using the toilet.

The recent legal document that was the butt of scorn and criticism prohibits civil servants, politicians, Party officials, state-owned enterprise employees and government workers from commissioning glass faceplate in coffins which would enable mourners to see the dead for the last time. It also caps the number of wreaths at officials' funerals to between five and 30 and prohibits the customary burning of the joss papers.

Proponents of this decree and an earlier ban on throwing lavish wedding parties among Party members in capital Hanoi say the aim of such laws is to contain squandering by government officials that has chipped away at public confidence.

But analysts as well as government officials themselves have called the funeral restrictions "strange," "short-sighted," and "unrealistic."

"I don't think that such regulations would play any major role in restoring public confidence in the government," a foreign diplomat told Vietweek on condition of anonymity.

 "If the government had really wanted to send a strong signal of its determination to drive out corruption, regulations that severely punished officials who asked for bribes and better protected whistleblowers would have been more appropriate," the diplomat said.

In Vietnam, extravagant funerals and lavish wedding parties are often seen as fertile ground for corrupt officials to receive gifts and cash. Media reports have covered many such occasions where the guest list went up to thousands of people.

Experts have called for stronger and bolder efforts to clarify income making opportunities for public sector jobs, beyond what is covered by the official salaries and regulated allowances.

"There are many"¦ informal sources of income for public officials, in addition to the official salary. [This] is a fertile ground for corruption," said Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam.

However, banning ostentatious funerals or wedding parties would only stop the officials from flaunting the wealth they have accumulated through corruption, not deal with the act of corruption itself, analysts say.

"Funerals are also very personal events and it does not seem right for the government to regulate how people should mourn for their loved ones," said Duong Trung Quoc, a prominent lawmaker and historian.

"The ban [on glass-topped coffin] is therefore nothing but an absurd document," Quoc told Vietweek.

The new decree has prompted analysts to note that there have been an increasing number of unfeasible regulations drafted in the name of fighting government waste and corruption.

In another controversial move in October 2011, Transport Minister Dinh La Thang banned his ministry officials from playing golf, blaming their weak performance on them spending too much time on the expensive, elitist game. Thang came under heavy criticism for the ban, which has never been enforced since.

The government has also issued other decrees barring bureaucrats from drinking beer during lunch time or receiving gifts for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday. Traffic cops are also allowed to carry only a certain amount of money while on duty.

But these laws have been virtually impossible to implement given the lack of mechanisms and personnel to do so, analysts say. Those who draft such regulations maintain that the laws are needed to check the worsening behavior and conduct of civil servants.

The nation's top echelons have repeatedly warned about the "decay of political ideology and morality" among Party members, saying the "lifestyle of a group of Party members and officials" is holding the country back on its development path.

But the drafting of such impractical regulations in such a context only underlines how ineffectual the efforts to fight corruption have been.

"Yes, morality is indeed eroding among Party members but Vietnam needs better legal tools to tackle the crux of the problems, not such ridiculous laws," Quoc said, referring to the ban on glass-topped coffins.

An editorial that appeared Wednesday (January 9) in the Saigon Tiep Thi (Saigon marketing) newspaper said: "If such regulations are drafted only to be exposed as impossible to enforce, they would end up becoming a laughing stock.

"But would the people be able to continue laughing like this? If such unworkable laws continue to be conceived, one day the laughter would turn into mass crying."

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