Vietnam set to widen ban on drinking at work, but will it work?

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Skeptics say the prohibition could go the way of other unenforced and unfeasible laws issued earlier

Drinkers attend the "Hanoi Beer Festival" held in downtown Hanoi in 2011. Since last year, many provinces across Vietnam have enforced regulations that ban civil servants from drinking during lunch or working days but the jury is still out with skeptics saying they have to wait and see how long the ban will last and how much it will deliver.

The chief of the commune's Party Unit was sleeping on the desk. The commune mayor was also asleep, sitting in the chair. The room reeked of alcohol. 

They were woken up by an old woman who needed a document stamped. They shouted at her and she got out of the room to wait.

Nguyen Thanh Binh, chief of the Ha Tinh Province's Party Unit, happened to see the woman outside the office and hear  what happened to her. He entered the office and saw that the two commune leaders were indeed drunk during working hours. 

The incident happened one afternoon five years ago. It prompted Binh to have the province issue a ban on civil servants from drinking during lunch on working days. Also, they were no longer allowed to receive guests outside the office. Anyone violating the bans could be fired from the job.

Since last year, many other provinces across Vietnam have followed suit, enforcing the same ban. In January this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked all the 63 provinces in the country to enforce the ban on public officials drinking during working hours. Phuc had ordred a similar ban in March 2012, but it was not heeded, apparently.

Actually, the Vietnamese government had officially put a ban in place via a decree in 1996. But just like several other regulations that Vietnam has passed,  he law has not been enforced because it has lacked the implementation guidelines and personnel needed.

But in a country where Deputy PM Phuc has said 30 percent of around 2.8 million public servants do not bring "any efficiency to their jobs," the government is waking up to public frustration and showing some determination to spruce up its image, analysts say.

"There seems to be a campaign to improve the image of civil servants in Vietnam," said Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City police are trying to better the behavior of traffic police officers on duty by holding classes on how to deal with the public. In Hanoi, several measures have been taken to improve the public image of traffic cops, including assigning female officers to patrol congested streets during rush hour and reassigning pot-bellied policemen to desk jobs.

Elsewhere in the world, a drinking ban is not new. The UK, for example, has put in in place and fired officials breaching regulations. So has Costa Rica.

But in Vietnam's neighborhood, Singapore does not have such rules for civil servants except for military and police officials who should usually not drink alcohol in public when in uniform. However, there is a common understanding that staff should not drink so much that their work during the week is affected negatively. But this is an unstated understanding and not an explicit rule.

The Ministry of Justice is the latest government agency to enforce the ban on public servants from drinking during lunch, workdays, or even conferences host by the ministry.

Minister Ha Hung Cuong said no breaches have been spotted so far since the ban took effect late last month, and similar, positive feedback has come from every province that has enforced the prohibition.

But the jury is still out on the ban, with skeptics saying they have to wait and see how long the ban will last and how much it will deliver.

"I think these changes are more symbolic. They remind me of earlier regulations such as stopping civil servants from holding expensive funerals," a foreign diplomat told Vietweek on condition of anonymity.

A recent ban on throwing lavish wedding parties among Party members in capital Hanoi and another one that prohibited 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 met with vehement oppostion and never been enforced.

Analysts as well as government officials themselves described these bans as  "strange," "short-sighted," and "unrealistic".

They said the focus should be on educating people, not issuing regulations that would eventually be ignored anyway.

"Such regulations also make officials appear like irresponsible and untrustworthy individuals who need to be strictly controlled. With such an image, the public cannot trust these officials," the foreign diplomat said, in direct reference to the drinking ban.

Hoang Nhu Lam, who runs a ceramics business in the southern province of Binh Duong, was also not very impressed with the ban.

"Drinking during lunch between government officials and businesspeople has become "˜traditional etiquette'," Lam said.

"You just cannot do away with a pratice that has become an entrenched norm," he added.

Duong Huu Sum, chief of the local chapter of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh, where the drinking ban is in place, said almost 100 percent of his people have observed the ban since it was enforced last September.

But Sum agreed that only time would tell if the campaign would be a sucess, particularly in a region where drinking is widespread.

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A survey in 2011 by major Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings Co. found Vietnam among the top 25 beer-consuming nations in the world.

"You just cannot change that overnight," Sum said.

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