Economist calls for end to negative sentiment against Vietnam's super-rich

By Nguyen Hoai   March 13, 2018 | 02:41 am PT
Economist calls for end to negative sentiment against Vietnam's super-rich
Economist Vo Tri Thanh in a file photo by VnExpress
'The presence of affluent people is necessary for a society to develop.'

Vo Tri Thanh, deputy director of the Central Institute for Economic Management, shares his perspectives on how Vietnamese people view the affluent in an interview with VnExpress.

He also talks about how these views can change for the better as Vietnam ushers in a new era, and how the country’s cream of the crop can lend a helping hand for the greater good.

Forbes recently announced its 2018 World’s Billionaires list, and there are two Vietnamese newcomers on it. What do you think about Vietnam's growing number of billionaires in recent years?

I believe there are way more than four billionaires in Vietnam as reported; the rest just doesn’t want to be noticed. As a society advances, the emergence of its upper-class is not something abnormal. The same goes for Vietnam, a developing country with rising numbers of billionaires and tycoons, along with rapid economic growth, is certainly a good sign. This shows that the nation is developing and prospering.

The increasing emergence of rich people in Vietnam is a positive sign, but the gap between the rich and the poor is still there. What’s your opinion on this matter?

The presence of affluent people is necessary for a society to develop, or else it’s going be very difficult to do so. On the contrary, the wealthy also need to understand that if society should become too “polarized”, there will be less room for them to grow. The rising number of rich people must accompany the closing of such gaps in society, and the idea of “one can only get rich through something extraordinary” has to go.

First, the appearance of the wealthy goes hand in hand with inequality between the rich and the poor. In my opinion, inequality is a double-edged sword. This isn’t about inequality itself, but about the cause behind it. It’s fine for billionaires and entrepreneurs to use information and opportunities to expand their businesses; but once they exploit those things to gain advantages and privileges, or even resort to corruption, then we have a problem.

The second thing we need to talk about is the rich’s contribution to society. Wealth and prosperity cannot be sustained if the majority of the population is poor. We welcome the emergence of new tycoons and billionaires in Vietnam, and we also need to encourage them to give more to society, to the development and prosperity of a nation. It would be a boon to the general population if the rich’s wealth, aside from being used for personal gains, could be contributed back into society and shared with the less-fortunate. So, in addition to pouring resources into investments and consumption, the affluent can contribute to the community through, for example, investing in non-profit causes in the fields of education, medicine or agriculture.

What do you think about people who say it’s time for society to look at the upper-class in a less scrutinizing, cynical way?

I remember how a former official used to say that society tends to think of the rich as people with power. That notion wasn’t created out of thin air; everything has a reason.

Besides the wealth involved, the wage gap and the inequality I have mentioned above, it is the very lifestyles of some rich people that has earned them less-than-favorable, if not downright antagonistic, gazes from society. However, I do believe it is time for society to be more forgiving.

What can we do to facilitate more contributions from Vietnamese tycoons and billionaires for the greater good?

After more than 30 years, Vietnam’s entrepreneurship is now in its fifth generation thanks to government reforms which treat private businesses as essential, indispensable cogs on the gears of economic and societal development. In the last few decades, Vietnam has had several decent businesses, but for them to be genuinely great and high-profile, I don’t think we’re there yet.

When it comes to whether a business is “big” or not, the measurements of revenue, workforce or financial contribution might be important, but they’re not enough. For me, a “big business" needs to have a global brand, innovative technologies and a managable distribution network. These are the principal criteria to determine if a business is "mature” or “big”, or if it’s still in a state of “puberty”.

And so, Vietnamese businesses need three things. First is how to manufacture purchase orders. Next is to be legally supported. And finally connections between creative businesses at a time when such connections are still weak.

As I keep saying, having a lot of money is great, but it does not guarantee success. Private businesses in Vietnam already have their names and roles, but the waters are still pretty much uncharted.

From an institutional perspective, despite some basic changes having been made, ministries and governmental entities need to work harder to produce policies in line with international commitments and to make themselves more competitive.

What do you think about billionaires who say they don’t want the title and that it was never one of their priorities?

I think those statements are genuine and need to be appreciated. Entrepreneurs and tycoons make money for themselves, yes, but they also want to contribute to society and to their countries. That is why there are successful billionaires investing in non-profits involving education, medicine or agriculture... These businesses may not produce great streams of revenue - some actually lose money instead - but entrepreneurs still run them because they want to do something for society and for their countries.

In essence, what matters here is authenticity. Looking at the circle of Vietnamese entrepreneurs, tycoons and billionaires, each person can have their own opinions and perspectives, but it is through how they live that they present themselves to the world, that they earn respect. This is not a simple math problem and, of course, there’s still so much to do.

[Video by Nhung Nguyen]

The number of billionaires in Vietnam has doubled from last year to four on Forbes' recently released 2018 list of the world's richest people. The new additions are Tran Ba Duong and Tran Dinh Long, both chairmen in the steel and automotive industries.

The Central Institute for Economic Management (CIEM) was established in 1977 to assist the Party Central Committee and the Government with economic management and research in accordance with the Resolution of the Fourth National Party Congress. From 2008 to 2013, the institute has presided over the formulation of more than 100 proposals, reports and draft legal documents submitted to the Ministry of Finance, the government and the Prime Minister.

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