My haunted mind on greed and corruption, even when life improves

March 18, 2016 | 01:26 am PT
A scene in which I saw scores of people in Hanoi looting household goods from a truck 30 years ago made me doubt the honesty and kindness that I thought existed.

It was a summer day in 1986 in Hanoi. I was riding my bike on a bumpy road, which is now called Lang Ha Street. The National Cinema Center, at that time, was just a dirty landfill.

On that road, many trucks often carried household furniture and equipment to a customs warehouse which was located there. One of the trucks passed by me, swaying every time it ran into a pothole. Suddenly the rear doors came opened and some crates fell onto the road and broke into pieces. Irons, fans, stew pots, aluminum pots were scattered here and there. Those things, at that time, were very scarce. They were sent from overseas students or employees in the Soviet Union who had saved their hard-earned money to purchase these for their families.

Seeing all these goods in front of their eyes, dozens of pedestrians and bicycle riders rushed to plunder everything, even though the driver screamed and begged them not to. But the crowd was too worked up. As for me, I was so shocked that I just stood still, watching people gather their booty. They stole almost everything, only some bulky items like fridges were left behind.

A thrill ran through my body. On their faces, I hardly saw any sign of shame or any sense of guilt, just fulfillment and excitement. At that moment, moral lessons that I was taught at school crumbled. Is that the simple, honest, kind Vietnamese people I thought I knew? The scenario has haunted me for 30 years.

Some blame these sorts of actions on the poverty of the country at that time. Then how do you explain the time many locals looted beer on a bridge in 2011 or another similar plunder of beer in the southern city of Bien Hoa in 2013? Is it because they are so poor that they cannot afford some bottles of beer?

Looking at the Bien Hoa incident (it was recorded by traffic cameras), I realized it is, to some extent, the same as Hanoi in 1986. Most passers-by and locals who lived along the street hurried to take as much beer as possible.

In most house fires or market fires, looting has become the norm. Time has passed, people have become better off. Their greed, however, remains unchanged.

We detest corrupt officials. Corruption, in fact, is another version of looting, just on a larger scale and with more sophisticated strategies. Should a normal person loot assets from their neighbors, then they will possibly commit corruption when they have the opportunity to become a state official. In fact, it is such a challenge for our civil servants to maintain their integrity that regard for them is evaporating on a large scale.

To prevent corruption, we can introduce a framework of controls as Singapore and many other countries have done.

But what about the other kind of stealing that goes on in society? Those who run red lights to steal more space on the road, who cut in line when purchasing anything to steel the time of others, or who sell unclean food to steal the health of their customers.

What should we do to retain our core values that are fading away?

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