A drop of water that explains the ocean of corruption

By Cam Ha   June 8, 2020 | 06:16 pm PT
It was the opening day of my coffee shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and our first guests were unexpected and uninvited.
Cam Ha

Cam Ha

One of them was a tax official and the other a local police officer.

After the usual small talk pleasantries, the tax official kindly cited chapters of complicated rules and equally kindly offered to assist us to navigate them.

The police officer, meanwhile, asked for some donations to "support night-shift officers and fund our travels."

I was not flustered. I was experienced. I explained that we’d done everything by the book and politely declined the offer and the request.

The disappointed officers took their leave without much ado.

The year was 2010. And as I noted earlier, I was "experienced."

A few months earlier that year, during an inspection of another business of ours, the district’s tax officers threw their weight around in obviously unprofessional manner. For an 8 a.m. appointment, they turned up casually at around 11 a.m., just in time to have lunch, which was paid for by us.

Throughout that meeting and several later meetings, the leading tax inspector denied the validity of many of our essential costs, including marketing and reinvestment costs. She said our inclusion of those costs in the report would constitute tax evasion, which would be subject to a fine of dozens of millions of dong, a huge amount of money for a startup like us. Of course, she also offered to solve the problem for us.

The threat of being fined worried us greatly, even though we knew we'd done nothing wrong. We decided to call their bluff.

On the last day of the inspection, my husband asked to talk with the head of the inspectors’ team. He expressed anger with their unprofessional attitude and told them that all of their requests for bribes had been recorded.

The ruse worked. The officer promised to follow regulations and not impose unreasonable fines.

It’s normal

I don’t have to stress that our gamble was not how things normally work in the country.

As Vietnam reports progress on various indices in various sectors, there is one index placement that we have never been proud of – the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), initiated by the Transparency International, which bases its assessment on the opinions of business executives and experts.

In 1997, when Vietnam was first included in the CPI evaluation, we stood in 43rd position among 52 nations.

After years, despite having more nations included in the CPI listing, Vietnam languished near the bottom. Two decades after it made its debut, the country was said to have reached a "stable level of corruption," a papering over of an underlying problem we cannot afford to keep sweeping under the carpet.

For over 10 years that I have been following conferences on the use of Official Development Assistance (ODA), corruption and public sector inefficiency have always been hot topics.

It was Vu Khoan, former Vietnamese Vice President, who used the term "petty corruption" in the early years of the new millennium. He meant the bribes that had to be paid to public workers, from customs officials to traffic police, to get anything done in Vietnam – the" envelope culture".

However, we need to realize that this petty corruption is not petty at all. It is the brick used to build the edifice that shocks and awes us from time to time.

In early 2006, the ODA embezzlement in the PMU18 project of the Vietnamese Ministry of Transport was uncovered, which shocked the country, not to mention the world. "Public-sector looting for football gambling worth up to $1.8 million is abnormal anywhere in the globe," commented former Word Bank director Klaus Rohland.

The following years witnessed an exponential increase in the scale, complexity and blatancy of corruption, including embezzlement, that was exposed in Vietnam’s public sector. This was happening despite Vietnam being an early signatory to the United Nations Convention against Corruption. The ratification of this convention included strengthening the anti-corruption law, amending the law on denunciation and implementing the law on access to information.

We have seen the corruption crackdown net big names and big cases in recent years. However, we should not ignore that what makes this possible is our tolerance for and acceptance of "petty corruption."

In countries that rank high on the CPI index, there is zero-tolerance for all forms of corruption. These countries understand the root cause of the devastating consequences of corruption is at the lower level.

It goes on to erode our national resources, weaken our international competitiveness, and most importantly, threatens the legitimacy of governance.

Stopping petty corruption ought to be made one of Vietnam’s highest priorities.

Recently, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc demanded a thorough investigation of the Japanese Tenma Corporation being accused of bribing Vietnamese officials. Finance Minister Dinh Tien Dung admitted ruefully that bribery is not rare in the customs sector despite the stepped up efforts to fight corruption.

To root out corruption, we need to start at the grassroots level and here, every stakeholder has to pitch in – news agencies, civil society and the public at large.

And it starts with the recognition that petty corruption is not petty, it is a pretty massive problem.

*Cam Ha is an entrepreneur and a communication specialist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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