Gravy train speeds up in the twilight of officials' careers

By Lai Trong Tinh   October 14, 2019 | 04:35 pm PT
In Vietnam, corruption gets entrenched as state officials act to maximize their take towards the end of their careers and beyond.
Journalist Lai Trong Tinh

Lai Trong Tinh

A friend texted me recently, asking: "What do you think about the story of state officials in the 'twilight of their terms'?

She had reminded me of a phrase used by legislator Le Nhu Tien when he talked about how state officials take every opportunity for personal benefit just before they retire.

"Several state officials speed up their corruption rate in terms of both frequency and scale at the twilight of their terms, making a sprint to operate the last dredging boats," Tien said at a National Assembly (NA) meeting on November 17, 2015.

"Twilight of their terms" or the "last dredging boats," as Tien expressed them, can be seen from many different angles: signing a series of decisions to assign staff in new positions, rushing to promote staff to key positions and recruit new staff, approving a series of major projects that they would never be able to deploy within their terms, or taking any advantages they could to pocket as many as public assets as they could find, including houses and land plots, finding themselves tickets to join state-funded trips for the purposes of "studying and researching," and in fact spending most of the time traveling. 

That day, we journalists covering that NA meeting session were over the moon at hearing that imaginative description.

That day, so many articles were headlined with the phrase, "twilight of their term." The phrase was not just imaginative, in the context of a typical month-long NA meeting with too much content that’s boring, its uniqueness allowed reporters latch on to something they really wanted to convey to the public.

These days, when reminded of that story, nine out of ten people would definitely link the phrase to the case in which Nguyen Bac Son, former Minister of Information and Communications (2011-2016), was identified as the mastermind of a private TV firm’s acquisition by state-owned telecom giant MobiFone, earning him $3 million in bribes.

Son was paid the sum by Pham Nhat Vu, chairman of Audio Visual Global JSC (AVG), the Ministry of Public Security has said. The ministry has recommended that Son is charged with accepting bribes and violating regulations on the management and use of public capital leading to serious consequences.

The recommendation was made after the ministry completed investigations into management and use of public capital involving MobiFone, Vietnam’s third largest telecom firm, and certain divisions of the information ministry. The case made headlines in 2016, when Son was about to end his term.

MobiFones headquarters in Cau Giay District, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.

MobiFone's headquarters in Cau Giay District, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.

As a journalist, I do not find such cases rare, but every time they happen, they always catch the imagination of the public, and so I ask myself, can I change my mind and have a more positive look on this?

And then a beautiful story about the retirement of a doctor crosses my mind. That doctor also ended his term around this time two years ago, but he did so with his reputation high. 

Nguyen Anh Tri, head of the National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion in Hanoi, was retiring after 15 years at the helm. He was known to be loving, devoted and thoughtful.

The last day he was in office, staff and even patients waited in line just to get a chance to say goodbye to him in person, and many of them were in tears. Many hugs and good wishes were sent to Tri, who made headlines in local newspapers, with some even saying it was "a touching farewell that could be the most unique in the history of the medical sector."

As for Tri, all he had to say was: "I’m a public worker. I retire when it's time to retire."

However, as beautiful this story is, it seems insufficient to balance the depressing state of state officials capturing public attention for corruption scandals.

The fleet of "dredging boats" moving in the shadow of "twilight of theirs term" has become a haunting specter.

And aside from direct corruption, signing a series of decisions to assign unqualified staff to key positions to make sure they will have allies is one of many solutions state officials have used to extend power and benefits even after they have retired.

As a result, an administrative system which is supposed to "serve the people" has turned into one where officials are focused on "transactions" to maximize the benefits they can derive, by hook or by crook.

The public, therefore, loses trust day by day.

I cannot identify the precise moment when state officials that are supposed to be "civil servants" have become "parents of the society" instead, by developing an administrative system that gives its members, regardless of their positions, opportunities to get something for themselves.

"Without money, we'd eat soil for food" seems to be the operative principle.

"In the past, corruption involving several hundreds of millions dong [tens of thousands of dollars] was already shocking, but these days, the amount of money in busted bribery cases has risen to tens or even hundreds of billions dong. Take land issues alone, it only needs a little change in planning or granting licenses, and one can pocket hundreds of billions of dong."

These words came from a man who used to work as head of the Government Inspectorate of Vietnam. He said that back in 2005, when he was the deputy head of the Central Inspection Commission of the Communist Party of Vietnam. What happened next was that he was found to have signed a series of documents to assign unqualified staff to key positions just before he retired in 2014.

This is how corruption has permeated our society, and this can be seen by everyone, from those sitting at the top of the administrative system to a normal citizen, from a man who is now working at a farm somewhere in the rural mountainous region to a woman selling drinks on the sidewalks of our cities.

After stepping out of the ruins of war, the face of Vietnamese society has indeed changed a lot. The material life of its people has improved a lot, but people's trust in the system has also eroded seriously. Contributing significantly to the erosion are actions of state officials dredging boats in the twilight of one's term. It looks like Vietnam is about to enter yet another twilight of its term.

Boosting transparency, enhancing rules to check power and using more and more independent monitoring tools are not new suggestions but they are still very necessary because we cannot keep relying merely on the "self-awareness of each individual."

It is only when all processes are made transparent under the supervision of the public that we can actually have an administrative system that works to serve the people and not a bureaucratic system in which the guiding principle is "to each his own."

*Lai Trong Tinh is a journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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