Personal connections can get things done, but they may become society's undoing

March 20, 2022 | 06:00 pm PT
Saadi Salama Diplomat
A modern society should have no place for favoritism, yet it is sentimentally hard-wired into Vietnamese culture, it seems.

I’m probably one of the few foreigners here who rarely visits private and international hospitals, opting for central and frontline hospitals in Hanoi instead. I know their doctors’ skills are sound and their experience vast.

I went to have my joints checked recently. I called a Vietnamese friend and asked if he knew any good doctor from the frontline hospitals here. Not only did he recommend one, he also took the liberty of scheduling an appointment for me. Thanks to my "connections" and the fact that I’m an ambassador, I was cared for like a king.

When I got to the hospital, I saw doctors always asking patients where their family members were. Apparently family members are responsible for running around to pay fees, collecting test results and taking care of the sick. Their most important mission however is to "have good relations" with doctors so their family members can "receive more attention" during diagnosis and treatment.

This is in stark contrast to what I’ve seen in hospitals outside Vietnam. Family members are usually the first ones to walk out once a patient’s been hospitalized, and can only make visits during certain time frames. But in Vietnam, not having someone to support you during a trip to the hospital is a liability. And this holds true in many fields, not just healthcare.

I have been an ambassador in many places around the world. Nowhere have I seen how much a person’s connections can make a difference in getting things done quickly or slowly, except in Vietnam.

So why is that? There are many answers to this, but one of them is the fact that Vietnamese culture has always placed more weight on "sentiments" and "relationships" when it comes to social interactions.

There are workplaces here that pick new hires based on connections. Senior employees who have spent decades at their jobs are considered "veterans", even able to bring in their relatives to take their places once they retire.

But such an approach to recruitment also means that unqualified workers may slip through the cracks and enter the workforce, despite not having the capabilities to handle the job in the first place.

In modern society, this is an ineffectual, outdated approach; and the government knows this. Vietnam has always stressed its intention to build a society governed by laws, not personal connections. But how can we make this a reality, especially as sentimental bias has been hard-wired into Vietnamese ways of thinking?

I believe the most important factor is education.

It is natural to use anything at one’s disposal to achieve one’s goals, and personal connections are no exception. But in developed countries, there are training courses in companies and institutions to instill in their personnel a code of ethics, which leaves no room for personal relations and favoritism.

This is something that Vietnamese workplaces fail to educate their employees about. Many people consider it normal to use personal connections to gain favors and advantages and it is also a favored "shortcut" to get out of tough situations.

Even if some individuals may benefit from their personal connections, the same cannot be said for an entire society. A society cannot move forward using "shortcuts"; it must do so through legal principles, rationality and equality.

Education, along with governance, must be the guideposts for Vietnam to build a solid legal system and effectively operate a society. I believe that as Vietnam continues to develop, its citizens can learn to let go of outdated ways of thinking, no matter how deep-seated they might be.

*Saadi Salama is the Palestinian Ambassador to Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

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