Fine line between 'thank yous' and bribes

August 7, 2023 | 05:09 pm PT
Nguyen Khac Giang Researcher
A few years ago I helped a foreign journalist interview a business executive in Vietnam.

After we finished the executive offered a small gift as a token of gratitude to the journalist.

It was a silk handkerchief. Though the gift had little monetary value, the journalist firmly refused to accept it. He said accepting a gift, regardless of its value, would create a conflict of interest that could undermine the value of the article.

"We are not family, not acquaintances, not friends. Then why do they give me a gift?" the journalist asked me on our way back.

I recall the recent defense by public officials who were tried for corruption related to the Covid-19 repatriation flights.

The defendants claimed to have merely received some "gratitude money" after the business transactions, which occurred "outside of the business environment," went smoothly and was "nothing unusual."

Their gifts were merely worth billions of dong (millions of USD). These claims were rightly dismissed by the court as Vietnam’s anti-corruption laws clearly dictate that "public officials cannot accept gifts, directly or indirectly, in any way from parties related to their official duties."

The rescue flights issue, no matter how the accused try to spin it, is a clear example of graft.

Admittedly, in practice, issues tend to be more opaque with "blacks" and "whites" not clearly defined. It is quite hard to distinguish between honest tokens of gratitude and implicit bribes, especially in cultures that value personal relationships like Vietnam's.

In Vietnamese offices, rarely will people consider a bottle of alcohol after a long business trip or before the Lunar New Year condemnable behavior. In a way, Vietnamese society even encourages that. People who do not do so might even be considered bad-mannered, a professional death sentence for aspiring office workers.

Outside offices, businesspeople dealing with government bureaucratic protocols usually know to express their "gratitude." Sometimes the gifts are honestly intended, but in most cases, business executives, by giving gifts, attempt to influence policymakers into making favorable decisions.

Sometimes it could be money merely to facilitate something, and the public official would not have to do anything that can technically be considered illegal, and just expedite some task.

But in many cases, the public official could be the final arbiter of whether a business succeeds or fails.

Singaporean-American sociologist Yuen Yuen Yang categorizes corruption into minor corruption, major corruption, facilitation payment (corporates/individuals paying money to expedite work), and relationship money (corporates paying money to build relationships with public officers).

To eradicate the first two is hard enough, but to eradicate the latter is even harder. How to establish a direct relationship between a corporate frequently visiting a senior government official and the frequency with which the person wins large government contracts?

How can we distinguish between innocent, real tokens of gratitude and disguised bribes?

Therefore, to prevent conflicts of interest, we should put an end to the "gratitude" culture inside and outside of the government structure.

This could be done by setting a limit on the value of gifts a public official can receive. In the U.S., public officials cannot accept gifts worth more than US$20 from anyone. The equivalent limit in Vietnam should be less than VND24,000 ($1).

Therefore, it is not uncommon for people in the U.S. and many other countries to open a gift they receive to make sure they are allowed to accept it.

More than just regulations and strong punishments are needed to eradicate facilitation and relationship monies.

Laws and regulations would be meaningless without a proper monitoring system, which requires the active participation of the citizens. Public officers in countries with high transparency levels refuse to accept monetary gifts not only because they are afraid of imprisonment, but also because of the intense and constant pressures from the public and voters. Even when public officers are sly enough to bypass all the legal chains, they are prone to punishments from the social contracts they entered with the public.

Finally, building up a government structure with efficiency and transparency needs to start with ensuring the livelihood for the public officers. If they are ensured a stable wellbeing, the public officers would unlikely to risk them all for small monetary gifts.

To public servants, gratitude can only be sincere without any material weight.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is a researcher in policy making and government transparency. He is a PhD candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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