We need to fight corruption at a cultural level

July 24, 2022 | 04:47 pm PT
Nguyen Khac Giang Researcher
I became an accomplice to corruption 10 years ago after being stopped by a traffic cop for making an illegal turn. I did what he suggested to "get it over with."

Though I was annoyed, I paid the VND300,000 ($12.81) he asked for so that things would not get complicated.

I know this is not a rare instance. It was just the done thing, so much so that an official remarked once that "a few hundred thousand dong is not considered corruption." And it is not that people do not know it is not the right thing to do, but there is an approach that considers this a "hidden cost" of the bureaucratic system.

Also 10 years ago, anti-corruption efforts were ramped up by the Communist Party and the State. After 10 years, a report released this year said around 170,000 Party members, or 3.2 percent, have been held responsible for violations by more than 2,700 Party organizations. Around 7,500 individuals were directly disciplined, of whom 170 were high-ranking officials.

I do not know whether the practice of petty briber still exists, but I know there has been a shift in perspective on the issue of corruption. The number of investigations and arrests that have happened recently is proof that the anti-corruption fight is at an all-time high. But the sheer number of cases also shows that there is still much to be done.

In the long run, we should realize that punishments alone deter people from corruption and we cannot expect everyone to "come to their senses" on their own, given the complicated social circumstances in which it happens.

If fighting corruption means both preventing and eliminating our focus has been far more on the preventive aspect.

I believe it is time we work on building new mechanisms so that the anti-corruption machine becomes both efficient and self-sufficient.

There are two aspects to categorizing these mechanisms: pre-mortem and post-mortem. Singapore, for example, is a country we can learn effective pre-mortem anti-corruption policies from.

When Lee Kuan Yew restructured Singapore's administrative system in the 70s and the 80s, he believed there were three necessary factors to fighting corruption effectively. First, officials must have high enough salaries so that they do not turn to corruption. Second, punishment for corruption must be severe enough to deter would-be violators. And third, there must be a healthy culture among government workers that deems corruption as an inexcusable behavior.

Vietnam does not lack the policies or the punishments to deal with corruption. Over the last decade, thousands of documents from the government, the Party and other administrative branches have detailed anti-corruption topics. But what Vietnam does lack are salaries for government workers and a healthy working culture for them.

As society demands more and more from the public sector, workloads mount, but workers are not being sufficiently compensated for the extra work they do.

Let's take a small example. A new graduate working at a government post earns around VND3.5 million ($149.45) a month, which is even lower than a month's worth of tuition at some universities. This means that if you had to borrow money to get a Bachelor's degree, you would not be able to pay it back anytime soon as a government worker.

Many people say no government worker survives on just their salaries alone. But this is how we get into this mess in the first place. If they do not live using their own salaries, what are they living on?

When someone's pay does not reflect the kind of jobs they do, there are three outcomes. They may work half-heartedly, not putting in all their effort. They may abuse their positions for self-interest to make up for the meager salaries they have. Or, they may simply quit.

Workers being able to sustain themselves on their own salaries is a prerequisite for fostering a healthy working culture. Not everyone who is poor dabbles in corruption, but the poorer one is, the more likely that they will succumb to temptation. I would have been much less sympathetic to that traffic police officer if he was earning significantly more than the measly VND3.5 million a month.

With post-mortem measures to fight corruption, Vietnam has an issue. Fighting corruption requires monitoring and controlling assets, but current regulations leave too many holes to be exploited. For example, monitoring how exactly an asset has been moved around is difficult. An official's assets could be transferred to his son, a business director and so on. There's no way to monitor it because that asset does not have to be reported.

The United Nations has recommended that member states including Vietnam criminalizes illegal ways to make money and the inability of officials to explain where their disproportionate assets came from. Vietnam has not been able to do this so far

For now, there should be short-term mechanisms to plug in those holes. But more importantly, we have to realize that the fight against corruption cannot be won solely by the state and its administrative systems.

Take New Zealand and northern European countries for example. They all have very low corruption indexes, yet they do not spend a lot of resources on the fight. In fact, there is anti-corruption agency at all. Their success story has to do with a healthy culture that pervades the public, the press and social organizations. People, the common citizens, are always in the best position to watch out for corruption, given their status as potential victims as well as potential colluders.

But if the state wants their people's help, its agencies have to be transparent, protect people's rights to access information and provide them with concrete tools to report corruption: email addresses, hotlines, local committees, access to the National Assembly and so on. Vietnam may have thousands of documents on fighting corruption, but the people's important role as vigilant observers is barely seen.

The challenges cannot be tackled overnight. But if we do not do something about them, our fight would be clumsy - wild swings that keep missing the right targets, more often than not.

*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. The opinions expressed are his own.

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