Corruption? What? Where?

Graft a social norm as more Vietnamese citizens appear willing to condone rather than fight it

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A vendor sells cockles on a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City. As the economic slump has continued to punish the average people, a new international report has found that the number of Vietnamese citizens willing to blow the whistle on corruption has declined significantly over the last few years. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The number of Vietnamese citizens willing to blow the whistle on corruption has declined significantly over the last few years, a new report says.

With paying bribes more the rule than the exception, the new finding shows corrupt officials can afford to breathe easier.

Only 38 percent of 1,000 citizens surveyed in 15 cities and provinces across Vietnam said they were ready to report corruption, according to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer report commissioned by Transparency International, an NGO based in Germany.

The survey, released Tuesday, expands on the 2010 Barometer which was limited to urban populations in the major cities of Hanoi, Da Nang, Hai Phong, Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho.

Consequently, comparisons in findings between 2013 and 2010 look only at the sample of responses from the urban populations of the five cities surveyed in both years.

According to findings of the 2013 survey, only 34 percent of respondents from the urban population of the five Vietnamese cities surveyed were willing to report corruption, while 63 percent said they would not do so. In 2010, the situation was the reverse: 65 percent of respondents were willing to report corruption and only the remaining 35 percent of respondents were not willing to do so.

The 2013 report also says Vietnamese respondents are the least willing to expose corruption out of all countries surveyed in Southeast Asia.

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On average, 63 percent of respondents from Southeast Asia are willing to report corruption – with respondents from Malaysia being the most willing (79 percent).

Vietnam also has the highest percentage – 51 percent – of people in the region who say that reporting “wouldn’t make a difference”, said Towards Transparency, the Vietnam chapter of Transparency International.

These findings apparently echo those of the 2012 Government Inspectorate and the World Bank, which found that the most common reason given by citizens for not reporting corruption was the lack of trust in people handling the complaints. Those supposed to act on public complaints were too close to the corrupt people, they said.

Other observers have endorsed these findings.

“I think they pretty much reflect the real picture,” said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a retired lawmaker who has advised Towards Transparency on anti-corruption work in Vietnam.

“The fact that people appear pessimistic about corruption indicates that the government’s anti-corruption campaign over the past years has faltered,” Thuyet told Vietweek.

Poor record

Vietnam has one of the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislations in Asia, but poor or lax implementation has rendered them toothless, analysts say.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, Vietnam amended its Anti-Corruption Law in 2012 after passing the Law on Denunciation aimed at better safeguarding whistleblowers a year earlier.

But the country still ranks poorly in global corruption surveys. Last year Vietnam stood 123rd on a list of 176 in the Transparency International-commissioned Corruption Perception Index.

At a regular meeting of the Party’s Central Committee last October, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong admitted the failure to address rampant corruption. He said the Politburo, the Party’s decision-making body, had “seriously criticized themselves and admitted their major mistakes.”

Vietnamese lawmakers have also severely criticized the government for shielding state-own enterprises and other interest groups that they say are major sources of entrenched corruption.

During the parliamentary session last fall, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung apologized to the lawmakers for the first time for widespread corruption and inefficiency, as well as the financial debacles of state-run enterprises.

Huynh Phong Tranh, Chief of the Government Inspectorate, also admitted many “shortcomings” in tackling widespread corruption on Tuesday.

“Progress [in handling corruption cases] has been slow,” he told the media.

Mere rhetoric

Vietnam’s top leadership has admitted that endemic corruption is stalling national development, and they have repeatedly spoken of the need to protect whistleblowers so that more cases of graft can be exposed.

Lawmakers have also called for stronger safeguards and incentives for whistleblowers to ensure they do not have to fear retribution.

But analysts say these statements only have rhetorical value.

“While Vietnam encourages the people to voice their grievances, [it] also lacks effective independent and autonomous institutions found in other countries that can take up public complaints of corruption on behalf of the people,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales.

In the Philippines, immunity is granted to whistleblowers who offer bribes to public officials. The South Korean Anti-Corruption Act also states that criminal acts of people who blow the whistle and expose a crime will be pardoned or their punishment mitigated. In Malaysia, similar statutory provisions apply to those exposing money laundering.

Many Vietnamese lawmakers have admitted the “painful fact” that many whistleblowers had suffered retaliation in recent years because measures were not in place to protect them.

Vietnam has officially been rewarding whistleblowers since 2010, but this measure has had limited impact and can be co-opted by powerful, but corrupt officials, experts say. They add that whistleblowers, while doing essential work, can overstep their bounds by putting their fame ahead of the cause.

But the inescapable reality is that Vietnamese authorities do not have the confidence of the public, who trust whistleblowers more.

Analysts say a country where the people have to depend exclusively on whistleblowers instead of anti-corruption agencies is one without reliable institutional safeguards or accountability.

“Whistleblowers are an indispensable resource for society’s checks and balances to work, but not a substitute for structural accountability,” said Thuyet, the retired lawmaker.

“The pivotal factor that can steer the anti-corruption campaign to success is strong political will, which Vietnam still lacks,” he said.

With the Transparency International report and other studies yet again confirming that the practice of giving and receiving bribes is so common in Vietnam that it is not perceived as bribery, analysts are not sure how such political determination will materialize.

Jonathan London, an expert on Vietnam with the City University of Hong Kong, said: “The problem is political will will not be forthcoming if people continue to see corruption as acceptable.”

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