Overhauling officialdom

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Overhauling officialdom


Bae Myung-bok

Last week, I met Ms. T, a young working mom in Hanoi. She works for a multinational company, and many admire her career. But her dream is to become a civil servant. Working for the government may not pay as much as the private sector or a foreign company. But that’s just a paycheck. No one knows actually how much civil servants can make, and the job security is an added bonus.

“Are you preparing for the civil service examination?” I asked.

“It’s not so simple,” Ms. T replied. “You need more than preparation.”

What more does she need to become a civil servant in Vietnam?

“I need a connection, of course.”

In Vietnam, personal connections and cash can get you a job in the government. So those without a certain kind of background or money cannot dream of being a civil servant.

According to Yonhap News Hanoi correspondent Kim Seon-han, government recruiting in Vietnam is not open to the public and is mostly conducted through interviews. There is no open recruiting period, and it is on a rolling basis, so there is ample room for hanky-panky. If your friend or relative is a Communist Party executive or a central government official, you can be assured of success.

More often than not, you can find an uncle and nephew working in the same ministry - with other relatives in other positions. Officials in ministries with authority to issue licenses or permits get enormous kickbacks and accumulate astronomical wealth by using their influence and power. In Vietnam, a corner office is not the dream of the ambitious or greedy-a public office is.

Civil servants in Vietnam are corrupt from top to bottom. The humble souls working at windows or counters pocket extra fees to expedite services. Your paperwork won’t proceed unless you slip some cash between the documents. When a traffic cop stops a car, the driver should be ready to bribe him. The standard buyout is the equivalent of 30,000 Korean won ($29). If you want to invite a high-ranking official to an event, the envelope should include cash along with the invitation. The higher the official you want to invite, the more you have to pay. Once he makes an appearance, another cash payment is expected as an expression of gratitude. Holiday gifts are a minimum courtesy. According to an urban legend in Hanoi, a Korean businessman in Vietnam contributed $10 million in cash to one of the highest officials in Vietnam “to be used for a good cause.”

Transparency International releases a corruption perceptions index (CPI) every year, and Vietnam was ranked 116th among 177 countries, with 31 points out of 100 last year (0 being the most corrupt). Denmark and New Zealand shared the top, cleanest rank with 91 points. Korea was at 46th place with 55 points. If you think that’s transparent enough, you are mistaken.

While Korean officials may not be openly corrupt like their Vietnamese counterparts, there are more clever corruption cases that are not so visible. We call it the “bureaucratic mafia” for a reason. Officials from the central government end up in high-paying public corporation positions upon retirement. One out of three public corporation executives is a former civil servant. Some move to a related organization to represent industry interests or they go to the private sector. Many former ministers and ambassadors are hired as advisors to large conglomerates. Both the former Korean ambassador to Vietnam and the former Vietnamese ambassador to Korea are working as advisors to the Vietnam branch of a Korean company.

A society that is led by a select few is generally top-heavy. Just like the Sewol ferry, which was overloaded and lacked ballast water, when the center of gravity shifts, it easily capsizes. All that’s needed is a relatively small external shock. From a “league of their own” mentality driven by money, power, connections and privilege, the elite should disperse to make some consideration for the weak. Otherwise, a safe voyage cannot be guaranteed. South Vietnam fell in 1975 because of corruption and deep division within its society. A unified Vietnam is repeating some of those same mistakes. It is the paradox of the 21st century that China and Vietnam have dangerously high levels of corruption and inequality although they technically advocate a socialist market economy.

In her statement on the Sewol ferry tragedy Monday, President Park Geun-hye proposed ways to eradicate the bureaucratic mafia. It is sad that she only began reforms after more than 300 precious lives were lost. The civil service can be an honorable career.

But civil servants can’t hope for both wealth and honor. Reform of the civil service is the first step to shift our society’s center of gravity back to where it should be.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 20, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok

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