“600.000 officials in asset-declaration list is vast”

As published in Lao Dong News on 18 January 2014

“If Vietnam would like to effectively manage the asset declaration of public officials, the important thing is to clarify which income and what sources the declaration aims at. If it is only their salaries, I would say that many of them are living far beyond their formal income” - Jairo Acuna – Alfaro, UNDP Policy Advisor talked to Lao Dong.

Vietnam should avoid “new wine in old bottle”

The Party Politburo has recently issued the Directive number 33-CT/TW to strengthen Party’s leadership over the implementation of asset declarations by officials. What do you think about the impact of this Directive to the anti-corruption battle in Vietnam?

I think Directive 33 of Politburo is completely right and meaningful, and it is perhaps the time for the Party to strengthen its role in dealing with corruption. However, my question is why the spirit of this regulation was not implemented earlier?

Vietnam, so far, has many regulations and legal documents to request officials to declare assets and incomes. The content of Directive 33 is quite similar to previous regulations. Vietnam has a saying that “new wine in old bottle”. I think this should be avoided. I could say Vietnam has built comprehensive anti-corruption legal framework, including regulations on asset declaration. Nevertheless, I suggest it is time to seriously enforce those regulations.

How far do you think Vietnam has gone in term of anti-corruption efforts?

I think Vietnam has made much progress in the past 10 years. Vietnam signed UN Convention in Anti-Corruption in 2003 and ratified it in 2009. It is 2014 now and Vietnam is still urging for stronger efforts in anti-corruption.

There is an argument for the poor results in Vietnam’s anti-corruption that: “It is same situation in every poor developing countries”. Do you agree with this?

It is possibly understandable. You could take South Korea and Singapore as examples. These countries were much corrupted when they were poor, but when they become more developed, they have gained remarkable achievements in corruption battle, with transparent regulations on anti-corruption. People tend to compare Vietnam with China, but we have witnessed strong determination of Chinese government in fighting corruption in the past few years. The anti-corruption drive in China even captured the highest-level officials in the political system.

Don’t you see Vietnam is unleashing similar anti-corruption campaign?

That is true. This is why I am optimistic about the anti-corruption campaign in Vietnam. This issue now is discussed in more transparent and opened manners. It is visible that Vietnamese leaders are more willing to fight corruption and put corrupted officials in trial.

On the other side, despite corruption, Vietnam is still moving forward. Despite corruption, Vietnam is building better infrastructure. Despite corruption, Vietnam is attracting a huge foreign direct investment. Could you imagine how far Viet Nam could go without corruption?

Expecting a new momentum

Does this mean you are confident that Directive 33 will make positive impact in Vietnam’s anti-corruption battle?

You could not expect tomorrow a complete overnight improvement in anti-corruption, or in 2014. However, the Party could lay a foundation in 2014 to start “cleaning the house”. Anti-corruption is like a marathon. If you run too fast, you will run out of energy and are unable to reach the destination.

I am optimistic. Through what I have witnessed, anti-corruption in Vietnam is in a medium speed and still has enough energy for acceleration in the next phase. In 2016, when a new generation of leaders is elected, I expect that the anti-corruption efforts in Vietnam will reach a new turn.

What are the lessons that Vietnam could learn from other countries in term of asset declaration?

I will give you an example from Philippines. The Chief Justice in Philippine’s Supreme Court was in the list of official that submitted asset declarations. He made his declaration. However, Ombudsman discovered that he had undisclosed accounts in foreign banks. After a lengthy investigation he was fired.

One of the important factors to have efficient asset declaration is to catch lies. This can only be done when media and independent bodies oversee the asset declarations. If an official is found telling lies (i.e. undisclosing) in his asset declaration, and s/he could not prove the source of his/her assets or income, which could reveal the sign of corruption and ethical breaches. Then, that official should face prosecution and possible dismissal.

Another example is a high ranking official in an Eastern Europe country. He came to a meeting, wearing an expensive Rolex wrest watch. Reporters who covered this meeting took photos of him. A reporter spotted his luxurious watch, and questioned how could he afford to buy this luxury watch with his salary?

Reporters then checked his asset declaration, which was expected to include all assets over $5.000 US, to see if the watch was declared. They did not found this item in the list. This official was caught lie (ie. undisclosing) in the asset declaration.

In my home country, Costa Rica in Central America, asset declaration information is published transparently in government website, and everyone can access and oversee the list.

Do you have any further recommendation for Vietnam to enforce successfully the asset declaration and the declaration oversight?

The best international practices show that, the fewer officials in the  list, the easier to check the accuracy of the declarations. The second important thing is that society, especially media, has the ability to access this information to check and oversee.

I think, the first thing Vietnam should do is to reduce the number of officials in the declaration list. Even ten percent of 600.000 officials who now are required to declare their assets are too many. I suggest taking only 1% of this number, and conducting randome check of these declarations.

The list of officials to declare assetsation should be based on positions, or ranks. For example, you could start in the executive branch, with about 22 ministers and more than 100 vice ministers in the list. Therefore, there are less than 200 officials declaring assets, a perfect number to check and oversee. If you want to expand the list, you could include Chairmen and Vice Chairmen of provincial People’s Committees …