Feature Editorial:

From Vietnam: Reflections on Economic Corruption and Spiritual Corruption

By Nguyen Tran Bat, Hanoi, Vietnam

"If the aim of the fight against physical corruption is to purify the society, that against
spiritual corruption is to eliminate risks threatening the development of the society"

1. Corruption - a Persisting Disease

Corruption, at various levels, is a thorny issue in all countries of the world regardless of their developmental level, political orientation, region or cultural traditions. However, many scholars analyzing this global problem focus solely on the superficial expression of corruption; this limited view explains the limitation and inefficiency of their proposals and solutions. In fact, the containment of corruption remains at a standstill and such misguided solutions simply serve to mitigate the matter in short-term. This disease is yet to be cured, and is growing ever more complicated; furthermore, certain ardent anti-corruption activists have had to bear awesome "punishment" for their fight to rid society of this destructive evil. The situation obliges us to take the problem of corruption seriously, starting with finding a more objective and far-reaching approach.

Let us return now to the starting question "What is corruption?": This question is more complicated than can be described purely by a single definition. Although it is not a new problem, corruption has seen great changes in its form, scale and nature, parallel with the development of humankind. Nevertheless, what we must point out are the consequences of corruption, consequences which negatively affect not only the poor but also the economy of every country. Corruption distorts social relations and undermines the people's confidence in social values. In the era of globalization, this disaster has become global itself.

Briefly, corruption is the abuse of public power, prestige and position to divert the physical (material) goods or spiritual values of the society and of other people for one's own use.

Therefore, in our opinion, the object of corruption includes not only physical values, i.e. material goods, as we used to think, but also spiritual values. We will study more profoundly various forms of corruption, but we can assert in advance that spiritual corruption is even more dangerous than physical corruption. In this seemingly peaceful domain, corruption comes in more sophisticated forms and severely erodes the society.

Discussing the bedrock of corruption, many blame it on the market economy, and consider that the latter creates favorable conditions for corruption to spread. Is that true? Our definitive answer is "no". We do think that corruption is a disease of the ages, originating from the earliest human experiences. In setting standards of an ideology or social morality, our common failing is that we either do not recognize or we deliberately ignore the natural weaknesses of society. With a lucid mind, we must admit to the existence of social weaknesses (sometimes referred to as social evils). This makes us acknowledge the fact that corruption exists in every society. All ages, all political systems and all nations of the world must face corruption and its metamorphoses. More strictly analyzing this problem, on a much smaller scale we will find that corruption can exists in any house where patriarch fathers abuse their power to unequally distribute physical and spiritual favors.

Thus corruption is a disease of humankind, and like other diseases, corruption is a natural -- and perhaps even instinctive -- defect, originating from the very nature of humankind. That is why no matter how much we feel a vindictive hatred for corruption we cannot absolutely abolish it. We should not see corruption simply from the point of view of a criminologist, but instead study it comprehensively and dialectically in relation to all aspects of socio-economic life. Only an objective and appropriate approach can help us find an effective therapy to control, or at least restrain, this now epidemic social evil.

2. Physical Corruption and Spiritual Corruption

The most evident face of corruption is indeed physical corruption. The only new aspect to this is the fact that nowadays physical corruption is no longer limited to the circle of the powerful, but is spreading outward among all social strata including those, teachers or doctors for example, who had not in the past any chance to become involved in corrupt activities. Today, the respective teachers can ask pupils for bribery in the same manner as that of brigands. The so-called "doctor the tender mother" now can make use of the patients' difficulties to make money. In many developing countries, a considerable number of people, mainly high-ranking officials and their families, spend in amounts sometimes tens or hundreds times that of their official salaries. In other words, physical corruption has become their main source of income. Physical corruption, becoming professional, has reached acute levels when it becomes a major factor contributing to the lifestyle of the powerful.

However, physical corruption is only the surface of the disease. It would be our mistake of simplification to neglect the implicit part of the iceberg. The more our society develops, the more sophisticated the metamorphoses of corruption become. A hungry bakery assistant can steal bread from the oven; his act is done to survive. Being full, he may steal more bread, which he can then sell to buy luxurious goods, at which point his corruption has been elevated to the level of have been done to purchase a better living condition. And at an even higher level, he may go on to corrupt truth and reason. This is spiritual corruption, second face of corruption with influences and consequences much graver than those of simple physical corruption. It is so dangerous that spiritual corruption is not properly condemned or punished, and the persons involved in it are sometimes not even aware of their own criminal action. Therefore, we can say that spiritual corruption is the most serious, dangerous and sophisticated form of corruption. If the aim of the fight against physical corruption is to purify the society, that against spiritual corruption is to eliminate risks threatening the development of the society.

Spiritual corruption is expressed in the three following forms:

A. Power Corruption: There are three levels of power corruption. Firstly, abusing and misusing the power entrusted by the society; Secondly, creating measures to expand one's power to satisfy illegal interests; and Thirdly, abusing the power to maintain one's status or in an effort to seek a higher position in society.

A very typical symptom of spiritual corruption is the fact that an individual, not qualified for a State position, still by whatever means manages to obtain and maintain such a position. In the corruption panorama, power corruption is the primordial form from which corruption will rise to higher and higher levels. Ignorance of this fact has led more than one social reformer to fail in their campaigns against corruption.

B. Thought Monopoly: Similar to monopoly and privilege in physical corruption, thought monopoly appropriates the citizens' right to think, regarding the citizenry as inferiors unworthy of social status. In a centrally planned economy in which citizens live on both physical and spiritual subsidies, all actions are either allowed or denied by one's superiors, thus creating an environment of thought monopoly. Within this system the stagnation of society is inevitable. In Vietnam, since the transition to a market economy, the sequel of thought monopoly has become more and more severe, but most citizens are still not aware of that. There are many people, top intellectuals included, still living on spiritual subsidies and regarding macro problems as the mandates solely of state leaders. Thought monopoly is the holding onto (or we can say clinging onto) the past. It has erected obstacles to the development of the world.

Basically, thought monopoly disables the citizens' capacity and right to think and create, and effectively, thinking becomes the privilege of a certain social group. In such an environment, thinking, philosophy and even science lose their authentic value when credibility is given only to a select few. Intellectual life becomes monotonous, even dangerous. Thought monopoly subtly dictates that the citizenry can in no way become the masters of their society, and the contribution of their intelligence and creativity to the society's development is blocked.

C. Truth Monopoly: The human spiritual life has waned not only due to thought monopoly but also by a monopoly on truth. Truth monopoly transforms individual desires into the dogmatic truth of the society. Many in the intelligentsia, boasting to be thinkers or scientists, consider themselves as the carriers of the truth. They indifferently regard all that they think, say or do as "the truth". This phenomenon is the ultimate and most dangerous expression of spiritual corruption, one that impoverishes the spiritual life and damages natural tendencies necessary for the development process. In my opinion, it is the most appropriate example for which to use the adjective "anti-progressive".

In order to eliminate the truth monopoly, we must improve the awareness of the people. We, especially politicians and scientists, must be aware of our responsibility for the future of humankind. We should not be allowed to give unrealistic predictions or otherwise induce people into utopian adventures. History has shown that if man, by spiritual corruption, tries to make himself "God" or "Saint", he will become in fact a spiritual dictator and millions of people will become the experimental specimens of his idea.

These two forms of corruption have close relation; they interact and support each other. Spiritual corruption is the political support mechanism of physical corruption while physical corruption, in polluting the spiritual environment of the society, creates favorable conditions for spiritual corruption to develop.

Imagine a person without necessary skills and knowledge, who, thanks to certain reasons, one day becomes a Minister. The respectable Minister now feels that he deserves to enjoy more and starts into the first stages of physical corruption. Thus, in a social extent, spiritual corruption is the political support mechanism for his physical corruption, which is expressed also by his concealing or justifying his actions. For example, an individual does not have enough scientific knowledge to contribute to the development of his society, however, he is entitled professor. The title will make him think he is deserving of certain privileges.

As corrupt manufacturers may illegally pollute the living environment, covetous and immoral individuals pollute society's spiritual environment. This situation is so seriously widespread that people have come to accept it as a part of life. When someone is recruited by State authorities, rather than questioning the difficulties of the examination, we often ask "how much does it cost?" When holding a conference, the organizers must prepare "envelope", and the guests take notice of how much the envelope contains rather than the content of the conference. The fact has shown that we have gathered all factors of a "corruption culture", if we can use the word "culture" in such situation.

3. Socio-Econo-Politic Roots of Modern Corruption

Despite its nature, corruption at any time, in any country bears the influence of varied socio-econo-politic factors. To curb corruption effectively requires scientific analyses of all involved factors. Hereinafter are our preliminary analyses:

3.1 Politically, corruption is the result of a political system lacking self-defensive capacity

A political system incapable of creating its own standards or controlling itself is openly vulnerable to power-abuse. This abuse of power, conducted far and wide on a social scale in varied forms and on various levels, creates ideal conditions for corruption. A political system incapable of self-defense breeds ambiguity in awareness and also creates non-legalized structures. All of these factors explain why at the present time, corruption booms in almost all countries which lack a professional political life, or simply put, in countries where politics has slipped beyond of the control of the society.

Corruption stems from a deficiency of democracy in the political sphere. Corruption is attached to human nature, but not everyone dares to act in a corrupt manner nor do all possess the rights or power to practice corruption. In addition, corruption depends upon social institutions, which are esponsible for restraining corruption. In a nation lacking political democracy, anyone who can escape detection or evade the control of social institutions will utilize all means to abuse or take corrupt advantage of his power, position or social prestige. Together with democratic deficiency in the political sphere, political non-transparency breeds "dark spaces" for corruption to develop.

3.2 Economically, corruption is the result of non-transparency in the economic environment

A lack of transparency in the economic environment is a fertile land for corruption to multiply. This explains why corruption in the developing countries has reached more acute levels than in the developed countries where the economic environment is much more transparent. In countries where the economic environment is less transparent, tax evasion is rampant for the simple reason that this practice takes place more easily than in other countries. Also in a transparency-lacking economic environment, the excessive, sometimes unmannerly, intervention of State-owned enterprises into business activities distorts socio-economic relations, thus creating another favorable environment for avaricious officials to seek profit.

3.3 Institutionally, corruption is the fruit of the irrational existence of or monopolization of institutions

We all see that parallel with the development of society, corruption has developed in terms of nature, form and scale; however, this does not mean that there is a proportional correlation between corruption and development. The scale of corruption depends greatly upon the nature of state institutions. For example, in poor African countries with backward and non-democratic institutions, where state power and political power are arbitrarily divided up or are not prudently protected and utilized, these powers are easily corrupted, and the environment is fertile for the corruption to spread. These institutionalized entities are incapable of self-defense against corruption and their officials make every effort to impede the formation of new entities and institution capable of governing society effectively. This irrationality is apparent in countries where a considerable part of the government officials are paid salaries too low to satisfy the minimum demands of life, hence essentially forcing many officials into corruption in order to support themselves.

3.4 Legally, corruption is the result of the limited or illegalized situation of human rights and interests.

The situation of limited or illegalized human rights and interests can be seen in almost every less-developed economy. The "closed door policy" in the past in Vietnam or limitations of the social activities of Afghan women in recent times are examples of short-minded thought that minimizes the living condition of the individual. This, in fact, has driven many people into the spiral of corruption in order to satisfy their aspirations. Although their aspirations are, initially, legitimate, the danger is that the situation breeds ambiguity in awareness. The replacement of legal regulations by implicit agreements on the social scale and that morality leads to a conflict of personal interests within an individual. If a good living condition is created and human rights are legally recognized so that individuals can develop to the utmost their vitality and creativity within the legal framework, an environment is created in which most people will live and conduct themselves to socially acceptable norms.

3.5 Socio-culturally, corruption stems from hypocrisy in the socio- political system

A social system built on hypocrisy forces people to live with an affected face. For example, paying employees mainly in the form of privileges other than salary is the economic basis for an affected lifestyle. Another example can be seen in almost all of the transitional countries where the privilege system is eliminated without appropriate measures to balance the abruptly eliminated benefits. That situation forces some people to resort to illegal means to recuperate what they have lost. Thus, to some extent, such avaricious officials are both culprits and victims of a social system at odds with human nature.

Corruption is also supported by negative factors existing in the culture; patriarchalism, which used to be one of the particular traits of many Asian countries, is a vivid example. In the contemporary history of Asia, there are too many examples of patriarchal, dictatorial politicians who in the seat of power have become the "godfathers" of their countries. Patriarchal culture is attached to the monopoly of reason-ownership mentioned above. As a result, this form of power is easily stolen and that in turn creates opportunities for both physical and spiritual corruption.

3.6 Humanistically, corruption is the result of deviatory thoughts and disrespect for personal values

The disrespect for personal values leads to injury of public values. This may at first seem absurd, but upon deeper reflection is actually quite logical. In fact, excessive anti-egotism always results in extremism in the spiritual life of the society. Disregarding or refusing personal values minimize the living condition of individuals and pushes the members of society to disclaim responsibility for their behavior and their actions. Being easily satisfied with this "reality" they also easily accept corruption or join hands in it.

Further, underestimating personal and collective values leads to a collective corruption, bringing unity and unanimity of more than one person to carry out corruption on a larger scale. What is this, if not a germ of organized crime? The one who is not involved in corruption is often wiped out. This explains why it is particularly difficult to fight corruption in countries where individual and collective values are undervalued.

4. Prerequisites to Bring Corruption Under Control

Above analyses on the socio-econo-political causes of corruption show that in order to curb corruption it is vital to take comprehensive measures based on scientific approaches. We absolutely cannot consider the war on corruption as simply a criminological solution of punishing the guilty; this is simply medicating the symptom rather than curing the disease. However, there are two critical measures which can be considered the key to this issue.

4.1 Democratization as a prerequisite to anti-corruption

As analyzed above, both physical and spiritual corruption have developed on a massive scale in complicated and subtle forms, and have had an appalling influence on socio-economic life. As a result, a large part of the population has fallen into a passive state of resignation to their fate. Therefore, the combat against corruption must start with reviving the people's determination to fight corruption. This is not at all an easy matter. The cult of the individual in some countries, ideological enslavement in others, as well as material impoverishment in the most underdeveloped countries have stamped out their hopes for a transparent society. Therefore, the anti-corruption struggle is a political struggle, and it must be deployed mainly on the political front with political measures by politicians, the first and foremost task of which is to purify and exemplify the state apparatus. To do so, leadership must not be seen as a position with rights to corrupt but rather as a demonstration and eulogy of human values. As soon as state leaders become paragons of the spiritual life, manifesting talent and virtue as a mirror for the people to follow, a model state can begin to be formed. Vietnam used to have such a model state. It was in the period of revolution and two anti-aggression wars when each minister was a patriotic celebrity, a legend, a paragon of virtue. Only such a model state is able to control itself and curb corruption.

The model state is the Democratic State, actually a State of, by and for the people, where its citizens have the right to choose political institutions and State officials. In a democratic society, people have the right to choose ideologies for the society and for themselves, rather than being forced to conform to those imposed by others. The value of a democratic society is that people have the right to define and choose all that affects their own consciousness.

4.2 Purifying the spiritual environment

The anti-corruption struggle requires a purified spiritual environment where human dignity is formed, nurtured and developed. The society can and must build a culture resistant to all germs of corruption. The spread of corruption we see today is due partly to our persistent self-endorsing in the past. To overcome this problem, every nation must build a healthy culture, which does not tolerate factors favorable for corruption. A healthy cultural environment helps people resist corruption. In a small community, a company for example, the head must not only be talented but must also be honest in order to be able to manage. Also, on the scale of a society, to govern effectively, the state apparatus must be purified at all levels.

Of course, a healthy cultural environment is but one of two conditions necessary to form a class of honest state officials. To have such model officials, it is vital to provide them with living conditions higher than that of the average citizen. Anything short of this creates a hypocritical situation which forces officials into corruption and the anti-corruption battle is degraded to the empty shouting of slogans by the ardent, credulous and deluded.

In short, fighting corruption cannot be done overnight. It is certain that if we tolerate further corruption today, we shall pay a high price for such feebleness tomorrow.

A wealthy life, materially prosperous and spiritually rich is a noble and popular dream of the human being. What is to blame is our confusion and our endeavors to realize such a dream by any means. This is the bedrock of corruption. Therefore, the plague of corruption should be studied lucidly, objectively and dialectically.

Our position is that if radical and serious measures are undertaken on society-wide scale, it is entirely feasible to combat corruption, or at the very least to release and prevent many people from a forced involvement in corruption in order to exist. By democratizing the spiritual life, giving back to the society the peace of life and its serenity of consciousness, we are taking the first steps on the way to a healthier society. And that is the prerequisite to limit and combat corruption.

BWW Society member Mr. Nguyen Tran Bat graduated from Hanoi Construction University in 1972 with a degree in Construction Engineering; in 1995 he earned his LL.B. degree from Law Faculty of Hanoi University.

From 1963 until 1975, Mr. Bat served in the army as soldier and Construction Engineer. After 1975 he held positions at the Institute for Transport Science Research, the State Committee for Capital Construction, the National Office on Inventions under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, and from 1987-89 he served as Deputy Director of the Bureau for Promotion and Development of Industrial Properties Activities.

Presently Mr. Bat is Chairman and General Director of the Investconsult Investment Consultancy and Technology Transfer Company, under the National Center for Scientific Research; he previously held the position of General Director. As Chairman of Investconsult, the firm is now one of Vietnam's leading private consulting groups, specializing in law and IP. The firm has four offices in Vietnam, totaling a full time staff of 220 providing consulting services to foreign businesses and investors, ranging from policy advice, legal advice, project advice and post-license services to public relations and intellectual properties services. Mr. Bat has recently established the first private research institute in Vietnam, the Investconsult Development Research Institute, which covers three levels of research: business and services development, Vietnam development, and global development issues. Mr. Bat is also the founder of Vietnam's first consulting service corporation, which since 1987 has assisted more than one-thousand foreign businesses and corporations with their investments in Vietnam; his client list includes numerous Fortune 500 corporations. The consulting group has also been commissioned by WB, IFC, ADB, UNDP, NGOs and foreign embassies to implement donor-funded projects in a wide range of assistance and developmental programs. Additionally, since 1986 Mr. Bat has been involved in the design and construction of major bridges and roads in Vietnam.

Mr. Bat is a member of the Executive Board of the Club for Enterprises with Foreign Investment Capital and is a member of the Australian Economic Development Committee, the Board of Directors of Beta Mekong Fund Ltd., the Vietnam Engineering Consultants Association, and the Nam Dinh Bar Association; he is the Director of International Affairs of Hanoi Lawyers' Association and Vice Chairman of the Vietnam Industrial Property Association. Mr. Bat is a well-known speaker at many important forums and seminars concerning Vietnamese development issues at home and abroad. In his free time, he enjoys studying foreign cultures, religion, philosophy, reading and economics. Mr. Nguyen Tran Bat will be a Featured Speaker at the 2003 International Congress of the BWW Society/IAPGS.

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