How to get rich? Vietnamese officials say ‘hard work pays off’

Some Vietnamese officials are countering suspicions of their over-the-top personal fortunes with nostalgic evocations of the ‘good ole’ days’ when hard labor for a few extra pennies was the key to wealth.

In 2014, Tran Van Truyen, former head of the state inspectorate, came under scrutiny for owning a luxury villa in the southern province of Ben Tre.

Addressing the media, Truyen said at that time that he had “worked so hard that my thumbs were rotting” to save up enough money for the villa.

In April this year, Nguyen Sy Ky, an anti-corruption official in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak made headlines when he claimed to have moonlighted as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver to save up the cash for his luxury US$133,000 residence.

In the latest incident of suspicious wealth, Pham Si Quy, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment of the northern province of Yen Bai, said he had spent his life working “all kinds of manual jobs” to build his current fortune.

The villa of Tran Van Truyen

No effective mechanism

Vietnam currently has disclosure requirements for public officials, requiring that ‘civil servants’ make asset declarations in order to prevent corruption and detect illicit enrichment or any other conflict of interest.

However, the country seems to lack oversight and effective mechanisms to ensure the accuracy of those declarations.

“Many officials say their exorbitant fortunes come from farm work, such as raising pigs or chickens,” Pham Le Xuat, deputy head of the inspectorate of the Ministry of Public Security, said at a conference on Wednesday.

Taking the case of the Yen Bai department head as an example, Xuat admitted that “there is no mechanism available at the moment to verify Quy’s claim over the origins of his assets.”

Quy’s 1.3 hectare villa complex recently became the target of a government inspectorate investigation.

The department head said that besides his own savings from producing homemade wine, making brooms, and even shoe polishing, the residence is funded by VND20 billion ($887,000) in bank loans and an extra sum borrowed from friends and relatives.

In his asset declaration form, Quy reported a VND1 billion ($44,347) growth in his personal income for 2016, thanks to operations on a farm he inherited from his parents.

Pham Si Quy ‘worked all kinds of labor jobs’ to save money for this residence.

Xuat, the state inspectorate deputy chief, said there are currently no guidelines for tracing the origin of assets owned by public officials, so “the question as to where they get the money is never answered.”

“A call for verification is normally made only when there is a complaint or denouncement about corruption,” he said.

Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, Le Hong Linh, head of the planning department under the State Inspectorate of Vietnam, said his agency has made nearly 500 inspections in the first half of this year.

“We have levied administrative fines on more than 170 organizations and over 300 individuals for their wrongdoings,” Linh said.

During an anti-corruption campaign in the six-month period, 28 cases of corruption and 30 relevant individuals were identified, Linh said, though he failed to elaborate on how those cases would be handled.

According to a report released by the government in October 2016, more than one million public officials completed asset declarations that year and “upon verification, no case of corruption was detected.”

In 2014, the inspectorate of the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau admitted that of the 2,000 public officials inspected for anti-corruption, only one was eventually identified as a violator.

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