Asia-Pacific News

Vietnam's Comrades Face Golf Ban

Ben Bland

Vietnam’s roads are getting more jammed by the day, the traffic accident rate is one of the highest in Asia and infrastructure bottlenecks are crippling an economy that is already in crisis.

But investors and citizens need not fear. Dinh La Thang, Vietnam’s swashbuckling new transport minister, has the solution: banning officials from playing golf, even at the weekend.

The transport ministry said on its website that some senior officials were spending too much time on the putting green and, as a result, were under-performing at work during a difficult period for the Vietnamese economy.

Since the Communist government started to open up the economy in the late 1980s, golf has become increasingly popular with senior officials and businessmen in Vietnam, as in neighbouring China. Golf courses have sprung up across the country, raising concern about the rapid loss of agricultural land for developments that only benefit a handful of investors and well-heeled golfers.

In Vietnam’s consensus-based political system, ministers used to prefer hiding in the shadows, operating as anonymous power brokers deferring to the all-powerful and highly secretive Politburo. But, as analysts like Carl Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy have noted, Vietnam’s government has been slowly moving from collective responsibility to a form of ministerial responsibility, albeit with little public accountability.

Since he took over as transport minister in August, Thang, who used to head PetroVietnam, Vietnam’s state-owned upstream oil and gas monopoly, has been trying to raise his profile with a number of headline-grabbing initiatives and sound-bites.

In a country obsessed with private transport – whether it be the ubiquitous scooter or the rapidly-growing number of cars – and increasingly afflicted by traffic jams, he ordered senior staff to use the bus once a week.

He also booted out the official in charge of building a new international airport terminal in the resort city of Danang, central Vietnam, because of the slow pace of construction.

While it may seem laughable to some, any officials considering flouting Thang’s golf ban would be well advised to think again.

The head of the transport ministry’s organisation department, a key Communist party-controlled unit responsible for internal monitoring and promotions, warned that his spies will be out watching for bourgeois recidivist golfers.

“We will have many secret methods to supervise how staff will follow the minister’s regulation,” Pham Tang Loc told Tien Phong (Pioneer) newspaper. “In this very difficult time, senior officials should concentrate on completing important projects rather than spending time playing golf. It’s a waste of money and time and they even use their government-provided cars for this.”

Loc talks a tough game but, as with every regulation in Vietnam, there’s always a way around. Officials may not be allowed to tee off any more but no-one said anything about other pastimes popular with male government officials, such as drinking, visiting karaoke parlours and brothels and tennis.