Economic Development & Global Integration: Vietnam

Globalization, Governance, & Security in Southeast Asia: Perspectives from Malaysia & Indonesia

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why can't you be more like your cousin Singapore?

There's a lot of talk about an ASEAN Community (by 2015!) lately, but my experience so far this summer has me thinking that national interest will still reign supreme in ASEAN countries' final calculations.  My informal evidence is how very concerned the denizens of various Southeast Asian cities are with having the best city/country/airline/food in the region.

Nebraskans always talk about the weather and football; the regional go-to conversation here is Ranking the Countries.  I think this may have been especially acute in our summer program because most of the students had family background to some country in Southeast Asia (or East Asia), so by the end whenever Thailand was mentioned everyone would look at my roommate Natnari - for the Philippines, Phoebe; for Vietnam, Hong; for Korea, David; and for Indonesia, me.  I'll admit it was a little awkward, but it's true that Natnari has a vested interest in Thailand and I have sentimental attachment to Indonesia.  Nobody really had sentimental attachment to ASEAN. 

 Asians in Asia

I guess some compare-and-contrast is inevitable.  The ASEAN countries are like proud, passive aggressive cousins (with Myanmar the "black sheep" of the family).  Stereotypes about each abound, most of the competition is about who has the best satay, and for the most part the real hostility is directed inward, at separatist groups within the state - ASEAN isn't going to go to war with itself anytime soon, if ever.  We love each other because we have to, we'll usually unite against strangers, we're sometimes too similar for comfort, and if one of us starts spiraling downward (politically or economically), the rest are afraid they might follow.  Yes, we say that we're all different and that's okay - some of us just can't ever grow up to be like Singapore, for structural/demographic/geographic reasons - we have to define success for ourselves, we have to be true to ourselves.  But we all still want to be the best in ASEAN, the one with the most growth, the most money, the most FDI (the most democracy is actually not a coveted title).  I still think ASEAN is thinking nationally, not regionally.

I got to Jakarta last night for my internship.  Fortunately I have family in the city who can take me in, and my uncle picked me up at the airport.  We talked about my experience in Vietnam and Malaysia - I found out he had been to Hanoi (his comment: "many motorcycles, like insects").  I asked him how he liked Hanoi. 

Motorcycles like insects in Hanoi

"Not much," he said, "but it makes me feel better about Jakarta.  At least Jakarta is more developed than Hanoi."  (Full disclosure: I really enjoyed Hanoi)  I brought up Kuala Lumpur.  "Oh, Kuala Lumpur is far better than Jakarta.  Kuala Lumpur is almost like Singapore!" 

It's a running "joke," the superiority of tiny Singapore in terms of wealth, cleanliness, order, over its sprawling, impoverished, disorderly neighbors.  So much so that Singapore barely "counts" in any discussion about development or governance in Southeast Asia.  I've only been to Singapore once, for a 24-hour layover long ago, but having spent two weeks in KL, I must admit that this proto-Singapore is an impressive feat of urban development.  The sidewalks are clean, the paint is new.  The streamlined highways curl smoothly through the hills.  Even the palm trees are perfectly spaced.  It's almost disorienting for someone more used to other Southeast Asian cities - KL is like that weird Stepford neighborhood where everyone actually follows the Homeowners Association Handbook.


And it did leave me thinking: how can Jakarta get to this point?  My really hasty first impressions on the differences between Jakarta and KL: 1) more people just kind of hanging around (loitering, they'd probably call it in Singapore) in Jakarta; 2) uncontrolled graffiti, even on graveyard walls; 3) terrible traffic that does not adhere to rules - your car crawls through an alley and then you have to pay the locals with whistles who act as informal traffic cops to get you back on the main road.

My uncles had their own suggestions: 1) The people are out of control, and their solution to problems is to "burn everything, even the governor's house in Papua."  2) The cops are too scared to enforce the law, hence the cancellation of Lady Gaga's concert in Jakarta after an Islamic fundamentalist group threatened to (what else?) burn down the stadium.  3) Lack of strong leadership.  "In terms of human rights, yeah, it's better now," my other uncle said.  "But in terms of leadership, Suharto was good.  He could control the people." 

And then he laughed and threw up his hands.  "Itu-lah Indonesia" - that's Indonesia for you.  That's just the way it is.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lessons from my trip

Congratulations and many thanks to Prof. Jandl, Prof. Heng and SIS for putting together such an amazing program. Both academic and cultural components went beyond my expectations. I truly believe that this opportunity was more than fulfilling for each of us in the program.

Coming from South America and from being raised professionally and personally within a completely different cultural context, it was really exiting to come back to South East Asia and have an experience from a completely new perspective. The visits to both Malaysia and Vietnam leave important lessons as classes and lectures with local civil servants and political leaders taught us about the “ASEAN way” and the willingness of the region to continue to address development with a critical approach and their integration to the international community through peaceful and mutually beneficial means.

It was also pleasant to see that all of our host speakers were pleased and interested to share with us their experience and different perspectives about the region’s current circumstances and their opinions about how both Vietnam and Malaysia should move into the future in order to achieve their economic goals.

I highly recommend this program for those who are interested in taking a closer look to South East Asia’s approach to governance, economic growth and global integration. It is definitely worth doing it, as it offers a complete overview to the other side of the coin of how policy comes together to address these issues.

From Paola

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

One ASEAN, we are different, we are alike

This is the last week of the program. We have been busy with all the class, interesting lecture, field trip. I can say that this is a "right" decision for me, to spend my summer time visiting Vietnam and Malaysia.
I originally from Thailand, these two countries are the long standing neighbor with us, but I personally didnt know much about "them." This is the first time that I travel around ASEAN country. I still remember the first day that Nadia and I arrive in Hanoi vividly. We fly in from Bangkok, when we arrive, people here look similar to Thai people. But the challenge start when we get out of the airport and try to get to the hotel by ourself. I spend 8 years living abroad, but this is the first time, that I go somewhere that I cant speak the language. Finally we arrive at the hotel safe and sound. We spend our first week in Hanoi and heading down south to Ho Chi Minh City for our second week. Vietnam is totally different from what I expect, the city is under fast pace developing. The food is great, people is very nice. Moreover, I learn another skill from my time in Vietnam is "how to walk across the street while million of motorbike" around you. When we were in Vietnam, we did not see any accident on the road, I was impressed by Vietnamese Motor Bike riding skill. During our time in Vietnam, we got our lecture from different organization, both from US and Vietnam, as well as NGO. I have learn a lot about the neighbor country. The program really give me an opportunity to explore ASEAN and make me understand more about them, what is their past and what will be their future. For 2015 ASEAN economic integration, I feel that it is important for mutual understanding among member state, and the best way to cooperate between the member state is through people. The knowledge and experience I have gained from the program priceless and I cant get it from anywhere else. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Quick recap of what I think about this country:

Inflation rate is high (1 USD is 20,000 Dong) - I deal with the thousands in currency, which can be confusing. It's not the Communist state that you think it is. Government officials are encouraged to be critical and are very open about political and economic reform. USAID, the World Bank, and Vietnamese government officials all have different views on the TPP. You can definitely tell why traffic-related deaths are second highest in the world. When crossing the streets, it's all about walking with slowly and with confidence. Also, I'd have to agree with Anthony Bourdain. Vietnamese food, hands down, is one of the best in the world. They understand fish sauce. 

Conclusion: I can see myself living temporarily and conducting research in this country.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On The Hunt for Investment

One of the most common sights in Vietnam (along with motorcycles, of course) is construction.  It's "build baby build" for the Vietnamese - a high-speed train through the Mekong, airports and deep-sea ports for every province, and lots of skyscrapers.  Infrastructure, after all, invites investment, and Vietnam's noteworthy growth (and accompanying poverty reduction) has been dependent on foreign investment.  It's not just the U.S. and East Asia getting involved either - the "international city" of Ciputra Hanoi, the scary-looking gates to which are seen below, is being built by an Indonesian company.

It's not as simple as "if you build it, they will come," however.  Ciputra Hanoi looks pretty empty, and Dr. Jandl told us about a premier skyscraper with 86 floors, only two of which have been leased out.  Looking to attract investment that typically goes to southern Vietnam (with its longer history of openness to capitalism), the central government has made sure Hanoi has the best highways, but it hasn't helped.  Investment consulting firms are still telling their clients to stick to the industrial parks in south Vietnam. 

Saigon Hi-Tech Park just wants to be loved

 The industrial parks still compete with each other - everyone does, in newly capitalist Vietnam.  They strive to offer expats the best housing and international schools, the "most loyal" and "most disciplined" workers (if there's one thing I've learned on this trip, it's to expect a whole lot of broad cultural generalizations - the Vietnamese are X, the Indonesians are Y, the Filipinos are Z, yes, all of them), the smoothest roads, the most intellectual property rights protection... and the provincial governments, meanwhile, compete through the improbable Provincial Competitiveness Index, a project run by the USAID of all things, which measures ease-of-doing-business.  I always felt bad for Lao Cai, an impoverished province in the northwest.  They do everything right according to the PCI - all those things that are supposed to draw investment according to the Washington Consensus, like transparency and low entry costs, and they'll never get investment because of their location and available resources. 

Construction, as seen from the roof of Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

One of our speakers from the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program joked that the Vietnamese "love to speculate," when asked why the Vietnamese economy keeps getting into these boom-and-bust cycles of borrowing-and-bad-investment.  During the last boom everyone - firms and wealthy households - tried to break into the real estate market, because land is a precious commodity in this relatively tiny country.  But they don't want to buy up land from farmers and then immediately start building office buildings or shopping malls or amusement parks (really), supposedly so as not to hurt the farmers' feelings.  So they wait for the farmers to "forget about it" and move away, so the outskirts of Hanoi are filled with tracts of wild land, waiting for their extreme make-over.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Communist kitsch

All the (US-targeted) guide books on Vietnam include some variant of the question, "Will I face harassment or hostility because I am an American (due to the war)?"  The answer is always no.  Officially, the reason is because Vietnam now espouses a foreign policy of "friend to all" and furthermore is trying to strengthen its partnership with the U.S. in order to gain economically and hedge against China.  But I'll always remember a video I watched in an undergrad class on Modern Southeast Asia years ago, where an old Vietnamese woman is asked if she resents Americans and she replies, "Why would I?  We won!"

Politically, Communism (socialism) hasn't gone away.  It's still official state policy.  But Vietnam is showing a lot of market economy tendency these days, which means the hammer-and-sickle has become a marketing tool.  Along with the yellow (or red) star that shows up on the Vietnamese flag, tourists can buy t-shirts, baseball caps, and beer koozies with the hammer-and-sickle or Ho Chi Minh's face.  If you get one of the military hats you can even pretend you're a Vietnamese soldier!

The American Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City plays up the tortured history of the Consulate - "there's the wall where the Viet Cong broke in," the economic officer said, "This is a replica of the plaque that we had before they broke in.  We don't know where the original is.  Probably in a warehouse somewhere."  But from Vietnam's standpoint I've actually seen very little dwelling on "the war," except when it's used to sell merchandise - and then it seems to be more about catering to Americans' pre-existing image of Vietnam than anything else.  Maybe they figure Westerners can't imagine coming to this place that to them means war and a whole generation of reflective movies about what was seen as a tragedy of the American spirit without getting some kind of knick-knack that speaks to this period, some recognition that yes, this war really happened and it wasn't some other tropical backwater we were thinking of.  

Because otherwise you won't look around Vietnam and see any vestiges of war (especially if you avoid Agent Orange "hotspots" like the one at Danang Airport).  It's a modernizing country with plenty of tourists, humidity, street vendors, motorbikes, rice noodles.  In Hanoi you see giant old buildings with colonial architecture but that's almost to be expected in Southeast Asia.  As someone who grew up listening to protest songs and watching Apocalypse Now, I won't deny that it's a little odd.  So you can get a bag that says "Good Morning Viet Nam," and one chain store in Hanoi is called Old Propaganda Posters.  I must admit I succumbed to the latter.  But in my defense, it's a nice poster.