AWAITING THE PASSING OF THE TORCH 5

The cost of redesigning the curriculum and supplying textbooks to millions of students were expected to reach $50 million—-an expense un¬derwritten by a U.S. nonprofit organization, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, and twenty-four corporate sponsors. Some of the sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, were the same companies whose billboards Party officials had painted over in 1996 in an attempt to diminish the young’s fascination with everything Western.
Putting together the new curriculum was a nice example of reconcilia¬tion between Vietnam and the United States. I made an appointment to see Tran Van Nhung, the education ministry official overseeing it, so I could include his comments in an article I planned to write. Nhung wasn’t in his office when I arrived at the appointed hour, and it took some time to hunt him down. He seemed nervous to see me with notebook in hand.
“Are you the journalist?” he asked. When I replied yes, he said, “I only have a few minutes. We’ll have to make this fast.” He didn’t offer tea, which was a sure sign we were off to a bad start. I said I only needed fif¬teen minutes of his time. He said he only had time for one question. His hands fidgeted and his face grew more ashen every time he saw me in the chair across from him, pen poised over paper. So I tossed him a nice easy slowball of a question: What impact would the new program have on the country’s education system?
“I’m a mathematician and it’s not for me to make personal judgments,” Nhung said. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me or I’ll be late for my meet¬ing.” And he hurried down the corridor, evidently relieved to be distanc¬ing himself from a journalist.
Although such abruptness was unusual in Vietnam, a bureaucrat’s un¬case at the thought of being quoted was not. There was no reward in say¬ing the right thing and risk in saying the wrong thing. Accordingly, civil servants devoted most of their energy to ensuring that they didn’t make a mistake or offend a superior. That meant saying nothing at all, making no decisions, deferring to authority, leaving no fingerprints on anything. It was not surprising that a Singapore research firm, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, rated Vietnam’s bureaucracy as the most obdurate in all Asia.
The education ministry deserved credit for raising the literacy rate—it was aiming for zero illiteracy under the new curriculum—and for making school compulsory through the fifth grade. But it was hard-pressed to keep up with the demands created by a growing population, a rural exo¬dus to the cities, and the high expectations of parents for their children’s future. The government could afford to spend only $41 per high school student each year (some affluent towns in western Connecticut spent $7,300 per student). Teachers had such a tough time making ends meet on salaries averaging $30 per month (some teachers’ salaries in Connecticut topped $60,000 per year) that they commonly withheld critical compo¬nents of instruction so they could get extra income tutoring their own students, who needed to know the missing information to pass examina¬tions and advance to a higher education level. Also widespread were re-ports of buying degrees, selling grades, and principals supplementing their incomes with special fees assessed parents.
Educational reform, international development experts believed, was one of the three or four biggest challenges the government had to con¬front if Vietnam was to become more competitive, less corrupt, and more in tune with the aspirations of its people. There was a lot of ground to cover. In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of global competitiveness among fifty-nine countries, Vietnam was in fifty-third place. In the Cor¬ruption Index for ninety countries published by Transparency Interna¬tional, Vietnam was the fourteenth most corrupt. The next year, 2001, a Hong Kong consultancy elevated Vietnam to the top spot as Asia’s most corrupt country.
I knew that many of the bright young Vietnamese who were working so hard for an advanced education, who were so full of hope, had no idea the deck they were playing with was missing some cards. What they did know was that a, say, pharmaceutical representative for an international company in the private sector could make $500 per month—ten times what a doctor earned in the state sector—and they believed things were going to work out. But where in the world were the jobs? The 1.4 million jobs a year the government needed to create just to stay even? I knew electrical engineers who were working as waiters, computer scientists as cab drivers, liberal arts majors as chambermaids, English graduates as tour guides, and lots of educated kids who weren’t working at all. I never heard one complain or indicate, when life got derailed, he or she believed anything was wrong that couldn’t be fixed with more study, more work.

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