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Beyond The Economy: Vietnam’s Leadership Challenges

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder why Vietnam identifies a lot with its national flower, the lotus. Elegant, delicate, and exquisite, the lotus symbolizes purity and optimism for the future. True enough, Vietnam’s socio-economic growth seems unstoppable. This is despite the country’s long tussle with issues like colonial rule and foreign intrusions. Vietnam may very well be on the road towards economic prosperity. But the fledgling nation still needs a brand of great leadership that takes into account complex issues and realities.

“In the pond, nothing’s more beautiful than lotus, the flower of the dawn,” goes a famous Vietnamese folk poem. It seems to capture the hopeful sentiment of many Vietnamese. They look to a new dawn of shared prosperity and inclusive growth – and with good reason. This year has seen the Vietnamese economy expand by 7.08 percent in the first six months, the highest in eight years. This is primarily driven by growth in the services and construction sectors. Measures for exports and foreign direct investment (FDI) also recorded higher growth in the first half of 2018. This is not unnatural as Vietnam is looking at her big sister, China, as an example. Pundits are saying that the country is roughly just ten years behind China, the region’s juggernaut of economic growth.

Vietnam’s steady rise may not have all the fireworks of a sharp upturn. But it remains spectacular. This is if you consider, for example, that it was only in 2004 that the first U.S. commercial flight, since the end of the Vietnam war, landed in Ho Chi Minh City. Or that it was only in September 2013 that the economy grew by 5.14% in first three quarters of the year. This marked the Vietnamese people’s single-minded return to growth after years of economic sluggishness. According to the World Bank, it was the economic and political reforms of 1986 under the leadership of Đổi Mới that nursed the country’s economic development.

Needless to say, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s story of progress has had one too many antagonists. For a great part of its existence, the country has lived through the nightmare of war and oppressive rule. Sources estimate that as many as 365, 000 Vietnamese civilians died during the Vietnam war. U.S. author and political scientist Guenter Lewy pegged the figure to be closer to 1,353,000. Brutal memories of incidents where the U.S. military targeted civilians, like the Vietnam Massacre at Huế and the My Lai massacre, continue to weigh on the collective psyche.

Forty years after, Vietnam has reworked itself from one of the poorest countries in Asia into a lower middle-income country. Income per capita is set to increase to USD 8,000 and USD 9,000 by 2020. Maintaining Vietnam’s economic resilience has surely been no joke. The World Bank specifically attributes Vietnam’s good performance to export-oriented manufacturing, steady domestic demand, and recovery in the agriculture industry. It has no doubt required political muscle and strong public leadership. But the Vietnam of tomorrow will have to look at more than just its economic performance. “Our world is in a state of flux. Old models of leadership and change are insufficient to deal with the complex, interdependent problems abundant in a globalized world. Today’s leaders need a new framework of leadership in order to respond more effectively to these challenges,” explains Samuel Kim, president and co-founder of the Center for Asia Leadership.                                              

Vietnam is in the process of healing from its economic limp. But its leaders and policy-makers also need to look into complex, cultural problems that weaken the country’s competitiveness in the region. Vietnamese workers continue to deal with cultural blocks that hinder innovation and creativity. Some of these include strict hierarchy systems based largely on formal authority; red tape; and endemic corruption. More Vietnamese women are receiving higher education, and even more are joining the workforce. But traditional male dominance continues to keep many women from professional and personal opportunities for self-actualization.

With high hopes for great leaders in the country, who possess powerful and unparalleled leadership skills, prospects are definitely bright for Vietnam. But future progress will be largely determined by  leadership that speaks the vocabulary of change, innovation, and fluidity.

By: Rajeswari Rush Ramanee & Nirva’ana Delacruz