IT was intriguing to spot Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the recent G-20 summit in Toronto.
The unilingual Dung stood with his headphones on, beaming like a garden gnome and clearly chuffed to be in a group that included the presidents of China, Russia and the United States.
He deserves to look happy. Modern-day Vietnam is blessed with good fortune. It has a young and industrious workforce, a resource-rich interior and oil-rich coastal waters.
It also lies at the strategic fulcrum of Southeast and Northeast Asia, and so is courted by superpowers and invited to confabs like the G-20.
However, Dung’s self-satisfied smile echoed other signs that Vietnam’s leaders are becoming arrogant and intoxicated with grandiose notions that exceed the nation’s capabilities.
Their flamboyant schemes include a high-speed bullet train linking Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a bevy of high-tech satellite cities and eight nuclear power stations.
In a perfect world, the country would, of course, benefit from all these things.
But mega-projects take time and money. And a wise government does what it can while avoiding costly pipe dreams that deplete the national coffers – already ominously low in Vietnam due to a huge trade imbalance, a weak currency and past economic mismanagement.
Consider the bullet train delusion. Its massive US$56 billion price tag – a figure likely to double when corruption and embezzlement are factored in – would have aggravated the nation’s already high foreign debt (currently 42 percent of GDP).
High ticket prices would also deter passengers, so the capital costs were unlikely ever to be recouped.
Dung and the regime’s other imperious leaders waved these worries away with contempt and pressed ahead. But last month they got a nasty shock. On June 19, members of the National Assembly in Hanoi rejected the scheme by a vote of 178 to 157.
Assemblymen lambasted the project and the need to fund it with foreign development assistance and loans that would impose $600 of foreign debt on every single Vietnamese citizen.
The Cambodian government, currently proceeding with a similarly costly scheme to resurrect its railway system using foreign assistance and loans, might well pay heed to this vote and reassess its own priorities.
In both countries, it would be wiser to defer big-ticket mega-projects and focus on key basic needs such as education and health care.
As Vietnam’s angry assemblymen also pointed out, the nation’s schooling system is woeful, and none of its universities is among the top 500 on international rankings.
Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan conceded that the ruling Communist Party, the government, prior education ministers and the National Assembly all shared responsibility for this failure.
He is right. But perhaps now that the bullet train fantasy has been shelved, some of that $56 billion could be used to upgrade schools and rectify the failure.
correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.