Using Vietnam’s intellectuals wisely and well

Published: 06/09/2009 05:00



Sci-tech intellectuals play an important role in Vietnam’s industrialization and modernization. To bring their talents into full play, we need to have an accurate appraisal of the actual situation.

This is the first in a series of VietNamNet articles that address the role of scientists and other technically-trained managers in the nation’s future development. The author of this article is Dr. Pham Minh Hac, a former Minister of Education and former chief of the Central Sciences and Education Committee.

Facing reality

Vietnam experienced a long and extremely violent war and it took a long time for the war injuries to heal. Entering the open-door period (1986), however, Vietnam had more than two million university graduates, over 15,000 doctors and more than 15,000 professors and associate professors.

It is a great matter to accurately evaluate the ability and quality of this contingent of intellectuals. This is a matter that has concerned the public, and the media has published conflicting opinions about it.

I’m very surprised and I cannot explain why some people – including a few intellectuals of that period — criticize and even despise this contingent. On the contrary, some people are too confident, saying that it will not be long before Vietnam will win Nobel prizes.

I don’t want to join this controversy. It’s fair to say, however, that our science and technology intellectuals have done many good things for the country, though they also have had weaknesses.

There are many reasons for these weaknesses. In historical perspective, this cohort was still very young. The Western sciences have been developed for four centuries (not to mention ancient times) while our scientific history only began several decades ago.

As to social aspect, Vietnam was an agricultural country, we could even say a backward agricultural country, where even the workers were influenced by ‘small farmer’ mentality.

In terms of psychology, Vietnam inclines toward overly academic and abstractly philosophical education. Moreover, the working conditions are very poor.

The social position of intellectuals

Everyone knows the famous sentence on the stone stele at the Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam’s first university): “Talents are the element that sustains the country’s life.” Everyone knows King Quang Trung’s “Proclamation on Learning” which said that “A nation that wishes to become prosperous must regard talents as the source of wealth.”

President Ho Chi Minh wrote his articles “Talents and Building the Country” in November 1945 and “Instruction to Seek Talents” in November 1946. And, at the beginning of the era of doi moi (renovation) some twenty years ago, the policy line was very clear: “regard education, training and science-technology as the top national policy.”

However, as the Politburo concluded in April of this year, though nearly 20 years have passed since this policy line was established, it has not been well implemented.

Why is that? There are so many reasons that I cannot count them all; in fact, I don’t know them all to tell. I only want to say that it is sound doctrine to see education and training, science and technology as our top national policy, and one in which the central objective is developing human resources. And yet, even so, the people who work in the fields of education and training and science and technology are not considered as “the top priority”.

They have to work in unfavourable environments: the educational and training environment is unwholesome, while the scientific environment is heavy with the legacy of an ideology of ‘feeling’ and ‘sensitivity.’

After the war, during the ‘subsidy’ (bao cap) period up to 1986, our whole society was bureaucratized. Red tape flourished. Thinking of that, I would like to tell a story from the time when I was in office.

In a discussion of the salary norms for government employees at district levels, some people held that the salary of high-school headmasters ought not be higher than the pay for district chairmen.

Another story, one that will make you weep. . . . Recently, at a conference discussing the policy for professors and associate professors, someone on the organizing committee, from one of the ministries, said ‘government employees are government employees,’ so a person who works as a forest ranger is no different from a professor. [A result of this sort of thinking is that] even now Vietnam doesn’t have a salary norm for professors and associate professors!

These are insignificant stories but they touch on a fundamental issue. The leadership and management of the nation is a fundamental operation of society, activity that gives gives energy to the entire social structure. For a long time in this ‘doi moi’ period, lots of people everywhere have been focused on seeking financial capital or material resources. Though that is not wrong, it is insufficient. Mistakes will occur if we don’t pay attention, or pay too little attention, to human capital and social capital. Mistakes will result if we disregard the development of human resources.

This fact has been acknowledged recently and some have begun to call for change but, sadly, we don’t yet have a national strategy or a National Commission for Human Resources — in which scientific and technical personnel would be the most important source of energy to push forward the progress of our society.

Wanting to be trusted to do big jobs

In 2003-2004, the Central Scientific and Educational Committee was assigned a national level project regarding the nation’s science and technology staff. According to this project, almost every city and province was found to have policies to attract and retain talented science and technology staff. All had training programmes, including sending staff overseas.

The people who obtained doctor’s and master’s degrees from developed countries returned home with a very up-to-date education – yet some were put to work as mere interpreters. Some said they felt annoyed and sorry for the S&T specialists when they saw businessmen praised to the blue skies.

The general opinion was that our intellectuals are not put into appropriate positions.

Generally, many people said that intellectuals are not given positions of trust and high responsibility. Scientists and scholars spoke that their only wish is being used properly. The scientific and technological cadre expressed to the Party and to the Government that what they hoped for most of all is to be properly valued. It’s said that implicit in the word trong dung – entrusted with an important position – is the notion of tin dung – being properly valued. To call a spade a spade, as the farmers say, they want to be properly valued and they want to be put to appropriate work. Moving on a step, they hope to be given important tasks to perform.

Some asked as well if the leadership, our top management wants intellectuals to play a role, and gave their own answers: yes, certainly — to be ornaments, window-dressing, and that was all! Nowhere did they pay attention to skills, character, and results!

Our S&T intellectuals want to serve their professions, the people and the nation. Subsumed in their plea to be valued and used in important roles, [they have in mind] specific policies and systems, a salary structure, working conditions.

And of course, not bureaucratically or with exaggerated egalitarianism, but instead flexibly applying a market-oriented socialist structure, such as working according to a production agreement, in competitive conditions, and especially paying attention to results (and not just economic results).

Another marker: we shouldn’t allow the commercialization of education and training. Regarding basic science, social science, humanities, however, we need to figure out ways of applying the market structure and using it. There needs to be another attitude toward technology, something very carefully considered. The fundamental aim of this work of changing these policies and structures must be to make them really scientific, really objective with regard to education and science.

To sum up, let’s remember that the United Nations proclaimed this decade to be the decade of “Education for Sustainable Development,” in which intellectuals must be in the vanguard of human resource development.

Here in Viet Nam, some scholars have said that a country that doesn’t pursue such policy will end up as the wage-servant, or maybe a new sort of slave, of other countries. Starting from that idea, I hope that the upcoming 11th National Party Congress will make some breakthroughs.

Pham Minh Hac

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