Profiling late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt

(SGI) - The late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt was a decisive, demanding, and innovative leader who was able to take crucial decisions at very decisive moments.
Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt directs the construction of the North - South 500kv transmission line.
Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt directs the construction of the North - South 500kv transmission line.

Mr. Võ Đại Lược, an associate professor, and former member of Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt Economic Advisory Group, recalls his memorable time spent with the late Prime Minister in vivid recollections. Mr. Võ Đại Lược recalls that the late Prime Minister was very sensitive to practical issues, and when he was convinced of an effective solution to a problem, he made decisions immediately. On occasions when the late Prime Minister had to sign important documents, he always consulted all members of his Economic Advisory Group (EAG), of which Associate Professor Võ Đại Lược was an important member.

Staying grounded

I recall that during one meeting with the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt, an EAG member suggested banning fireworks during Lunar New Year celebrations. At that moment the late Prime Minister was seen jotting down a few words on his notepad. After that he consulted various groups across the country and then issued a total ban on fireworks. Another instance his decisive nature was seen is in the case of construction of dikes. Some people had built houses at the foot of the Red River Dike, causing the dike to become weak as termites began to feed on the wood portions of the houses. During a meeting with EAG, late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt listened to members and after extensive consultation, he ordered that all houses along the dike be demolished.

The late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt also showed how decisive he was on another occasion when he made a firm decision to build the North-South 500 kV transmission line to improve the national grid. Along with General Secretary Đỗ Mười he decided on this matter. This is why the Politburo approved the proposal although Mr. Đặng Hữu, the then Minister of Science and Technology, had objected strongly to the plan. General Secretary Đỗ Mười had previously been Minister of Construction and also Deputy Prime Minister, so he was consulted on 80% of all economic issues.

Late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt was well aware of this fact and called me to assign the task of conveying his idea to General Secretary Đỗ Mười and talk him into agreeing to the plan. I had been a private but unofficial consultant to General Secretary Đỗ Mười in the anti-inflation program earlier, so I was able to understand General Secretary Đỗ Mười and to finally convince him of the plan.

At times, some people would criticize the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt for his economic policy, saying that he was deviating from the country’s socialist agenda. Mr. Trần Đức Nguyên, EAG Head, assigned me to prepare a presentation to argue against this point of view.

In my presentation I pointed out a few key points. I stated that firstly, when assessing whether the economy is on the right track towards socialism, we should not only consider whether the group of state-owned companies are higher than private companies. We must look at the growth rate and efficiency of the entire economy. If state-owned companies make up a larger portion, but growth is stagnating and economic efficiency rate is low, then it is far from making progress on the road to socialism. In fact, the growth rate was high at that time, and the economic efficiency had increased significantly when the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt was holding the reins.

Secondly, before the economic reforms known as ‘Doi Moi’ in 1986, state-owned companies accounted for 90% of the economy, and household or private businesses made up only five percent. A lot of people thought Vietnam was a socialist economy, but it was in deep recession and suffered hyper-inflation, which was at times over 700%. I only talked for about ten minutes about the present situation, and the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt listened very attentively. Then, during a Politburo Standing Committee meeting to discuss ways to pull the economy out of depression, the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt spoke for half an hour to affirm that Vietnam had not deviated from the path of socialism.

Opening the economy

The question of how to effectively open the economy and pave the way for global integration was a heated debate when late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt was in office. At that time, the Politburo members were strongly against the idea of international integration. Late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt assigned me the task of making the idea clear to General Secretary Đỗ Mười. After I spent several hours explaining the advantages and disadvantages of international integration, General Secretary Đỗ Mười totally agreed to the proposal, and asked me to find ways to persuade the Politburo to approve this proposal. He assigned me as a scholar to make a convincing presentation to the Politburo members.

Before the Politburo, I stated that firstly, although the international organizations were established by capitalist countries, all their principles are made known to the public, and none of these principles are against the development of our country as a socialist state. Therefore, their business activities can still ensure fairness and interest of our nation. Secondly, these international organizations have actually been benefiting from all the participating countries, and it is not difficult to see that.

Thirdly, if we don't join these organizations, we will be isolated and left alone to resolve our problems on our own, like in the early 1980s. At that time, Foreign Minister Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm and Trade Minister Lê Văn Triết had each talked on their points of view for about half an hour from diplomatic and commercial perspectives. Finally, the Politburo decided that Vietnam would join ASEAN, APEC, WTO, and normalize diplomatic relations with the US. It is without a doubt that the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt made great contributions to the country and in the move into the international arena.

Late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt once visited Singapore, and highly appreciated the achievements made by Singapore. He said such achievements in Singapore largely resulted from effective management and huge contributions from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Later, the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt personally invited Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who was Adviser to Minister and no longer Prime Minister of Singapore, to join him as his adviser, to which the Politburo disagreed.

Late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt said to the EAG that even though now the Politburo does not agree for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to be his adviser, he will still act as an adviser to EAG. After that, each week, we listened to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew speak in three or four sessions about his management and governance experiences, and then we presented reports to the late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt.

Till today I still remember what Mr. Lee Kuan Yew said almost 30 years ago which is still of great value to us. Late Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt was a dynamic man who always seriously heard all constructive opinions and weighed the pros and cons of what to do to maintain positive economic growth in Vietnam.

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