VIEW: Superpowers’ graveyard —Ishaque Malik - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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Distinct from the sights and sounds of our world, were the emblems of socialism, i.e. the sickle and the hammer, pictures of typical Mao-cap clad workers, statues of Lenin and all pervasive dominance of the colour red, which symbolised equality of men and women of all classes

Those inspiring few days of December last spent in Vietnam, one of the few surviving relics of socialism, was a time of deep reflection. Imagine the joy of being amidst a unique people, who fought for freedom in the same century against both the colonial French and the superpower US, none of who could withstand this small nation’s zest for sovereignty and liberty. No power can subjugate a free people, unless they willingly resort to subjection.

The Vietnamese take deep pride in their victory over the US and they usually do not mention the support they received in this war from the then USSR. Fair enough, as history is not what really happened but the way it is presented to the world. My reverie took me to the 1980s, when we had also covertly fought a war against another superpower of the time. But the dichotomy of the situations is that, while the Vietnamese struggle is a tale in heroism, in our part of the world, an even greater effort, which utterly routed a superpower and caused its disintegration, has only unsung heroes.

The most romantic aspect of Vietnam is the fact that it is still a socialist country. Though it opened up its economy in 1986, the political system still remains socialist. Socialism and communism are a pale vestige of their past now but any student of history can still be enthralled by the astounding force of the hammer and sickle, which captivated the bulk of humanity. The 20th century saw many nations turning to socialism as a solution to their lingering problems. Standing outside the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where his embalmed body continues to inspire his people, I thought that ideas are hard to eschew. Generations pass, maps are drawn and redrawn but ideas live on. Socialism and communism may be tottering as systems, but the ideas of equality, unity of the working classes, state responsibility and collective ownership will always be celebrated as a contrast to the ills of capitalism.

Vietnam is half the size of Pakistan in both area and population. Its per capita GDP is $ 1,036 and annual economic growth rate is at seven percent. It introduced large-scale economic reforms, starting in 1986, which are producing positive results. However, much needs to be done concerning governance, which still remains centralised, with the party ruling the roost. One strong argument cited as a reason for communism’s failure is that the communist party bureaucracy became an oligarchy that did not allow the cream of society to take part in governance, as against democracy, which, being a pluralistic polity, allows growth and opportunity. The overall quality of human resource, which differentiates a developing nation from a developed one, is also lagging behind in this country. Many of the skills and knowledge of the free market economy are entirely new for them and they need quite some time to catch up. There prevails a mysterious sense of secrecy, which was the hallmark of the socialist paradigm, perhaps used to create an aura of awe to forge compliance and unanimity and to discourage dissent. Transparency and openness, which are the basic features of good governance, are completely missing.

Loitering in the streets of Hanoi, a Pakistani comes across quite a few familiar scenes like broken roads, dilapidated buildings, entangled and hanging cables on electric poles, vendors encroaching roads and footpaths, hordes of men and women wandering erratically, swarms of beggars and slow-moving carts and fast moving vehicles proceeding side by side. The culture of poverty is the most pervading force, which transcends differences of political systems, geography, language and ethnicity. Distinct from the sights and sounds of our world, were the emblems of socialism, i.e. the sickle and the hammer, pictures of typical Mao-cap clad workers, statues of Lenin and all pervasive dominance of the colour red, which symbolised equality of men and women of all classes.

Of all the Confucian and socialist societies, Vietnamese society is, perhaps, the most passionate and liveliest, where the sombreness of discipline, austerity, modesty and virtuosity is liberally lax. At times, one comes across a bunch of frivolous people in the late hours of the night, having fun out in the street and spurting out loud hearty laughter. Their restaurants and cafes also manifest the same spirit and offer a wide variety of cuisines and drinks.

Ha Long Bay in northeastern Vietnam is one of the most beautiful sea shores in the world. Small but steep hills and islets, protruding out of seawater in great numbers, add to the spellbinding scenery. Some of the hills are hollow from the inside, which served as human habitats for our ancestors. These caves are really majestic and inspire awe in the hearts of the beholders, as these are immensely vast and high sans supporting pillars. Hundreds of people can get in together and well visualise their presence in the court of some prehistoric chieftain. Vietnam rightly wishes for this site to be included in the list of great wonders of the world.

A nation’s pride is neither its money nor land, it is its freedom. Poverty-struck Vietnam is inspiring because it has buried in its soil the obdurate pride of two titans of the times and has refused to surrender its instinct for freedom.

The writer is a student at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

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