Late Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải visited the Vietnam News Agency's office in HCM City in 2015. — VNA/VNS Photo Mạnh Linh
Vũ Kim Hải*
The late Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải, as one of the country’s leaders during that tender time when Việt Nam started to open itself to the world following the launch of drastic economic reforms, left an indelible mark in the socio-economic development of the country. Khải also leaves fond memories in the minds of those who had the chance to work with him in Government from 1997 to 2006.
Respect for experts
During his two terms serving as the head of the Government, PM Phan Văn Khải always prioritised the “gathering of intellects and wisdom” from the best people of all walks of life, especially amongst dedicated and knowledgeable experts.
The introduction of the first-ever Law on Enterprises, the recognition of private businesses as a legitimate sector and a slate of policies distancing the Vietnamese economy from the centralised model of the previous few decades set the country on track for firm economic growth. The policy changes were critical following two years of setbacks thanks to the infamous financial crisis that gripped Asian countries in 1997.
Former PM Phan Văn Khải also made history as the first Prime Minister of Việt Nam to visit the United States after the bitter war between the two countries ended in 1975, followed by decades of Cold War-tensions and isolation. He was involved in 15 rounds of talks with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over 11 years, which finally saw Việt Nam become a full-time member in 2007.
“He didn’t tell us everything, but when he did, it was always the truth. He didn’t utter words he didn’t mean. That’s why we felt we could be totally frank with him,” said Trần Đức Nguyên, a core member of the expert council panel working for Khải and his predecessor, the late Võ Văn Kiệt.
Nguyên said that Kiệt, serving as PM from 1991 to 1997, had the idea of forming an expert council panel in 1993, and Khải, then the Deputy PM, endorsed the initiative and became directly involved in the establishment of the panel.
During his time as Prime Minister, Khải worked directly with the expert panel, not through any intermediary.
The panel was meant to provide the big pictures, diverse perspectives and objective voices. Members were not picked from the Government but instead had backgrounds in researching and studying specific issues. Some were even academics who had served the Saigon regime or were living overseas.
The potential candidates were not assembled via official administrative channels, but rather personal invitations from Khải himself, in which he pledged respect for independent and free thinking, even for opinions that directly contradicted the views of the administration.
PM Phan Văn Khải frequently held meetings and talks to hear feedback and dicussion on the way forward for the country’s reform efforts. The expert panel was also asked to be involved in writing and critiquing important institutional legislation, as well as the writing of the Prime Minister’s speeches and reports.
Most suggestions and proposals from the expert panel were approved by the Prime Minister and incorporated in the Government’s agenda and legislations.
During their 13-year stint (1993-2006), the expert panel delivered proposals on socio-economic reform policies – especially those relating to different sectors of the economy, the private sector and entrepreneurs, equitisation of State-owned enterprises, attracting foreign investment and international integration.
The critical factor, or the prerequisite for the successes of an expert council, is the leader’s willingness to listen to people with opposing views, giving them a chance to make their case. This mindset – “be close to the people, trust in the people, learn from the people” – is considered by many a trait of leadership Khải inherited from his predecessor Võ Văn Kiệt.
Open to the press
During his premiership, Phan Văn Khải always supported the press and advocated for the fight for the truth and multiple perspectives.
Accompanying PM Khải on his working trips, most reporters commented that in his speeches, when he spoke of economic issues, he always opted to use succinct and informative sentences with lots of lively illustrative analogies to best convey his messages to the mass.
Khải also did not shy from taking questions from foreign journalists, recalled Phan Thuý Thanh, former head of the communications department under the foreign affairs ministry.
“If we do not meet them, how do we know how the world outside thinks of us?,” Khải was quoted by Thanh as saying. Such a simple gesture from the leader of a still predominantly conservative country formed a powerful image of Việt Nam in the eyes of the international community.
“After meeting with foreign guests, he’d usually stay back to ask guests about their hobbies and their family. Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and now the sitting President of the European Commission only had the kindest words for Khải every time I met him during my stint as the ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg,” Thanh said.
Vietnam News Agency (VNA), as the national news establishment, received much attention from the PM.
Nguyễn Thị Thuý, former deputy head of social and cultural news of VNA’s domestic news department, has strong memories of Khải’s support during the SARS epidemic back in 2003.
“I was then a reporter in charge of health issues, and was on an emergency shift to cover the latest developments of one of the worst epidemics to enter Việt Nam. The disease was spreading like wildfire, with new patients and casualties rising by the hour, half of which were medical staff. At the Việt Nam – France hospital, the ‘epicentre’ of the epidemic, there were five medical workers and the Italian doctor Carlo Urbani dead already,” she said.
“Public rumours said that the health ministry still couldn’t determine the cause, the strains of the virus or the methods of transmission, let alone drugs or diagnostics, enhancing confusion and anxiety.”
The Vietnam News Agency had a lot of information but could not release it, as some State agencies wanted to keep a close lid on the state of affairs for the moment.
“Of course, we reporters on shift were livid as community efforts were certainly needed to contain the epidemic. So we decided to contact the head of the Government for direction. Luckily, just minutes after, Prime Minister Khải agreed to make public all information about the progress of the SARS epidemic in Việt Nam,” she said.
The PM’s decision marked the start of enhanced efforts from all of society and scientists, which contributed to Việt Nam’s containment of the epidemic after just 45 days. It was the first country in the world to successfully contain SARS.
The World Health Organisation, in its congratulations to Việt Nam, attributed the success to the “political commitment at the highest level.”
The impressions former Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải made on experts and members of the press show why his passing is an unfathomable loss for all who had the chance to meet and work with the man. — VNS
*_ Vũ Kim Hải is former head editor of the domestic news department, Vietnam News Agency