Friday, September 26, 2008

Inflation, Miss Vietnam, and Modernization

By Kim N. B. Ninh

Dr. Kim N. B. Ninh is the Hanoi-based Country Representative of Vietnam for The Asia Foundation. She can be reached

Vietnam may be experiencing the highest inflation rate in the last two decades, a whopping 28% year-on-year in August, but of late the country is consumed with a different kind of crisis.  The latest beauty to be crowned Miss Vietnam on August 31, 18-year-old Tran Thi Thuy Dung, was discovered to not have finished secondary school, contrary to the government’s beauty contest regulations.

On the surface, the ingredients of this still unfolding scandal are rather mundane.  It turns out that the rules established by the Miss Vietnam organizing committee were different from those of the Ministry of Culture, asking for contestants to have “the level of high school and up” rather than the government’s requirement of a high school graduation exam.  Under furious media questioning, the organizing committee stuck by its gun, stating that although its regulations did not meet legal standards, the new Miss Vietnam did not do anything wrong.  Under more media investigation, there are now serious questions about whether Miss Vietnam’s school records have been doctored to show that she has completed the twelfth grade, even though she had left in the middle of the school year. 

The extent of media concern and public uproar over this are astounding.  In part, this is because beauty contests are no mere beauty contests in Vietnam.  The first beauty contest in socialist Vietnam was the Miss Vietnam beauty contest, organized by the Tien Phong newspaper since 1988, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.  I happened to be in Vietnam in 1988 and remember well the sense of excitement and adventure that the first Miss Vietnam contest generated.  The celebration of beauty was, in itself, a radical act in a system based on the ideology of labor and the common man.  Being the same as everyone else was, therefore, both a virtue and a necessity.  But by choosing one over all the others, that first beauty contest was a potent reminder in a closed environment that excellence is defined by being the best and identified through competition.

Vietnam has changed dramatically since then.  The story of this country emerging in the past decade as one of the most dynamic economies in the world, with a tremendous poverty alleviation record, is a remarkable one.  This is an achievement driven by the conviction of many Vietnamese that much time has been lost by wars, ideological conflicts, and historical fate, hampering the country’s development and modernization.  The sense of urgency is palpable, and Vietnam’s persistent efforts to accede to the WTO, achieve PNTR status with the U.S, and host APEC all at the end of 2006 were truly a culmination of a national desire for the country to take its place in the world.

Development is often equated with modernization in Vietnam.  The modernizing impulse is itself a historical legacy in a country marked by colonization; being branded as uncivilized allowed another the right to inflict violence.  Modernization, therefore, permeates many government campaigns and policies, intellectual discourse and trends, and public views and interests even if they are conflicting.  To be modern is to be able to take part in the global community and be recognized as outstanding, or at least, as capable.  In this context, over the past twenty years beauty contests have become a channel where that modernizing impulse intersects with a growing public appetite for entertainment.  The explosion of beauty contests in Vietnam in recent years is a clear indication.

The trend was capped this year when Vietnam hosted the Miss Universe 2008 in July.  The experience with accomplished global beauties, their rigorous training, and a well-known professional international beauty contest led to many discussions about the shortcomings of Vietnam’s own fledging beauty contest industry.  Certainly national pride plays a role; the new Miss Vietnam is supposed to take part in the Miss World contest later this year. But the many beauty contests are beginning to lose their appeal, and this latest scandal only adds to a growing public concern about fast-changing values in a market economy.

The innocence of that first beauty contest (among the prizes, a bicycle for the beauty queen which was later stolen) is being replaced by cynicism.  As the Vietnamese writer Ky Duyen commented in the Internet newspaper VietNamNet, the beauty contest scandal is one of a number of recent cultural scandals in Vietnam, in which fraud and deception are prominent.  So many things could be bought for personal gains.  For Ky Duyen, the sad truth is that “culture and education, which both drive social development and determine the unique character of a nation and of a society, are perhaps not capable of their responsibilities.”

Vietnam is in a sober mood, no doubt affected by the global downturn and its own inflation woes.  A beauty contest scandal has actually triggered more critical reflections about where the country is heading.  Vietnamese do not doubt the tremendous positive impacts of the economic reform process on their lives, but it is also a sign of maturity for many to be asking how best to address the social and cultural lags in the breakneck shift to market economy that affect the society as a whole. In this regard, modernization has costs and is not so easily defined.