Indonesia's thrifty officials set an example

Recently, Indonesian officials were ordered to eat street foods, such as cassava, steamed corn and yam cakes, at meetings instead of fancy foreign dishes. The initiative came from the nation's newly-elected leader, Joko Widodo, who was born in a slum in Central Java and used to work as a carpenter.

As soon as he got into office, as promised, he slashed the travel and meeting budgets. The new rules on economising on catering for these events will be applied to all ministries and Government offices starting from December 1.

It was an initiative worth adopting throughout the 10 ASEAN nations, indeed the world.

Vietnam should especially take note, considering that the State budget collection could be down by VND20 trillion (S$1.2 trillion) this year due to the continued weakening of oil prices, a figure which was recently mentioned by Head of the Government Office Nguyen Van Nen.

Sure saving on food at official meetings and gatherings might not be the defining factor that can help turn the budget around, but practising thrift and combating waste are serious issues that have been on the discussion agenda for several years. Public debt, slower economic growth and the need to develop infrastructure continue to persist and are a mounting challenge for Vietnam.

At the recent National Assembly session, while discussing the draft Law on State Budget, lawmaker Truong Thi Hue (Thai Nguyen Province) suggested providing officials eligible to use State cars a fixed amount of money to spend on fuel and holding meetings.

Similar to Widodo's initiative on cutting down on food costs, way back in 2006, Vietnam also had an initiative on allocating a fixed amount for officials to use State cars. It encouraged other officials to go to work by taxi or xe om. This became a circular issued by the Finance Ministry in 2007.

But the Vietnamese initiative was doomed to fail as it was only on a voluntary basis. In an interview last year, former head of the National Assembly Office, Tran Quoc Thuan, one of the first to support the initiative, said not a single mechanism had been created to enforce the rule.

The most important task, he said, was the need to strictly monitor officials entitled to use State cars by monitoring the amount of kilometers driven and forbidding the use of State cars for personal events, such as weddings or visiting pagodas. But not much has been done since then.

According to statistics from the Department of Public Asset Management, Vietnam currently has about 37,000 official state cars. The department estimates that requiring officials to limit the use of State cars and encouraging the use of personal vehicles and public transport for work purposes could save the State budget about VND1.5 trillion a year. The department is now working on a proposal to enforce this rule.

We, however, even without enforcement, the public would be pleased to see officials display their own thrift measures. Higher officials must set an example for others to follow. Those who do so will be publicly praised by the national media because the privileges taken by public officials and the unlimited use of public assets must be stopped.

Of course, officials might not feel as important if they have to travel to work by taxi or motorbike, but, quite honestly, the public could not care less. Besides national events or special occasions that require formal procedures, most of the time the credibility of public officials is based on their work for the people, not on the type of State cars they use.

Citizens love seeing public officials mingle with the masses, such as the way Indonesian President Widodo flew economy class to attend his son's graduation in Singapore. It may be public relations, but it is excellent public relations. Everyone does take notice, more than they do when officials flash past in large black cars with tinted windows.

Pham Phuong Thao, former chairwoman of HCM City People's Council, was once spotted by a newspaper reader as she was riding to work on a bicycle. The picture was published on Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper at the time. The public loved it.

In 2013, Transport Minister Dinh La Thang called on his staff and officials in the transport sector to use budget airlines when travelling on business. As Tet draws near, HCM City People's Council has also asked its offices and agencies not to use public cars for personal uses - or to hold lavish parties.

Just as a family must tighten its budget in difficult times, a nation must do the same. Just imagine the number of bridges that could be built in the far-flung areas with that US$70 million (S$92.6 million) that could be easily saved if public officials used fewer State cars.