VTIC '96, July 1-3, 1996, George Mason University
July 2, 1996
Doan Lien Phung, Ph.D, P.E.
President of PAI, TN (USA)
I thank the organizers of this meeting for having invited me to speak.
Only people who have spent nights and weekends trying to pull together
all the details of a large meeting know how hard it is. I therefore want
to ask all of you in the audience to join with me in giving a round of
applause to the organizers of this meeting.
In surveying the audience, I feel embarrassed to stand here, because
many of you have more experience and can speak better than me. I have accepted
the invitation because I feel that I must do my fair share. But, I want
to express my deep sense of humility and regret if what I have to say today
does not sit well with some of you.
The intent of my talk is to explore the opportunities for scientists
and engineers of Vietnamese origin and the challenges they face. In the
category of scientists and engineers, I include all those who choose a
profession in medicine, sciences, engineering, and technologies. This is
in contrast with two other categories: those who work at physical labor
and those who work in social sciences including politics, law, music, finance,
and economics. Let us examine the first group of opportunities that are
available to us, first and second generationVietnamese-Americans. These
opportunities can be summarized in one sentence: we are at the right place
at the right time.
Never before in the history of Vietnam have so many Vietnamese been
given the chance to learn the best of science and engineering. We came
from all corners of life in Vietnam. We came mostly with only the shirts
on our backs and a background of poverty, oppression, and war. This society,
and other Western societies such as France, Canada, and Australia opened
their doors, invited us in, and gave us the same opportunities that they
offer their own citizens. We are given assistance to go to school; indeed,
to the best schools that the nation builders of these societies have toiled
for many hundreds of years to establish.
We are invited to participate and we are accorded courtesy, rights,
and privileges. When we succeed, people praise us. When we have difficulties,
people assist us. When we differ, people deal with us democratically and
with tolerance. We are given the opportunity to participate and be counted
as equals among those working at the frontiers of medicine, physical sciences,
space, and engineering. Were we to remain in Vietnam, we would only be
able to read about and to dream of these opportunities.
How have we taken advantage of these opportunities and what are the
challenges we have yet to overcome? The first challenge is to learn, to
adapt, and to find a job. On this count, I believe that we have succeeded.
Stories abound regarding Vietnamese students being hard workers, being
valedictorians, going to Ivy League colleges, obtaining multiple degrees.
However, my experience is that we should guard against the shallow claim
that Vietnamese students always succeed in America. Despite the headlines,
I have known many students of Vietnamese origin who have had to struggle
with grades, with being unem ployed, and sometimes with bad reputations.
The second challenge is to excel. Having a degree and a job is common
in these highly developed and well structured economies. To excel is more
difficult. Contrary to many claims that scientists andengineers of Vietnamese
origin excel, my experience is that we do only so-so, and sometimes even
less, because of barriers that we inherit from our roots. With a profound
respect for many of you here who are giants in your fields, my experience
is that the Vietnamese ethnic group has a long way to go before we can
compare with the level of success of the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and
Indian ethnic groups. To date, we have few, if any, Vietnamese who have
been elected to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, or Medicine.
No person of Vietnamese origin has been awarded a Nobel Prize or a Field
Prize. Perhaps I am not well informed, but I know of few inventions or
contributions by scientists and engineers of Vietnamese origin that have
reached world class level in the academic world, or the multi-million dollar
level in daily life. So what are our limitations and challenges?
The first limitation that I observe about myself and many of my friends
is that we did not have a tradition of scientific inquiry. I've read and
reread the history of Vietnam, from the legendary Hong Bang dynasty through
the recorded history of the Dinh, Le, Ly, Tran, Later Le, and Nguyen dynasties.
I found many heroes among our ancestors, many poets, many historians, but
few scientists, engineers, economists, or architects. The educational system
throughout the thousand years of recorded history was based on the Chinese
system. This system demands people to follow a rigid code of conduct which
discourages free inquiry. It glorifies the memorization of Confucian literature
and looks down at artisans who practice technology and at merchants who
When the French came in the nineteenth century, French replaced Chinese
as the official language, and education was aimed at developing local functionaries
to carry out the decisions of the French masters. The majority of Vietnamese
developed the mentality that everything from France was better. We were
instructed to learn the textbooks by heart in order to pass the very difficult
examinations. Students of my generation were given the opportunity to imitate
and to repeat the footsteps of scientists and engineers from overseas.
We were not encouraged to find out why and how things around us work. As
a result, much of the knowledge about Vietnam and its people and its resources
can be more easily found in the work of foreigners, rather than the findings
of Vietnamese scientists and engineers. The second limitation I observe
about myself and many of my friends is that we tend to be isolated and
poor communicators. We often do not convey our findings well in technical
publications, nor do weexpress our thoughts eloquently before a group.
Some of us who are express our thoughts eloquently before a group. Some
of us who are outspoken tend to brag. Neither of these characteristics
endear us to our peers.
I believe that the reason for these phenomena reside in our inferiority
complex. Surely Vietnamese-Americans like myself don't speak English well.
Neither are we well-rounded individuals. We don't express ourselves well,
and we fear embarrassment. When we are talkative, our talks tend to be
based strongly on what we know, with little respect for the listeners.
Sometimes we brag superficially about things we like but don't know well.
In my upbringing, I was not taught the art of listening with an open mind,
and I was not familiar with the democratic concept of "give and take"
and "give the benefit of the doubt." So the challenge to me in
the last twenty years has been to participate, to listen well, and to speak
thoughtfully. It has alsobeen a ch allenge to me to raise my children to
be better rounded than I.
The above opportunities, challenges, and limitations appear to be facing many of us, particularly first-generation Vietnamese-Americans. Overcoming these limitations has helped some of us to be successful. I am sure that the second generation will be more successful in this respect. Now I want to address another group of opportunities that are available to Vietnamese-American scientists and engineers. These opportunities can be summarized in the following sentence: The time is now to do something useful for our former homeland, Vietnam.
I observe that the leaders of VACETS have taken pains to explain that the purpose of this meeting is to illustrate the accomplishments of scientists and engineers of Vietnamese origin and to create a forum for mutual assistance. However, looking at the displays and the technical contributions, we should ask ourselves the marketing question: Who are our clients? What is all this for? PAI Corporation spent several thousand dollars to display its exhibit in this meeting. As a businessman, I've made a poor investment because I know that few if any of you would be able to give me a contract. Similarly, many of you have spent time and money to come here to meet with others and to make technical contributions. But we also should take the time to ask the question: Will these technical subjects be understood by or even appreciated by the audience who has a very diverse background? The answer to me is rather obvious. If we continue this method of gathering Vietnamese scientists and engineers, then the enthusiasm and curiosity of the first time will wane, attendance will decrease, and future meetings will not be as successful, particularly under the resounding title of "International Conference." However, we are here, and we are enthusiastic. We came because we share a common bond: that of being of Vietnamese origin. We are here because we have a common aspiration: that of desiring to do something for Vietnam. So it seems to me that there is now an opportunity for us to do something together. The challenge is to define a purpose, to combine forces, and to prioritize our agendas. If we continue to wish many things but fail to realize any of them, to mix the deep and the superficial, to quarrel among ourselves, then we will have failed to seize this opportunity. We will grow old with unfulfilled dreams, and Vietnam will continue to suffer the indignity of poverty. What I have just said is loaded language. Let me simplify. As a group, we are heralded by many from within and outside Vietnam as the key to help the country catch up to the 21st century. But what are to do and how to do it? In thinking about this question, I've encountered several myths and fallacies that need to be debunked before I can truly address the possible.
The first myth is that there are more than 300,000 accomplished technical
Vietnamese expatriates among the two million Vietnamese overseas, and that
this force will help propel Vietnam to the ranks of the Tigers of Asia.
It is true that the money sent home by the Vietnamese to their relatives
has helped to prop up the tattered Vietnamese economy. The most concrete
demonstration of this is the stable price of the VND with respect to the
U.S. dollar. However, the jury is still out as to whether Vietnam can leapfrog
the distance that still separates it from its ASEAN neighbors. This is
because the Vietnamese economy is starting from such a low base, some $200
per capita, as compared to some $2,000 per capita for Thailand, $4,000
per capita for Malaysia, and $7,000 per capita for Singapore. And the rates
of growth of these neighbors are as high or even higher than the rate of
growth of the Vietnamese economy, currently between 8 and 10% per year.
To be able to take advantage of the knowledge and personal goodwill
of the 300,000 Vietnamese scientists and engineers overseas requires a
government program that is based on sincerity of intent, clarity of foresight,
and sustainability of plans. These characteristics are still lacking in
the Vietnamese government's programs. I hope that working with the UNDP,
the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank will help Vietnam institute
such programs. I hope that working with the UNDP, the World Bank, and the
Asian Development Bank will help Vietnam institute such programs. Thirty
years ago, my classmates consisted of students from Korea, Taiwan, and
Malaysia. Their governments had practical programs to encourage them to
go home to contribute to the development of their economies. They did,
and they were part of the success story. And even with a wise government
policy for utilizing the skills of overseas Vietnamese, a reality check
will indicate that the number 300,000 is inflated. This figure includes
both first and second generation world citizens of Vietnamese origin who
may have tender feelings towards Vietnam but have other daily priorities
to attend to. These include career, family, and mortgage payments. They
also possess a spectrum of skills and aspirations that, by and large, would
not be applicable to the needs of Vietnam. Only a fraction of these people
will devote time and effort to think of the needs in Vietnam, and an even
a smaller fraction who will actually become engaged.
Another myth is that our individual knowledge will count a lot. Let
us just look at the inventions displayed in this conference, and the technical
papers presented; let's ask ourselves the question: Are these things applicable
to the needs of Vietnam? The answer for most of them probably is "not
really." Many of us have succeeded in our field, with inventions,
technical contributions, and recognition by our peers. Others have succeeded
financially. But when we sit down and tally what we know and how much we
have, we will come to the inevitable conclusion that all this knowledge
and money are too impractical or too littlecompared to what is needed in
Thus, the challenge to us is to assess our strengths and weaknesses
and to prioritize our actions. In my opinion, our strengths include our
deep knowledge of the field we are working in, our ability to get access
to the most up-to-date information, and our ability to network with experts
in the field. However, our weaknesses are considerable: most of us work
as individuals. We are ill prepared to work as quasi technical-social leaders
who are really needed to lead development programs to success. Except for
the ability to understand Vietnamese, we are probably not as good as the
experts that Vietnam invites over, at a price, to contribute to the various
So what can we do? I believe that the first priority is to create a forum with which to speak with a louder voice. The second priority is to focus our contributions on the needs of Vietnam. The third priority is to engage in the affairs of Vietnam either collectively or individually. There are several challenges that we will have to overcome if we are to succeed. It is well known that Vietnamese do not work well together. Witness the existence of several hundred Vietnamese organizations, newspapers, and newsletters, but the lack of a common voice of the Vietnamese community on the local and national American scene. Vietnamese history is full of examples of our unity during a time or war, and discord during the time of peace. War destroys and discord does not build. While we scientists and engineers have more in common than the politicians among themselves, we nevertheless have similar weaknesses in egotism, self-aggrandizement, and intolerance. Some of us who are successful distance ourselves from dealing with anything Vietnamese. Others refuse to work together because they differ on how to lead, how to organize, how to be given tributes. Why do scientists and engineers need five or six organizations just in the U.S. and Canada? In order to have a meaningful voice, I believe that it is important for these organizations to combine forces so that only one single organization exists but with many chapters across the country. In this way we need to have only one publication, one annual meeting which can be rotated among the chapters. Much time and effort can thus be saved to be devoted to the burning issue of adapting our means and knowledge to the needs of Vietnam's development. It is a real challenge to focus our contributions to the needs of Vietnam. While it is relatively simple to wave what we know and the esoteric things we are working on in our daily careers, I believe that it takes quite a bit of thought and maturity to screen such knowledge for the gems that are really applicable. Thus, if I were an expert on the Internet, instead of writing about my contributions to the development of the web, it would be more challenging to write about how
Internet will contribute to the development of Vietnam in the 21st
century, and what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to take advantage
of this information superhighway. If I were an expert in safety and environmental
protection, it would take me less effort to regurgitate the OSHA and EPA
regulations than to distill the basic elements of these regulations so
as to improve the safety of the Vietnamese workers ten-fold, or to clean
up the polluted water and the dirty air that the majority of the 74 million
Vietnamese are immersed in every day. In a country like Vietnam, some simple
steps in education and regulations could result in orders of magnitude
improvements in living conditions.
Finally, it is a real challenge to be able to engage in the affairs
of Vietnam, either individually or collectively. This is the most practical
way for us to have a hand in the task of nation building and to realize
our dream of elevating Vietnam to the ranks of prosperous nations. I believe
that few among us would deny that this is a very difficult challenge. Some
of us can combine our careers with our desire to serve by accepting a job
in Vietnam or with a multinational company. Depending on the motive of
the company, we may or may not be able to realize what we want. However,
I believe that only by being engaged can we find out how much we individuals
Collectively, if VACETS and other organizations join forces and focus activities on their application to Vietnam, I believe that they day is not far when the Association of Overseas Vietnamese Scientists and Engineers will be consulted by both the govern ment and the private sector when it comes to examining important technical and economic questions regarding the sustainability of development programs. A few examples here are in order. The American National Academies have an arm called the National Research Council (NRC) which proposes groups of scientists and engineers to advise the government on special topics of national needs. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) routinely examined technological programs of importance to the policies of the United States.
The American Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and many other private technical organizations routinely compile standards which are readily accepted by the government in the regulation of industry and commerce. There are many things the Association of Overseas Vietnamese Scientists and Engineers can do collectively. Let me cite a few examples:
Item 1: Collect the lessons learned by Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and
Thailand for practical application to the development of Vietnam. These
lessons include policies regarding industry, education, health, transportation,
agriculture, and the whole spectrum of development elements.
Item 2: Encourage and help to design education reform to turn out graduates
who have the modern skills necessary for nation building. It is reported
that the results of fifty years of communism in North Vietnam and twenty
years in South Vietnam include a workforce that is poorly prepared for
a market economy. A practical goal would be to establish a bank for education
which will assist students with loans to pursue their education.
Item 3: Seek out and analyze business opportunities in Vietnam in which overseas Vietnamese can participate. For example, how can we network with the Vietnamese government and with multinational companies participate to create jobs? How can one apply proven ideas in developed economies to Vietnam. Such ideas include the concepts of quality, mass production, and franchising. How should one proceed to raise capital for the needed programs?
In conclusion, let me summarize. The scientists and engineers of Vietnamese
origin have two great opportunities: we are at the right place at the right
time, and we can actively contribute now to the taskof pulling Vietnam
out of poverty and oppression. We have succeeded to a certain degree in
taking advantage of the first opportunity, but we have barely started to
take advantage of the second. We are faced with several challenges: to
learn, to adapt, to excel, to communicate, to chose, and to focus. We need
to learn how to work together in order to create a collective voice which
will be many hundred times more effective than our many individual voices.
We need to realize that building a nation in peacetime requires a wisdom
and perseverance for which the history of Vietnam does not provide a precedent.
Let me conclude by reciting for you a poem by Phan Chu Trinh who, a hundred
years ago, lamented that we Vietnamese are our own worst enemies unless
we, the scientists and engineers, learn well and pass on our knowledge
to others in Vietnam in order to act. For the benefit of our non-Vietnamese-speaking
audience, I'll translate the poem first. "We don't know lots of things,
and we have few skills, Yet the Vietnamese scholars brag that they are
best among the four classes of citizens . . . We learn by rote a few books,
Then we used our degrees to snow the common men. The result is that we
have a society of blind people fighting one another . . . My countrymen!
Who among you have great dreams and care? Go! Go! Go to get knowledge and
skills! Then come home to teach our compatriots on how to build the nation!"