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Vietnam’s record-breaking bank rot reeks of 1997-98

You have got to hand it to Vietnam, which has somehow managed to produce a scandal that dwarfs the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) debacle, widely referred to as the largest financial heist of all time.

The 1MDB mess still has Asia aghast a decade on. The fallout from the theft of at least US$4.5 billion from a state development fund continues to paralyze legislative and corporate dynamics in Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur.

The $12 billion-plus fraud surrounding Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) put Vietnam in global headlines for all the wrong reasons. The largest corruption case in Southeast Asian history is supplanting the “mini-China” narrative that had factory jobs and global capital zooming Hanoi’s way.

The scandal highlights big cracks in Vietnam’s banking system, spurring calls for tighter regulations, stronger inspection mechanisms and increased compliance. It’s also a huge blemish on the legacy of Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong, whose “burning furnace” anti-corruption campaign has defined his tenure.

Clearly, his anti-graft efforts have been at best mixed. Last year, even Vietnam’s president was felled by a corruption scandal, along with a long list of other high-profile officials. Yet the death sentence handed to tycoon Truong My Lan, head of real estate developer Van Thinh Phat Holdings Group, for her role in siphoning SCB funds hasn’t brought closure and raises bigger questions about the depth of Vietnam’s rot.

“The event has revealed both significant lapses in corporate governance at the lender, and decisive action by the central bank to take extraordinary measures to maintain stability in the sector,” says S&P Global Ratings analyst Ivan Tan.

It’s possible, Tan adds, that the “central bank’s fast