Cambodia’s Quest for Effective Leadership

Two solid years after Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed in an hours-long speech at the inaugural first Cabinet Meeting to lead a “Reform Mandate” (2013-2018), the momentum has subsided and the balloon has deflated. The New Normal has ceded place to the Old Normal.

Reflecting back to leadership quality and challenges described in books published by two leading authors and global economic strategists Dean Williams and Ronal Heifetz, effective leadership does not come easy for everyone.

Effective leadership is not forcing people to push through change neither imposing change through fear and intimidation but trying to persuade and bring people around a common denominator and way of thinking to provoke change.

Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to encounter strong undercurrents internally from party veterans reluctant to embrace change so critical to ensure a continued grip on power come 2018 General Elections. Reforms initiated by only a handful of ministries produced limited visible effects with the majority of ministries standing idle without any accountability.

Minority Leader Sam Rainsy has had difficulty in ensuring cohesive party discipline with some members recently stoking the dangerous flame of nationalism through provocative statements and unproductive actions about border maps instead of acting more comprehensively as a Shadow Government and proposing concrete alternative policies.

Both individuals should be commended for embracing the Culture of Dialogue and their attempts to build bridge between their feuding parties to bring about more civilized interacting. Nonetheless, several hiccups have occurred as both sides are still learning to adjust to this new culture in refraining from using certain language.

Still, both sides remain stuck in merely politicking with each other while the economy seems stuck in a quagmire of “catching up” strategy while Cambodia’s ranking in Ease of Doing Business by the World Bank remains at the bottom.

Cambodia Vietnam Rwanda 2009 135 92 143 2015 135 78 46

Source: World Bank

The issue of ease of doing business has assumed new relevance with the release earlier this month of the Cambodia Industrial Development Plan by the government, which is designed to develop new high-value added industries, promote small and medium enterprises, increase agricultural production and encourage support industries to support agriculture, tourism and the garment sector.

The economy remains highly dependent on a narrow base of garment and footwear manufacturing, which rose 11 percent year-on-year according to the Asian Development Bank, down from 14.5 percent a year earlier as global demand has continued to sag. Tourist arrivals, another major income source, also decreased to 4.6 percent from 5.2 percent a year earlier. However, the garment industry faces increased competition arising from the appreciation of the US dollar, and from other low-wage competitors including Myanmar, which is just getting into the game.

While ADB data indicate that domestic demand is holding up, there is a pressing need to diversify the economy away from low-wage sources, which can quickly disappear as soon as multinationals discover a country that pays less to its workers. Can Cambodia think boldly enough to leapfrog?

The societal fabric of Cambodia has strong diversity in many different groupings of people gathering around a same pattern of mindset, biases, beliefs and educational background, including linguistic acquisition through years of overseas education.

Our leaders should tap into this diversity to consolidate various views and experiences as well as intellect to contribute to our society and policy making wider consultation.

As demographic change brought about an ever growing number of young in the electorate only care for better jobs and living standards which only a constantly improving economy can provide, the next electoral battle topic could shift to these simple but crucial bread and butter themes.

David Van is a member of CAMPRONET (a platform of Cambodian Professionals from all backgrounds)