In “The Lost Generation,” Columbia University’s Earth Institute Director, Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist, posited: “A country’s economic success depends on the education, skills, and health of its population. When its young people are healthy and well educated, they can find gainful employment, achieve dignity, and succeed in adjusting to the fluctuations of the global labor market. Businesses invest more, knowing that their workers will be productive. Yet many societies around the world do not meet the challenge of ensuring basic health and a decent education for each generation of children.”

Unfortunately, Cambodia does not fall in the socio-political sphere Sachs described; Cambodia is at the opposite end of what are needed for her economic success.

Take education. Indeed, there are more schools today, even in very remote areas, and there are more students. According to the Ministry of Education, 137,000 students were enrolled in tertiary education in 2008-2009. The Ministry projected the numbers to raiseto 195,617 students in 2013-2014, with 40 percent female students.

Sadly, most high school students lack information and guidance on the subjects they should study. Many choose to follow blindly what their families or friends say. Many university students choose to study for degrees in Management, Finance and Banking, Accounting, Marketing, while neglecting such fields as Technologies and Natural Sciences, which are the backbone of the country’s economic growth.

According to the National Employment Agency’s 2010-2012 report, the country’s financial and banking sectors are able to employ only 2.5 percent out of12. 7 percent of graduates who seek jobs, and only 3.7 percent out of 11.9 percent job seekers in accounting and auditing.

The government has failed to establish educational policies based on the need of the country, with long-term and broader visions on national employment. It has no proper guidelines for students to choose the subjects of study; it has failed to provide quality education while focusing on large numbers of students and providing higher degreed effortlessly.

Last year, a local English newspaper published a front page article on Cambodia’s inflation of Ph.Ds – one of the many evidences of the Cambodian government’s preference to showcase quantity over quality in educational and social infrastructures.

Whereas education is the foundation of a country’s economic success, in a recent speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese-funded section of National Road 5, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodia needs to focus on infrastructure instead of public sector salaries.

I stand opposite to the Premier’s view of development that is contrary to what Professor Sachs, an eminent economist, suggested. An ASEAN Community is projected by 2015. Yet Cambodia’s quality education is far behind that of ASEAN member states. The Cambodian government should invest money to catch up with other countries’ high standard of education to enable Cambodian citizens to develop skills to compete with other ASEAN citizens. Failing this, Cambodians remain just labor workers in this ASEAN Community. Hence, the ASEAN motto of One Community, One Destiny is just a dream as what will emerge will be One Community and Many Destinies: The educated ASEAN citizens of Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore will be supervisors, professionals, specialists, leaders, while the uneducated Cambodians will be unskilled laborers!

It is clear that a reason for poor quality education and for weak and non-neutral public institutions is the low salaries for teachers and civil servants who need money to feed their families and to survive. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister focuses not on public sector salaries.

To put the current educational scenario in perspective, I wish to recall my schooling: When I was 6, I started grade one in 1993 in Pursat. I walked 3 kilometers one way to school cutting across paddy fields. At times I studied under the tamarind tree and at times in decades-old dilapidated school building. Poor infrastructures notwithstanding, the quality of education I acquired then was much better than today: I could read quite well when I was in second grade.

Recently, my neighbor told me she is disheartened that her son, today in grade 5, cannot read. Teachers with low salaries are busy working in other jobs to make ends meet.

My father, an elementary school teacher for 28 years, earned only 600 riels in 1986. But that was enough albeit he was given a monthly quantity of rice and some food supplies. By 1993, he earned 16, 0000 riels (US$40). This was still enough to feed his children.

Today, as a senior elementary school teacher and school principal, he earns 41, 9680 riels (a little more than US$100). But this salary in the current market price is not enough for him to survive and take care of seven children. He has to turn to farming to earn extra income. Thus, his preparations for teaching deteriorated. Teachers don’t earn enough money to survive. A junior elementary school teacher earns only 19, 0000 riels (about US$47), which already included 20 percent of a teacher’s annual salary increase. Of course, 20 percent salary increase is far too little in current market price and inflation rate.

Cambodia’s poor quality education, the lack of vocational training centers, and the low salaries of teachers have witnessed a shortage of skilled workers. A few months ago, a Japanese company complained it had difficulties recruiting skilled Cambodian workers.

Cambodia is lagging behind other countries in the region and in the world in almost every aspects of life, especially education, technologies, economic development and living standard. Even if Cambodia were to be lucky to have more investments like in Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam, the country would still not benefit much from those investments as it lacks technicians, experts and skilled workers.

For a nation that once had one of the world’s richest civilizations during the Angkorperiod, and that ruled most of South East Asia, I find it excruciatingly embarrassing to read an article entitled “Cambodia – The Laziest Nation in the World” by I am not in line with what was written. If Cambodians are the world’s laziest people, one would not find Cambodian nationals traveling to work as unskilled workers in neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, South Korean and others. In Thailand, many Cambodians risk their lives to cross the border illegally to work – lazy people don’t do that. Unfortunately, the Cambodian government has not produced jobs for them in the country.

More than 80 percent of Cambodia’s population is farmers. But the government does not focus on agricultural investment. It focuses instead on modern buildings and skyscrapers. Had the amount spent on building apartments and skyscrapers be used on agriculture instead, more than 80 percent Cambodian farmers would not be unemployed as today, but would be more prosperous. The government always refers to Cambodia as an agricultural country, but Cambodia routinely imports almost everything including food and beverages form other countries like Thailand and Vietnam; she imports goods and services, from luxurious products like vehicles, electronic devices, to vegetable, meat, fruits, kitchenware, among others.

It’s pointless to talk about industrialization in Cambodia when the government has no policies to encourage and support productivities and cultivation. It enjoys showing off to foreigners skyscrapers and infrastructures such as modern apartments, school buildings, roads, and sexy cars, while it evicts citizens from their homes and their land. Who and how many live in or rent those modern apartments and buildings?

Speaking at the opening of an ASEAN symposium on 30th October in Phnom Penh, Premier Hun Sen touched on what plays a crucial role in accelerating a healthy economic growth: He suggested that ASEAN member states create more Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the would-be ASEAN community in 2015. In this context, the premier was fully aware that SMEs are very significant in promoting equitable economic growth as they expand employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the region. The premier should have announced his government’s policies to push and improve the SMEs in Cambodia as other ASEAN countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and others have done quite well.

To catalyze the process of creation of SMEs, the government should provide easy and less complicated procedures in offering licenses. Moreover, in Cambodia’s development context, the government should look at the four factors of economic production — land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship — that effectively propel economic growth. Despite the fact that Cambodia is naturally-rich, her natural resources and land are controlled by the rich and the tycoons excessively. Labor which refers to the work input to produce the goods and services, a productive human input depends on the quality of education, which in Cambodia is worse than ASEAN member states except, perhaps, Laos.

Lacking knowledge and skills, it is impossible to use and operate the state-of-the-art tools and machines for production activities. This capital, one of the economic production factors, still cannot be operated by Cambodians. Again, as long as Cambodia lacks quality education, the concept of entrepreneurship will not take root in the country.

The government pays no attention to the miseries of Cambodians working as labor workers abroad and are treated inhumanely especially in Malaysia and Thailand; nor to the miseries of Cambodian evictees nationwide due to land conflicts.

Why does the government not use that huge amount of budget to focus on education and agriculture which are most needed sectors rather than building skyscrapers?

Many Cambodians also experience poor health conditions with unhealthy and chemical-contained foods and beverages imported from other countries. A Cambodian national living in Vietnam told me that Cambodia’s imported foods and beverages imported are different from those consumed in Vietnam.

Low nutrition, low calorie diets and imported contaminated foods and beverages do not help Cambodians’ health in general. Their life expectancy is 60 years old for men and 65 for women. Worse, Cambodia’s health sector is very poor and the people have lost faith in it as corruption is rampant and the people do not trust the medical professionals as well-trained physicians. Cambodians generally seek medical help and advice, treatment and checkup in neighboring countries where they spent so much money.

Cambodian monarchs always travel to China for medical checkup and treatment; political leaders and elites go to Singapore and Australia; middle class people go to Thailand, Vietnam and India. More than 80% of Cambodian population is without medical treatments; many can access only very poor quality health care in the country. Is this just and fair for the poor?

So why not invest more on education to improve the quality of health sector and employment opportunities? Health of citizens is an important element of national power. By improving health care, money can be saved and national dignity maintained.

United States founding father, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, and the US third President, once said, “I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers. We must make our choice between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of caring for them, they will be happy.”

Those words stand opposite of what goes on in Cambodia’s development. The government owes a foreign debt of $5.028 billion (31 December 2011 est.) according the The Cambodian government should have used money from this huge debt on the most needed sectors like education, agriculture and health care.

Looking at the country’s domestic affairs, it is rare to find Cambodian politicians with different views sit and talk with one another to seek solution to political deadlocks or to solve development issues.

The ruling party and the opposition need to sit down and discuss issues rather than looking to foreign governments for help. Cambodian politicians habitually talk with each other only when foreigners act as mediators. The government releases human rights activists and democrats only after foreigners like Americans or Europeans intervened. Can’t we, Cambodians, do this ourselves?

We should learn from Myanmar where opposition leader Aung San SuuKyi and the government talk and work together for economic development, and to build democracy and peace.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:
Ou Ritthy is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune University, India (2008-2011). He can be reached at Twitter: @ritthyou

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-034-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 13-12-2012