Phnom Penh by night (Source: Vanaka Chhem-Kieth)


Tackling Corruption in Cambodia Through Merit (Part I)

| Dec 9, 2016    POLITIK     , , ,

The towering Phnom Penh skyline stands as a constant reminder that Cambodia is developing. The buildings reaching to the sky are impressive, but the view at ground level is not always as inspiring. Recently, an international report ranked Cambodia as “the most corrupt [country] in the region”.

“Cambodia must become a meritocracy, a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement”

Even the tallest building is built from the ground up. It requires a strong foundation. Changing the culture of corruption will similarly require bedrock principles we can build upon. Simply put, we need to ensure that the best and most capable people succeed. Rather than perpetuate the entrenched system of corruption and nepotism, Cambodia must become a meritocracy, “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement”. It must move beyond the frontiers of a society where it remains too easy for the corrupted and the cheats to “get away with it”.

The imposing Vattanac Capitalin the heart of Phnom Penh (Source: Dmitry A. Mottl, Wikimedia)

What’s wrong with corruption anyway?

Corruption is dishonest or fraudulent behavior. Most Cambodians are Buddhists and thus aware of the concept of merit. In the Buddhist sense, simply put, it means good deeds, thoughts and actions which contribute to a person’s growth. The broader definition is similar: “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. Thus, Cambodians are already familiar with the fundamental concept of a meritocracy. If Cambodia wishes to develop, it will have to compete on the world stage, to meet global standards and expectations. One way to tackle corruption, then, is accumulating merit.

The transformation is already in full swing. The leaders of the three superpowers have all paid the country recent visits: US President Barack Obama in 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2015 and Chinese President Xi Jinping this year. International heavyweights in the business sector, such as Starbucks and BMW, have set up shop. Add to that the prospective ASEAN economic integration, and it is evident the world is looking at Cambodia in a new light.

“Corruption hinders economic development by distorting markets and damaging private sector integrity”

United Nations Development Program

Cambodia has no choice but to embrace global rules of the game. This includes fighting corruption, as it “hinders economic development by distorting markets and damaging private sector integrity”, according to the UNDP.  This view is echoed by young Cambodians, who overwhelmingly agree it is a “major barrier to national development” (TI report).

Transparency International’s “A National Survey on Youth Perceptions of Corruption and Integrity in Cambodia” suggest youth clearly perceive corruption as “bad”, and yet it also provides clear data on youth’s willingness to engage with corruption given the right circumstances

The UNDP and TI findings clearly point to corruption as a factor deepening the skills shortage in Cambodia. The correlation is reinforced by a survey that found that more than half of Cambodian employers believe their staff members do not perform their job correctly (International Labor Organization).

While there is a wealth of research and corresponding recommendations on the issue, there are no easy solutions.

How to stop it

We hit the books and looked at three recent reports on corruption:  A corruption vulnerability assessment of Cambodian institutions, by the International Republican Institute; “Anti-Corruption Strategies: Lessons Learned from the Asia-Pacific Region”, by the UNDP: and a youth integrity survey by Transparency International.

Though their respective angles and findings were different, several themes emerged:

  • Corruption is better tackled through concerted efforts, meaning all relevant stakeholders need to play a role in reducing its effects (government, civil society, individuals, etc.)
  • Incentives are key to making individuals less likely to engage in corruption (either through more severe levels of punishments, or by making corruption less lucrative). For example, both the IRI and the UNDP recommended raising salaries for individuals most at risk of taking bribes, such as civil servants or teachers.
  • Stronger legislation, with corresponding monitoring mechanisms, must be developed.
  • Citizens need to gain more knowledge about what corruption is, the tools they can use to minimise it (e.g. whistleblowing), and the benefits of civic participation.

These solutions are no doubt crucial to tackling the root causes and consequences of corruption, in Cambodia and elsewhere. For Cambodian youth, addressing this issue at the governmental and legislative level will become even more critical as they take over from the older generation in leading the development of our country.

Most of the themes above are systemic. Only one can realistically be enacted by the youth of Cambodia, which is to gain more knowledge on corruption. There are other essential actions young Cambodians can undertake in their daily lives to support ongoing efforts at a systemic level.


Link to Part II: Tackling Corruption Through Merit (Part II)


This piece reflects the views of its author only, and not necessarily that of the Politikoffee Media team and editors.