Phnom Penh, Independence Monument (Source: Wikimedia)

Tackling Corruption in Cambodia Through Merit (Part II)

| Dec 9, 2016    POLITIK     , , ,

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

Demanding higher standards

One thing we can do, which will ultimately support recommendations outlined by the experts, is demand higher standards of quality across all sectors of society, starting with education. As we shall discuss below, the Cambodian education system has already embarked on a path towards meritocracy.

Playing by the rules of performance and merit, over those of patronage and corruption, is critical to competitiveness in the world market, and our society’s wider development. We must push for a culture in which the most capable and skilled people are rewarded. Tall, modern buildings might be positive signs of economic development, but progress in Cambodia’s higher education and other key sectors of society will lag in the shadows until we build a meritocracy.

“Playing by the rules of performance and merit, over those of patronage and corruption, is crucial to competitiveness in the world market, and our society’s wider development.”

One of the trendy Brown Coffee shops on st. 57 in Phnom Penh (Source:

Brown Coffee is a great example of this. Clearly, going beyond “business as usual” has been essential to Brown’s meteoric rise since 2009. They have set high standards not only for coffee drinks, but also design, marketing and an evident understanding of their clientele. They’ve clearly done something right, and any aspiring to become a large player would be wise to study the local giant to succeed. In the words of Brown co-owner Chang Bunleang, “local products can compete with foreign products as long as there’s focus on quality and innovations.” Money and connections aren’t the key to Brown’s success in the hypercompetitive coffee industry.

Aside from the service industry, filmmaking is another sector where success is driven by high quality products, and merit is a key to success. Back in December 2015, Angelina Jolie shot an adaptation of the Khmer Rouge memoir First They Killed My Father in Cambodia. She praised the growth of the local filmmaking industry, saying she believed “this really will show people on a very large scale what Cambodian filmmaking can be”. Award-winning filmmakers stand tall as symbols of success in this industry – led by icon Ritthy Panh, winner of prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France, and nominated at the American Oscars, and rising talent Davy Chou, also recognized at Cannes. The most talented local, young, independent filmmakers are also able to command salaries on short productions of a few days that can exceed monthly incomes in sectors such as hospitality.

Filmmaker Ritthy Panh, second from the left, at the Cambodia Film Festival (Source: Edmund Yeo, Flickr)

Where to start?

Demanding higher standards of quality does not stop at making coffee and films. Education is the single most important sector to Cambodia’s development, as well as the starting point to tackling the roots of corruption. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, said former South African President and anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Before becoming president, he spent 27 years in jail as a political prisoner during the Apartheid regime. Inequality was the law in South Africa. If major change could happen there, it can happen anywhere.

“Cambodian high schools are becoming a meritocracy where success depends increasingly on hard work”

There is an obvious example of a systemic level change already underway in Cambodia. In the spirit of recommendations made by international reports summarised in the first part of this article, high school reforms have been initiated by Mr. Hang Chuon Naron, Minister of Education. The direct effect of the measures introduced to fight cheating and corruption at end of studies’ exam have been well documented. Clamping down on cheating has narrowed shortcuts to success dramatically. Cambodian high schools are becoming a meritocracy where success depends increasingly on hard work. Students are studying harder because they must.

One of Nelson Mandela’s most famous quotes (Source: Elizabeth Brossa, Flickr, CC_By_NC_SA 2.0)

Change cannot stop there. The lessons of education reform should be applied to other sectors. We should strive to create a society that rewards talented people like Chan Bunleang and Ritthy Panh, in all sectors, starting in school. At an individual level, it means to never settle for less. In the words of another great man of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. We must create a culture where we insist that our peers, and our civil servants, follow the rules.

Young people can enact change where it is most important to them, in school. Students can lead by example, showing their peers the joy of earning high marks, not paying for them. I have met university students reporting lecturers who failed to meet minimum standards, teaching material at odds with textbooks. Students can respectfully challenge and question accepted dogma and thus develop critical thinking skills which will benefit them in the workplace. They can exert peer pressure to dissuade classmates from cheating.


Students from the Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia (Source: Sokmonorom, Wikimedia)

I have seen this firsthand. In undergraduate classes I teach, students are encouraged to disagree with each other. Discussion is steered to allow students to challenge overly eager students from spreading invalid opinions based on incorrect facts. Over the course of a semester, power dynamics in the class evolve. Those who traditionally command higher authority in Cambodian society, such as older men or monks, are challenged by women and younger students. It is impressive and inspiring when students respectfully challenge their teacher and bring facts in to support their arguments. The open dialogue benefits all students. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

“Facts, skills and merit are tools to counteract methods used by cheaters”

The correlation between healthy school debates and corruption is much stronger than it may seem at first. Facts, skills and merit are tools to counteract methods used by cheaters. So long as status, gender bias and corruption dominate education and other sectors, development will still rest on flawed perceptions. For instance, university diplomas and foreign experiences are perceived as ends in themselves, and credible sources of success. It is, in fact, the quality of the education or experience which matters. Young Cambodians have a big role to play in making tangible academic achievements and knowledge the new measures of success.

What tomorrow looks like

The youth of today will be the ones making the critical institutional changes to bring Cambodia to its next level of development. In this future, there are only two possible scenarios for youth.

We can continue business as usual and cheat our way through university and work. This has worked for previous generations. However, as Cambodian professional sectors become more competitive, it will become increasingly difficult for the less capable to hide behind a wall of patronage and corruption.

“Cambodia will continue to develop and force our future workforce to compete with high standards of quality”

The second scenario is that Cambodia will continue to develop and force our future workforce to compete with high standards of quality. In such a world, young people choosing the path of performance and merit today will have much stronger chances to succeed individually. They will at the same time contribute to the wider struggle against corruption. Those soaring skyscrapers will no longer stand as a visible contrast to the corruption in Cambodian society. Those towering buildings will become a symbol of the new meritocracy.

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