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Learning to lead – on TV


A popular reality-style television quiz show is striving to develop the fertile young minds of the Kingdom – and rewarding them with educational opportunities overseas

Chhem Pe (centre, wearing garland) sits surrounded by his teammates after his victory. PHOTO SUPPLIED

ON September 5, the youngest winner of CTN’s popular Youth Leadership Challenge television show flew out on a two-week trip to Washington to meet with representatives of the US government and learn more about American society.

In July , Chhem Pe, a 19-year-old 12th-grade student from January 10 High School in Siem Reap triumphed in the programme’s fifth season, after four months of toil in the competition.

He finally beat Kem “Emmy” Sotheathangdy, a 22-year-old student from Battambang, to win the contest, which is watched by millions and funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the International Republican Institute (IRI).

“I was delighted when I won,” said Chhem Pe. “I believe that my success will encourage other students living in remote provinces to work harder because the [promise] of success is waiting for them if they do their best.”

Loosely adapted from reality-style TV shows such as The Apprentice and Pop Idol, the Youth Leadership Challenge “aims to develop leadership and debating skills among young people”, according to the programme’s producer, Moeurn Morn.

The season began with 16 contestants. Each week, they were split into two teams to compete in varying challenges, such as organising a book drive for a library or participating in a mock trial.

The show’s judges were Seng Theary, an author and civil society advocate, and Chea Samnang, a film star and goodwill ambassador to the UN Population Fund.
Chhem Pe comes from a poor family of 10, most of whom could not afford education beyond primary school. He sells farming livestock at the market and does housework for a neighbouring family to support his study.

Chhem Pe said he initially did not intend to enter the challenge, as he could not afford to stay in Phnom Penh for the contest.

“However, I became convinced it was possible when I learnt that all the contestants would be supported by the IRI,” he said.

When he made his initial foray to the capital, it was the first time that either he or his family had travelled to Phnom Penh.

“It was a tough period, when I was supposed to do a fundraising project in Phnom Penh where I knew no one,” said Chhem Pe, referring to his participation in a project to raise money and books for a local library.

“Later, I was happier when all the contestants transferred to the provinces – because it meant no one knew anyone.”

In the sixth round of the contest, Chhem Pe was nicknamed “the star loser” because he was defeated in five out of six rounds. Despite those initial defeats, he never gave up.

After each round, two contestants are voted off the show by their teammates until only two finalists remain. The pair then must mount campaigns to gather support through SMS votes from the audience. The one with the most votes wins.

“My experience and good behaviour seemed to make everyone like me – and vote for me,” said Chhem Pe.
Chhemp Pe certainly garnered popular national support. Two radio stations in Siem Reap and another in Phnom Penh campaigned for the youngster, actively encouraging viewers to vote for him.

In addition to his studies, Chhem Pe volunteered for Youth Council Cambodia (YCC) for a year, where he joined community activities. He said he believes he has benefitted from the experience.

“I think that, because I know how to talk to different people, helped me convince people [about how deserving I was] during the contest,” Chhem Pe said.

On the show, “the blood-donation assignment was the most challenging stage since I had to convince the public to contribute their blood charitably,” he said.
“I felt that I was persuading people to share some parts of their bodies for others’ survival.”

His father, Chhem Hean, 70, a farmer whose age makes it difficult for him to work much, said: “Chhem Pe is a grateful child. I am content that his study has been fruitful. Chhem Pe is helpful and respects everyone he knows.”

Chhem Pe’s mother, Chum Nhim, 68, added: “I did not think Pe could win because we are so poor. We could barely even afford his study and daily food.”
The parents are grateful to receive financial support from their children.

Chhem Pe himself has positive expectations about the future.

“I hope I can go for higher education and eventually get a good job,” he said. However, he still laments his family’s limited financial means.
“I wish I had more money to give to my parents on holy days and during religious ceremonies.”

The first season of the Youth Leadership Challenge ran in 2006. Cambodians aged 18 to 30 are eligible to join the contest and applications are open to the public, although university students are particularly encouraged to apply.

Prior to each challenge, the contestants are trained by experts on the specific skills required for the task at hand. For example, in preparation for the mock court episode, the challengers visited the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh beforehand.

Producer Moeurn Morn says the life lessons learned through contestants’ participation in the show even extends to the audience.

“They [the audience] learn from lessons that contestants themselves understood. More importantly, they discover the reality of leadership,” he said.

The awards range from meetings with leaders of institutions to sponsored study trips, such as the one Chhem Pe is presently on – which explains his non-appearance in the edition of the programme currently airing on CTN, which pitches the winners from each season against each other.

Youth Leadership Challenge can be seen on CTN Wednesdays at 5:45pm.

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