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Do Cambodians view Westerners as a better bet?

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Most large organisations and businesses in Cambodia employ foreigners in high positions, as Cambodian workers are commonly viewed as less competent. But why?

“It’s never really good to judge people based on their skin or their nose, this is a type of stereotype,” said Kenneth Robinson, who is a professor and assistant dean at Pannasastra University’s faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations.

But Robinson said there is some truth in the stereotype. Foreigners, for instance, tend to speak better English than Cambodians, which can help foreigners get jobs at places that require good English skills.

“In all stereotypes we usually have something that is based on truth. When you say some uneducated people can’t compete with foreign people there is some truth in there, so there is some truth that many foreigners who come here do have better education than Khmers, so this is why this kind of stereotype can live.”

Many Cambodians have that mindset and give more value to foreigners than their own people.

“Between Khmer and foreign professors, I am likely to choose classes taught by foreign professors, even if they teach the same class,” said Phan Chan Tithya, 22, who studies at the Royal University of Law and Economics.

Sim Vathanak, marketing director at Abucus International Cambodia Co, said that the assumptions are unfair.

“Some foreigners who got recruited are not even really more qualified for the position compared to the Cambodians who compete for the job, but sadly our nation doesn’t even trust our own people’s capacity. We cannot compete with the increasing number of foreigners in the job market.”

Vathanak also said the corruption causes foreign investors to lose faith in all Cambodian workers.

“Like the proverb says: Fishes in one basket, one smells bad makes and the rest smell the same.”

Much of the unfairness is due to historical reasons, which saw Western nations prosper while Cambodia was torn apart by war and genocide.

“I do agree that the majority of Cambodian people give too much value to the foreigners based on the real situation nowadays,” said Meng Vicheka, 31, an assistant senior manager at Chip Mong Group.

“But I can say that Cambodia still lacks human resources as the result of Year Zero.

Moreover, the education system is still quite weak when it comes to training skilled workers. As I have been working with foreigners for many years, I can see foreigners can do management well.”

Luke Hunt, a Phnom Penh-based writer on regional affairs and a part-time academic, said he thinks that all countries suffer from stereotypes, and for Cambodia, the situation is not particularly alarming.

“Cambodia is a donor-dependent nation, and people and charities who donate have standards they’d like to see,” said Hunt.

“Normally international standards, when – after all – it’s their money that is being spent.”

Vicheka thinks we can improve this issue by focusing more on research development. We should also start training Cambodian to take leadership roles.

“There was this time when some foreign technical workers left the company, and the department just become chaotic, because they did not train us with the work. It’s not that we don’t have intelligence to understand and learn.”

Hunt agreed that Cambodians are just as capable as anyone else in the world, but that it will take a couple generations to catch up due to Cambodia’s history.

“The country is catching up, and that’s obvious when one compares the living standard now with 10 years ago”.

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