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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia unprepared for integration

Cambodia unprepared for integration

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University students attend a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh in February. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's political reform is moving forward in step with China and the ASEAN slogan, ”One community, one destiny”.

But becoming a full, active ASEAN member seems to be a slow process, and the indications are that Cambodia will not be ready for integration in 2015.

According to the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index, our country ranks second from the bottom among Southeast Asian nations.

Furthermore, it has serious shortfalls in the areas of international diplomatic relations, economic and human resources, culture, education and sport.

Cambodia remains a strong ally of China, its main donor, but other ASEAN countries are growing faster.

An example: former Singaporean president Lee Kuan Yew used to learn from Phnom Penh during the Sihanouk era of the 1960s.

Four decades later, Singapore had become an Asian tiger.

The Royal Government has tried to gather a small number of graduates who studied in Southeast Asian and ASEAN countries to act as advisers to the government.

But because of their low salaries, these specialists have to take second jobs teaching at universities to achieve a decent standard of living.

This affects their ability to perform their primary task, which is to learn in depth about every ASEAN nation to support the government’s diplomatic relations.

Why is it that the state doesn’t have the resources to pay for a technical working group but can spend lots of money reconstructing roads and streets that seem to need repair every single year?

When it comes to independent advisory groups or “think tanks” on ASEAN and foreign affairs, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia have many research foundations and centres.

We have only the small Cambodian Institute for Co-operation and Peace, which also lacks resources.

Sadly, Cambodia has not promoted young leaders who could replace the older generation of ASEAN political experts.

Cambodia still has a labour-force crisis. Many entrepreneurs complain that their staff lack skills.

In a World Bank survey last year, 62 per cent of employers reported that vocational-training graduates did not have the appropriate skills. Seventy-three per cent of employers had the same complaint about university graduates.

Because of our labour crisis, we can supply only meat, fish and vegetables to other ASEAN nations. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen seems focused solely on illegal migrant workers.

Higher-education graduates are more likely to work, and remain, in more developed countries – causing a brain drain from Cambodia. All these issues are obstacles to the Kingdom’s economic development.
Culturally, what will Cambodia have to show and exchange in 2015?

Watch any local TV channel, and all you’ll see will be songs and dances copied and pasted from foreign styles, with no Khmer characteristics whatsoever.

Even with classic dance styles, there is no innovation, and those styles are not shown frequently enough to educate  younger generations about their place in our history and traditions.

Cambodia’s film industry is also forgotten. Even if we participate in ASEAN film festivals, we won’t have many movies to submit.

How many Cambodian films screen to packed cinemas or spark a flood of pirated copies? Very few.

Ultimately, plagiarism weakens our creative ability, and we’ll be less able to integrate Khmer culture in the  ASEAN of 2015. The question has to be asked: what is the Culture Ministry actually doing?

Every year, 10,000 students graduate from Cambodia’s 99 public and private universities. There were 45,000 graduates in 2011, and there are 245,000 students enrolled in higher education.

Even then, some senior government officials and entrepreneurs complain about students’ poor skills. Sometimes it’s difficult to recruit staff to fill positions.

Cambodia’s education system compares poorly with those of other ASEAN nations, and the government struggles to achieve any step forward for higher education.

Today, there are more foreign, and foreign-educated, teachers to support the local system, some universities provide English-language courses and students can choose any university they like.

Is our poor standard of education the fault of university managements or of the students themselves? Do students put much effort into their assignments? Do they copy answers from documents during exams?

Even the Prime Minister has complained that some graduates don’t know how to use computers and hire others to write their theses.

If students complain about a lack of books to do research, this is an out-of-date complaint.

Nowadays, every university library has many kinds of books, so the real question is how many students are reading those books.

Young people are eager to seek out alcohol, nightclubs and karaoke, and some of them are brave in a fight, but they’re afraid of completing their studies. How can bamboo shoots replace bamboos?

In summary, Cambodia is far from prepared for ASEAN integration. The government should show some political will and consider opening a centre for Southeast Asian studies at one of our universities.

We’ll all need to be stronger to deal with what happens in 2015.

Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition.

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