H.E. Tol Lah: From physics teacher to Deputy Prime Minister.
H.E. Tol Lah, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Youth and Sport,
talks to the Post about politics and schooling the country's youth.
Excellency, tell us something about your life prior to joining the government.
I graduated from the School of Pedagogy, not far from here on Monivong Boulevard,
next to the Independence Monument in 1964. My specialty was physics.
I taught physics in high school for a number of years before they called me to serve
in the army. I served for two years and then they assigned me again to the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs.
I worked as chief of two bureaus in the ministry. One was called the Bureau of Cambodian
Minorities at that time, and the other was the Military Bureau. I also sometimes
took up the position of interim chief of the Bureau of Information, so I got used
to dealing with a number of issues related to the press. And I also have experience
in social services.
I emigrated to the United States in late 1975 and worked for the Department of Social
Services from 1976 until 1981, when I left and volunteered to serve in the resistance
forces. That was the time I joined Funcinpec.
Why did you get into politics, and who inspired your ambitions the most?
This is a very tough question. I have been involved in political activities -
in political rallies and all of that - since I was a student. If you ask me who inspired
me in politics, I think I got that from my father. My father is just a simple ordinary
citizen, but he's the only one in town who reads the newspapers. I would say I got
this kind of affinity from my father.
And what are your responsibilities as both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister
As the Deputy Prime Minister I assist the Prime Minister in administrative work
in five ministries: my own ministry, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social
Affairs, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs,
and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
I assist our Prime Minister in some administrative work because the Prime Minister
has a big workload. In the Ministry of Education, I lead the policy of education
of the country.
Many say real development in Cambodia will only start when its citizens are properly
educated. Is the system good enough right now?
I totally agree with the importance given to education. We strongly believe that
education is a bridge between social development and economic development of the
country. We have done a lot for education, but the devastation caused to the education
system was voluminous and numerous in nature. So rehabilitating the education system
that was heavily damaged over a long period of time is a heavy task.
Rehabilitating and reconstructing is very difficult, but there have been increases
in enrollment, a lot of schools have been rehabilitated and others newly built, over
40 million textbooks have been published for students, and the curriculum has been
A lot has been done so far for the education system, however this is not to my satisfaction
yet. In 1994-95, I was able to come up with the Investment Plan on Basic Education.
The plan was not 100 percent implemented, but was fairly [well] implemented from
1995 to the year 2000.
After that we did an analysis of the whole sector of education. It is a strategic
analysis that we produced after 20 months of meetings and workshops from the top
level of the ministry to the school level. It included also all stakeholders: the
international community, donors, NGOs, and civil society.
We tried to evaluate what had been done in the past and what needs to be done. We
found that there are a number of areas that have to be addressed. We also found that
there is still internal inefficiency that involves teachers and students at the same
So, you have to address this issue by strengthening the capacity of the teacher and
teacher development. You also have to strengthen the administrative capacity and
the monitoring capacity. That means we are talking about reinforcing our inspection
team in order to effectively monitor the education system.
The gap between rich students and poor students, the gap between students in urban
areas and students in rural areas, the gap between male students and female students
- these issues need to be addressed. That's why after our careful analysis and a
lot of meetings, we decided to have a strategic plan to address this issue.
We call it the Education Strategic Plan (ESP) [which is running] from the year 2001
to 2005. In order for the strategic plan to be carried out effectively, we have to
have the Education Sector Support Program (ESSP). Most of the ESP and ESSP documents
are reviewed in roundtable talks between the international community, donors, government
officials, my ministry and other related ministries, governors, NGOs, and civil society.
Fortunately I received strong support from the roundtable talk that took place in
June 2000. That's why we have started implementing this plan.
There has been much discussion about corruption undermining the education system
as well as reducing the legitimacy of people's qualifications, particularly in the
wake of July's secondary school exams. How pervasive is it?
I don't know how the public views this, but as minister I think people know me
and they understand that I could never condone corruption. I have been working very
hard in order to fight what you call corruption, or any other irregularities, particularly
in the examinations.
We have asked the international community to help work with us on this. The Cambodian-Australian
Examination Project has been working very hard for three years to provide quality
I myself work very hard in order to control and closely watch every examination.
It's so unfortunate that some people use the examinations wrongly and they don't
understand the importance of our work.
It is the policy of the government to conduct fair and just examinations, but people
seem not to understand. That's why during the examination time you see policemen,
you see the military police, you see a lot of intervention from parents, guardians
and relatives of the candidates. I sometimes feel very bad about all of this.
As minister [I believe that I] and all of our teaching staff have the obligation
to build the self-confidence of our children. But guardians, parents and relatives
don't understand. Instead of helping to build this confidence for their children,
they try to destroy the self-confidence by intervening on their behalf, by throwing
scraps of paper to help them.
There are still in our country a lot of people who do not understand this and have
to be educated. There are people who try to make money on the examinations that we
work so hard for. They spread rumors that they know the subject beforehand so that
they can sell the answers. So [the students] get two out of ten points. They fail.
When they get scraps of paper, they don't even attempt to answer the questions. We
have taken serious measures in order to prevent that. We've tried asking the local
authorities to cooperate with us [and] they send the police and the military police
in order to help us.
We've asked also the local authorities to close the copy machine shops next to the
schools because they create a lot of problems for us. The quality of our examinations
are open to scale factors, but if you ask me to rate this, I do not see it black
like you say, because I spoke with my people who are responsible for that and I found
out the rumors are not well-founded.
But wouldn't you agree there's corruption such as teachers selling test answers
or extorting money from students for lessons?
Normally when you teach your students you give the answers to your students. But
they don't know if that is the answer that will be asked for the exam. At every exam
we ask the teachers to propose three or four subjects, but they are not the ones
who select the subjects.
We have a committee to select the [proposed] subjects that are consistent with our
curriculum. That's why if there is any cheating, it is the responsibility of each
individual. But you can't say that teachers are corrupt when they teach classes and
give answers to their students. If students are able to retain all of the answers
they do not need any help. They just pass the exam.
Many say that because teachers have low salaries they force students to pay them
money, or they sell answers to tests. What's being done about that?
It is not only the salaries of teachers that are low - salaries of the civil servants
in Cambodia are low. Everybody agrees on that. The government has been working very
hard. My ministry also has been working very hard with the government in order to
get an increase in teacher salaries, but when you're talking about increase in salary,
you're talking about revenue, you're talking about budget.
Recently there was an increase in salaries when we had administrative reforms. Even
though they are not enough, I believe the government has made a lot of efforts. To
tell you the truth, in my heart I'm in favor of a teacher [salary] increase, but
as a member of the government I understand that the government has been doing its
best to resolve this problem. But this does not give anyone reason to practice corruption.
The education budget has increased for 2002: how much money do you need for a
truly effective system?
It has risen by 18 percent over 2001, but we have different scenarios for our
needs. If you have this scenario, you need this much money. It's too big for me to
detail everything to you, but the government has been doing its utmost and considers
my ministry as a priority ministry among four others.
They're giving more thought towards social sectors. That is why they increased the
funding and they promised to keep increasing funding over the next two or four years,
according to our requests.
If you ask me the question, "Is it enough?" then that's a different question.
When you have a bowl of rice as your daily ration and you increase it by a half bowl,
then you appreciate it very much. It's much better than one bowl of rice per day.
But if you ask for enough, I think the ration will have to be two bowls of rice daily.
I appreciate the efforts they've made to increase the budget in education and in
Because of the wide disparity between the quality of education available in rural
and urban areas, many leave school with few skills in the poorest areas of the country.
Is the significance of this recognized by all members of the government, and is there
any chance the Ministry of Economy and Finance will allot more money soon?
We have to build more classrooms and get more teachers in order to solve this
problem. Fortunately that is in our five year supportive plan.
But is it fair to force teachers to move to rural areas if the imbalance came
from officials accepting bribes from others who wanted to move to wealthier urban
I think the allegation is not accurate. Redeployment of teachers is just one program
among the others. We've tried to redeploy teachers since 1996-97. During that time,
it was on a voluntary basis by providing incentives. In our new plan the incentives
even include moving expenses. You may want to spend the whole education budget on
salaries. You could do that, but then where are the schools, where are the textbooks,
where are the other expenses that you have to provide?
Many universities have cropped up around the Kingdom. Do they have accreditation
from the Ministry of Education, and what are the processes and criteria for setting
up a university?
You are too early - on the 31st [of July] there will be a conference on higher
education. We are working on a draft law for accreditation.
In order for the private sector to participate in the development of education, we
set a minimum criteria for private schools to open. [That was] to help absorb the
burden of the government.
We gave permission to private schools to open while we are waiting for accreditation
legislation. The private schools [advertise] that they have accreditation from the
ministry, but in reality it's just authorization to open a private school. We tell
them that if you have the teachers, you have the place to teach, and if you teach
the curriculum of the ministry, then you can open a private school.
[Initially] we encouraged private schools here, but now it turns out you have to
have a system in order to monitor private schools very closely. That's why we're
strengthening our monitoring teams of the ministry in order to work closer and harder
with the private schools.
As seen in Uganda, sex and HIV/AIDS education in schools clearly works to reduce
the epidemic. What is the Ministry of Education doing to help turn the tide in Cambodia?
We have a very sound program on HIV/AIDS in our five year plan. We also have technical
assistance from UNAIDS to come and work out the plan with us. It is a very, very
important plan, and a very good one also.
[In previous years] when we still did not have the plan, to solve the problem we
taught a prevention class to twelfth grade students because we could not do it for
all the grades. Awareness education has been very wide in schools. We print posters
to be given in classrooms all around the country and have the teachers learn how
to teach this kind of prevention plan.
According to the UNDP's Human Development Report 2002, the female gross secondary
enrollment ratio as a percentage of male ratio is "lagging". Why isn't
Cambodia meeting its figures, and what is being done to rectify the situation?
I told you already a bit about the gender gap. This is due to a lot of things.
In our plan, there will be programs that will address this issue. We will not compromise
the quality of our education [to meet quotas] but we will look at some kinds of incentives
or scholarships for the girls and the poor families.
For instance, rice to be taken home for poor families so a girl's parents won't use
her to stay home to take care of the family. We're working very closely with the
World Food Programme and some other international organizations on this issue.
How much input do you have in the running of the government compared to the other
Deputy Prime Minister, Sar Kheng?
I'd rather not answer this kind of question. I mentioned my experience in education,
my experience in military, my experience in foreign affairs, my experience in social
work, my experience in the political struggle, but I would not like to compare myself
There have been moves within Funcinpec against some of the old guard such as co-Minister
of Interior You Hokry. Is this a trend or are you happy that your positions in the
party and government are secure?
There are some politicians who just know how to win. They don't know how to lose.
I know how to win and how to lose. Sometimes you want to do too much to the point
that you get mediocre because you're not a superman.
I was the secretary-general of the party in the very bad, tough days and I'm not
asking to be secretary-general. The party members just want me to be [what I am]
and I have to help them. When I saw that there are some other people who are capable
of doing the job and they are more available than me, why don't I ask them to assume
this kind of responsibility in order for me to focus on other problems?
I left the position of secretary-general to Prince Norodom Sirivudh because I knew
he could do the job and he's more available than me. So far as my comments on You
Hokry, we are still friends. He respects me and I respect him. This is a matter between
him and our members.
There has been talk within the party that Prince Sirivudh would make a good leader.
What do you think?
He's intelligent and he's a hard worker also. I have nothing to blame about him
and I promised him that I would help him any way I can. He still calls me and we
work very closely together.
With the recent infighting within Funcinpec, how do you think the party will do
in the next election?
You heard about the infighting, but you did not hear about our work because we
do it confidentially. We have done a lot in terms of restructuring our party and
planning. What the public heard about is our infighting, but I'm confident.
Where do you see yourself professionally in five years time?
For me [my career] has been a very rich lesson learned. I enjoy it and I see it
as a challenge. One friend wrote me from the International Institute in Hong Kong
and he told me, "I like you, I admire you for standing. To me, you are the hero
in educational reform in your program and your efforts for an educational program
in Cambodia". I don't consider myself a hero or anything like that, but I do
my best and I have done a lot in education.
Part of your ministerial portfolio is sports: as minister what is your favorite
I was very active in the past, but now I don't even have time for myself. I played
soccer, and my team liked me very much. They said I was fast. I was also a practitioner
of judo and received my brown belt. Also, when I taught at Pursat High School, I
was second in badminton. I'm not bad at sports, but I haven't had a chance to do
them for 20 or 30 years.