For Malaysian personalities in the media, Sin Chew Daily director Sok Ping Loh stands out as one of the most knowledgeable about Cambodia’s recent history, issues and local personalities.
In addition to her work running the largest Chinese language newspaper in Cambodia, Loh also has her own Malaysian-Chinese style restaurant, The Tea Club, at the corner of streets 63 and 306 in Boeng Keng Kang 1.
Loh first came to Cambodia in February, 1992 as a young reporter with the Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia as part of a delegation led by Malaysia’s then Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi.
“At that time Badawi was coming here for the first diplomatic visit and to officiate the opening ceremony of Cambodian Public Bank. He was the first foreign minister from an Asean country to support Cambodia that are just opened up its door to the world, and they signed an agreement with the Cambodian government. Ever since then, both Cambodians and Malaysians can visit each other with one month visa exemption. Up to today we still enjoy this relationship,” Loh said.
She reflected how vastly different Cambodia was in 1992 compared to today.
“After 6 pm you couldn’t see any lights in Phnom Penh. You can hear a lot of generator sounds but the streets were very quiet with lots of used Honda motocycles on the road, and very seldom did you see a car and only then an old Soviet-made government official car.”
Loh is proud of the Malaysian government for taking that first initial step to help Cambodia.
“As Malaysian investors we do enjoy the benefits of that to this day. For many years Malaysia was ranking number one investors in Cambodia. The last two years it has been overtaking by China and Vietnam,” she said.
Loh returned to Cambodia in 1994 and helping a Cambodian returnee from Hong Kong doing some trading business.
“At the time there was no electricity here in the country and so they asked me to help them to source the products in Malaysia or overseas, something that can sell in Cambodia, so I help them to source and importing newsprint, paper boards and diesel generators -- those very basic things this country needed.”
She remembers the economic consequences of the street fighting in July ,1997 when she had to sell her goods out of a warehouse at below cost, “we loss a lot of money. ”
“Many warehouses were robbed by the Army. One motorbike importer committed suicide because all his motorbikes in the warehouse were stolen. Compared to them we were still lucky. The fighting only lasted for two days, but what was scary was the robbery that took place after the fighting.”
That’s when Loh was evacuated, courtesy of the Malaysian government, for the first free flight of her life.
“We were the last batch of Malaysians to be evacuated and the Pochentong Airport was empty then but we still need to pay the “passenger charge” of $30 to an airport officer for boarding the evacuation plane” she said.
Only a month later Loh found herself back in Phnom Penh, this time for an exclusive interview with Hun Sen at his Takamau residence. The interview was arranged by Okhna Kong Triv, president of BAT who owned the Cambodia Tobacco Company at that time. Kong Triv aslo acted as the translator for the interview. Loh said Kong “very nice to us, and he invited us to his house for lunch of Hainanese chicken rice.” Loh and the Sin Chew Daily reporting team from Malaysia were the first oversea media granted an historic interview with Hun Sen after the “July 5 Incident” .
“Hun Sen didn’t look like what people would say. He looked very humble when he received us and shook hands with everyone. Whatever we asked he answered, even on sensitive issues.”
Reflecting on Hun Sen’s accomplishments since then, Loh has praise.
“I think Hun Sen is a very experienced politician, even though he has gone through all this political turmoil, he still remains and strong. He has gone through all these bad and good things today which made him a good leader. He has quite a lot of experience in managing the country already.” she said.
Over the years since then, Loh has witnessed Cambodia undergo tremendous changes in economic development.
“Today they have beautiful gardens and better roads to the provinces. In 1992 you could not even find a good restaurant in Phnom Penh, and you had to go to the same old restaurant for you meals. Today you have choices in your daily living it is more convenient. You can find most everything in town. The living environment, it is very much better now than it was 15 years ago.”
For a while Loh worked as a sales manager at the Intercontinental Hotel when it opened in late 1997. By 2000, Sin Chew Malaysia wanted to open a Chinese newspaper in Cambodia and asked her to join. Loh become the general manager and acting chief editor for five years. She now serves as company Director.
“I was the kind of founder of Cambodia Sin Chew Daily. We started from nothing: no readers, no market, no business relationships.”
“We imported the machinery, trained the staff, went to visit customers and opened up the market. The first three years were very very hard.” she said.
The initial reaction among the local Chinese population was that Sin Chew was foreign newspaper and didn’t need to be supported.
“We took a long time to penetrate the market before people accepted us. We made a loss for five years and only from six years onward did we made a profit. We are doing ok now, with a little profit,” she smiled.
Loh added that the challenge is “never ending.”
“The confusing tax issues are actually killing the media business and newspaper readership. I’m thinking of applying for a VAT exemption from the authorities. I think it is a bit ridiculous to ask the newspaper readers to pay for VAT and withholding tax. How are we going to promote a reading society by so much taxation on media industry?”
Because Loh missed her traditional Malaysian-Hakka style food, she wanted to have a restaurant which she could own and eat there – and share the good food with others.
Thus, she opened the Tea Club café in an old thick-walled building which had formerly belonged to a Cambodian Army general, who was killed in the Lon Nol days.
The Tea Club celebrated its 7th anniversary in May 18 this year.
“This is a Hakka Chinese restaurant,” she said,“In my family, we speak Hakka and our grandpa originally is from Guangdong province.”
Loh’s Tea Club serves a popular luncheon buffet ($4.80 per person) that serves six main dishes plus a home-cooked soup of the day with a choice of desserts & fruits from Monday to Friday, starting 11:30 am to 2:00 pm.
Loh also has a bakery section that makes fresh “MamaBuns” which are traditional Chinese pork buns, with the difference that these are baked, not steamed.
Mamabuns are sold at a price of three for $2 and are now also available for in Lucky Supermarket on Sihanouk Blvd.
Other famous Malaysia dishes served at the Tea Club include Curry Laksa and Nasi Lemak, but are only available on Saturday and Sunday as weekend specials, according to Loh.
Loh’s concept is to give busy people a comfortable place to have lunch at a good price, and then pick up a few items to snack on later, so they can keep up their busy schedules and don’t have to go out again.
“The Tea Club has become a meeting point for a lot of Malaysians who work and visit in Cambodia. We are also helping Malaysians who are here, and recently here was a Malaysian who died of a heart attack and our customers and a group of friend contributed the money and to help out in the funeral.”
As a long-time journalist and company director, Loh is aware of the political problems in Malaysia.
“The problem is that sometimes politics and policies can sometimes be quite unfair-la. (Malaysian usage) A lot of young generation people are not happy with the government and they support the opposition.
I think the Malaysians need to be more open-minded and open hearted to different races and different cultures and should not isolate themselves to one race and one culture” she said.
Even though she does love her homeland, she prefers to live in Cambodia.
“I have a Cambodian name, Sok Pheng and madam Bun Rany Hun Sen has described my name as meaning “full of harmony” -- so I wish so to enjoy the Cambodia life in harmony,” she smiled.
“For the lifestyle here I’m happy with it because it is not so rushed like Malaysia. The relationship with the customers and friendship is closer than when we are in Malaysia. Here we meet friends frequently for lunch and meet for weekend.”
When she first came to Cambodia her mother strongly objected, thinking the country was full of landmines. Today, however, Loh has no regrets.
“I would say I meet a lot of friends over here, not limited to Malaysians. My main clientile are Japanese, Malaysians, Europeans, especially French and Americans, along with Cambodians and Filipinos, as well as Cambodian returnees from Hong Kong,France and Australia.”
Loh can also speak Khmer fluently and is able to communicate with people at all levels of society easily.
A special source of pride for Loh is the staff that has stuck with her over the years.
“When they first came for an interview, they looked very scared, but now they can handle anything. She is especially happy with Rosemary Lizen, who was very shy and scared 11 years ago when first hired, but who now handles the entire Tea Club day-to-day business operation.
“My staff would think I am a tough lady. I need to monitor and demand, otherwise the food and work quality would not be good enough. I am a very demanding lady on work, but very generous in life. Anybody who needs help, if I can I will help. ”
Loh, 43, is also proud of the Sin Chew Education fund project which gives scholarships to needy rural children of $100 per student per year and has been running for five years and has awarded more than 2,000 scholarships worth US$200,000. Seventy percent of the funds for the project are generated locally from the newspaper readers.
“I go and ask everybody for the donations to help the poor children,” she said.
Loh predicts continued stability for the coming years, but thinks the government should take a long-term view on city planning for the future, especially in property developments, with good planning and deep thought to avoid accidents.
“Some construction projects are completed but remain empty. They approved many housing projects, but it is a case of whether your infrastructure can follow up or not, for example, with electricity, there are still so many power cuts in the city. Demand is higher but supply remains the same. We’re progressing in one thing, but at the same time creating other problems.”
She also thinks the government should pay more attention to education and infrastructure, and think about traffic flow in the city.
“If you don’t take care of children education, they will create a lot of social problems.
Now you see so many high rise buildings, but what about the city road and traffic flow? Does it improved accordingly? With no alternate routes, you can imagine the city traffic will be getting worse in 5 years time.” she said.