Young Cambodians looking to get ahead are flocking to motivational speakers modelled after advice-spouting gurus from the US
Sim Dara wears a custom-made gold ring in the shape of a tiger’s head. For the self-made motivational speaker, it is a sort of talisman.
“When I wear this one, I feel really powerful,” he said, fingering the band at a Phnom Penh cafe in early October.
Well-dressed, he spoke softly and emphasised his words with deliberate hand gestures.
“You know, psychology and strategy are two sides of the same coin,” the 45-year-old explained over a smoothie. “My master Anthony Robbins said that, to succeed in life, you need two things: psychology and strategy.”
Dara is in the success business. To roomfuls of businesspeople, students, recent graduates and the simply curious, he lectures on the “success mindset”: discipline, positive thinking, self-confidence.
He produces books, CDs, YouTube videos and DVDs with titles like Success Is Not a Fate and Re-Design Your Financial Destiny. Many are pirated and peddled in markets.
He appears regularly on Cambodian television talk shows.
The former security guard is one of a small but growing number of Cambodian self-help gurus.
They are leaders of a homegrown industry, natural byproducts of 21st century Cambodia’s lightning-fast economic growth and rapid urbanisation, as well as its overwhelmingly young society – over 65 per cent of the population is under 30, many clueless on how to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. Cue the gurus.
Each one – there are only a handful and all men – pushes his own method of attaining financial and personal success. Dara, who opened his Success Academy in 2006, was the first.
“Now the demand is getting more and more,” he reflected. “Compared to when I started, nobody knew about self-help.”
After him was Say Savuth with V-Build Leaders in 2012 (V as in “we”), then Khim Sok Heng, a former student of Savuth’s, with the Learning for Success Institute in 2013.
If their company names sound similar it is because they all draw influences from the same top figures of the Western self-help world: mainly, Brian Tracy, Dale Carnegie and, above all, Anthony Robbins, the so-called father of the self-improvement industry with a net worth of $480 million, according to Forbes.
The Cambodian gurus’ PowerPoint presentations are littered with quotes from such self-help tomes as Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert Kiyosaki, 1997), Unlimited Power (Tony Robbins, 1987) and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (Dale Carnegie, 1948).
Their manner of speech and TED-talk-like stage presence, heavy on calculated hand-gestures, dramatic pauses and toothy smiles, are pulled directly from the Tony Robbins/Jim Rohn playbook. They spout platitudes endlessly.
“When we talk about leaders, we better talk about leadership,” stressed Say Savuth. At 36, he is slim, with spiky, gelled hair, stylish glasses and a bolted-on grin.
Along with praising the aforementioned Western authors, he deemed the Buddha his “first-rated guru” and the Holy Bible as “the number one motivational book ever written”. Much of his speech sounded mantric.
“Good thoughts lead to good work; good work leads to good action; good action leads to good habits; good habits lead to good character; and good character leads to good destiny,” he recited breathlessly one afternoon over coffee.
But the gurus’ truism-preaching is, apparently, resonating. The most prominent figures, Sim Dara, Say Savuth and Khim Sok Heng, all claim a roster of high-profile businesses and organisations that fork out big bucks for their attitude-adjusting and inspiration-inducing services: Frangipani Villa Hotels, PCG Partners, Singha Beer and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, to name a few.
They each describe similar backgrounds: lower-class kids who through perseverance prospered in the private sector.
Dara went from lowly security guard to hotelier; Savuth worked numerous marketing jobs; Sok Heng, coming from poverty, laboured in a print shop before being hired by an international NGO.
Their classes and workshops, hosted in hotel ballrooms, restaurants and university classrooms, attract eager students, who pay anything from $35 to $70 for hours-long sessions of lectures, article reading and activities: monologuing continuously for five minutes; giving back massages; animal impression charades.
Participants include people like Ly Rachana, 27, a shy, ponytailed administrative assistant at Cream, a Phnom Penh ad agency. Rachana visited one of Say Savuth’s workshops in 2013, freshly graduated from university and jobless.
“He taught me about how to be confident in myself,” she said.
Rachana grew up with seven siblings on a livestock farm across the river. Money was short. Days were draining. Her family life, close-quartered and dominated by an overbearing father, was stressful.
Savuth’s teachings, which focused on positive thinking, self-reliance and coolheadedness, seemed novel and empowering. “He helped me with my family. Now my relationship with my father is better,” she said.
They helped her too, she believed, in summoning the confidence to land a good job. His teachings left a mark.
“Now I feel like I have to go forward. If I sit still and do nothing, I cannot get money to help the people around me and my knowledge cannot grow,” she said.
Kuy Vat, owner of Park Cafe and chief executive of the V-Trust Group, also found value in self-improvement courses. Vat has paid for more than 160 staff to attend annual two-day courses from Khim Sok Heng for the past three years.
“The program was important in [motivating] my staff ... They’re thinking that when the company grows, they grow, too,” Vat said over the phone, adding that the motivational courses were “very important in the business community”.
While the gurus may borrow many of their moves from Western counterparts, there are differences: many of them see their programs as beneficial to Cambodia’s development.
“Right now, I [focus on] three things: leadership, successful mindset and sales,” Say Savuth said.
“Why these three things? Because Cambodia needs these. We need to grow fast like Singapore and South Korea. I hope I can help make a thousand me’s nationwide. I want to build more leaders for Cambodia. I want to leave a very good legacy. I want to see a better Cambodia tomorrow.”
Khim Sok Heng, who is, at least in terms of YouTube hits, the most popular self-help guru here (73,707 for his highest-viewed video), agreed. Sok Heng saw his firm, the Learning for Success Institute, as “a way to develop Cambodia”.
“I’m not doing it just for money,” he said. “I’m doing it for the benefit of Cambodia.”
Sok Heng said that he gave lectures in high school classrooms free of charge, a charity that Savuth said he performed as well.
The free coaching, both stressed, was for the benefit of the homeland – boosting the production line of Cambodia’s human resources factory.
Standing in front of hundreds of well-dressed businesspeople in a spacious ballroom at the Sofitel Hotel earlier this month, Sok Heng was working on building leaders.
They were, however, not Cambodians, but Thai business people at a multi-speaker conference. A banner behind him read “Logistics: Cambodia’s New Growth Engine.”
Sok Heng gripped the podium with both hands. He spoke in Khmer for 45 minutes. The audience members wore headphones broadcasting a live translation.
He finished to applause and stepped down from the podium.
As the Thais emptied out, the guru summarised his speech.
“I talked about self-motivation,” he said with a gleaming smile. “I told them how to see both sides of the coin.”
The becoming of Cambodia’s first guru
Cambodia’s first self-help guru, Sim Dara, grew up in a poor village on the outskirts of the capital. His mother and father sold snow-cones. Dara finished high school in 1989 and, through a brother-in-law, found a job as a security guard at a factory that produced oxygen tanks for hospitals.
A year later, he landed a receptionist job at the Floating Hotel in Phnom Penh. It shut down a year after that, but Dara moved to the Casa Hotel, where he worked until 2004, moving up the chain until he was the general manager. At the hotel, he was introduced to the world of self-help, through the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad gifted by a Thai friend.
He devoured it and began reading self-help books “like crazy”.
He tracked down gurus and travelled to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand to attend talks and workshops. In 2004, he quit his job at the hotel and emigrated to the US with his wife and two sons, who had obtained a green card.
He lived in Dallas for two years, jobless, living off his wife’s income and attending seminars by Anthony Robbins, Jim Rohn and Brian Tracy.
He developed a dream to become Cambodia’s first self-help guru. In 2006 he returned to the Kingdom, without his wife, and, with his “God-gifted talents in coaching and motivating people”, as described in his biography, founded the Sim Dara Success Academy.
The self-help industry and some of its discontents
The multi-billion dollar self-help industry, a dizzying bevy of books, audiobooks, DVDs, speaking events, personal coaching and infomercials, is led by gurus. In the US, the epicentre of the self-help world, there is a long list of such advice-touting and wisdom-elucidating, self-proclaimed life experts, each trumpeting his or her own formula for success.
Some, like Dr Phil, Tony Robbins and Rhonda Byrne, have amassed stupendous fortunes.
Critics decry the industry and its gurus as “fraudulent” and “hornswoggling”, with their advice such as “think positively to achieve your goals” and “take responsibility for your actions” labelled obvious banalities and near-meaningless cliches. But the product sells.
In 2008 alone, Americans spent $11 billion on such products, according to Marketdata Enterprises, a Tampa-based research firm.
Market data collected by American publishing giant Rodale shows that buyers of self-help products tended to have bought a previous self-help product within the previous 18 months. Most consumers were middle-aged, well-off women.
Steve Salerno, investigative reporter and author of the 2006 book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless noted that the origin of the self-help mass market may harken back to as far as the 18th century, with the widely read book Every Man His Own Lawyer, originally published in London but surviving into several editions in postcolonial America.
Today, the industry has moved well beyond Western shores, with self-help gurus and seminars cropping up in all corners of the globe.