As Cambodia prepares to face the demands of an ASEAN economy, what subtle changes will emerge in the business attitudes of the next generation?
The director of the bank throws open the door, enters, and the temperature in the seminar room seems to drop. The branch managers and leading staff - who have come to the seminar in the bank’s Phnom Penh headquarters from all over Cambodia - turn heads and chat. Now all 45 of them freeze and are silent, eyes straight on the director - a small man in his early 60s with thick glasses, piercing voice, and the dictatorial aura of an army official. He gives a speech in staccato Khmer, leans his fists on the table and lets his eyes wander through the room to examine the rows of employees.
“I hope you will learn from the trainer; otherwise, he will have to come back again,” the director says. It is not he who is the star of this show. He is here to introduce Khim Sok Heng, 32, a well-known motivational speaker, who is about to hold a two-day leadership seminar for the bank’s leading employees. While the bank director is authoritarian, Sok Heng - bolt upright and smiling in a bespoke suit - stresses that he wants to put the power in the hands of the people.
“Empowerment”, “self-responsibility”, and living a “good example” are ideals that reflect an ongoing change in the Cambodian business mindset, he says. This is key to socio-economic development. With the completion of the ASEAN integration in 2015 - meaning the liberalisation of trade - Cambodia’s future welfare rests on the ability of innovative thinkers, experts say - otherwise foreign businesses could walk all over the local industry.
Sok Heng, aware of the social and economic challenges Cambodia faces, sees his mission as teaching people to be independent thinkers, whether he’s talking about time-management, business planning or how to be a good leader.
Over the last 10 years of practice, Sok Heng says he has reached 200,000 Cambodians in seminars. He also has his own TV show.
Somewhere in the audience of the seminar room of the microfinance bank, a phone is ringing.
“Who of you think that I will give you rules?” Sok Heng asks the group. Forty-five hands spring in the air. Sok Heng says he won’t do it. “I will not tell you to switch off your phones. You will do it yourselves.”
A do-it-yourself-mentality is essential, he says - both in creating new leaders for Cambodia and making the country competitive in the economic sense.
People who are told what to do or who copy what they see from others don’t develop skills or build up their expertise, says Meng Saktheara, director general of industry and secretariat of the Small and Medium Enterprises Sub-Committee. In short, copycats have no knowledge of their own.
“With a changing attitude, Cambodia is moving into the state of a knowledge-based society. The middle class has to grow, otherwise we will not be able to catch up and compete with the neighbouring countries,” he says.
Cambodia is a country with a dangerous copy-paste mentality, says Saktheara. “There is not much innovation happening now. You can see that most start-up businesses are copying and pasting existing ideas.”
It is a phenomenon that can be seen almost everywhere in Phnom Penh. Small businesses often mimic one another - a street shop that sells green coconuts, dried fish, or popcorn, for example, like every other small shop on the same street.
Last week, Gernot Hutschenreiter, head of country reviews of innovation policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said the impact that trade liberalisation could have on low-income countries like Cambodia could prove dangerous - foreign businesses with the ability to innovate could come in and crowd out local businesses.
“If we don’t survive in the ASEAN integration, we will lose our identity. But the overall attitude is changing, especially amongst the young generation,” Saktheara says.
One of those young people with an innovative mind and a head full of business ideas is Dalin, 19. She is in her second year at the National School of Management in Phnom Penh. In her free time, she participates in business plan and business idea essay competitions. In her pink Crocs, she could channel a Marc Zuckerberg type, who wears Adidas sandals 365 days of the year.
“A good idea is new, unique, targets the need of the customer, and has a positive impact on society,” Dalin says.
In the last essay she submitted to a business idea competition, she envisioned a “student community” that doesn’t yet exist in Cambodia.
“I want to create a study and chill-out space for students where they can learn and discuss projects. Overseas, I have seen how students have spaces that give them the freedom to be creative and brainstorm. With a space like this, I hope students will be able to create a new lifestyle for themselves,” Dalin explains.
She doesn’t believe that young people are not creative, “but many don’t know how to or lack the space.”
“People have to be independent and more individualistic,” she says.
Cambodians like Dalin hope to combine business and success with social duty.
“I want to be different and address social problems instead of just maximizing my own profit,” Dalin says.
While in the industrialised West, self-interest is an economic principal that defines businesses and drives competition, Meng Saktheara says that the principle doesn’t necessarily work in Cambodia.
“Without innovation we only have individuals trying to maximize their own profit because innovation comes from people working with and for each other as well as for themselves.”
Is sharing with others an unusual incentive to success?
Saktheara says no.
“Cambodians don’t see each other individually like people do in other countries and this social structure is our big advantage.”
Saktheara says that this ideal reflects the ancient Buddhist teaching of how society and economy should be an entity that has remained dormant for the biggest part of the last century but was reawakening now to “define our industry and identity”.
He hopes and believes that in the near future Cambodia will not be seen merely as a source of cheap labour.
Instead the new mindset - unique to Cambodia and reflected in the social structure - will facilitate business innovation.
“I can see that many people change their attitude and don’t only want to maximize their profits but contribute to society,” Saktheara says. “Creation of economic value should be based upon the creation of social value,” he adds.
Back in the seminar room, Sok Heng believes that within five years, more people will feel personally attached to the prosperity of those around them . His prediction, he says, is based upon his 10-years of observing the thinking patterns of his audience.
This development won’t only address the need to innovate but also other socio-economic problems like corruption.
“It is a selfish mentality of people who only know how to win by making others lose,” he says.
“There are challenges. But even if we are ready or not the solution is to be well-prepared and the best time to do it is now. Not only in 2015 with the ASEAN integration but today - we are facing this already.”
The group of employees seems unfamiliar with Sok Heng’s teaching methods. There is much laughter when he asks them to discuss and write down what they expect from leadership. All seminar participants start walking around, shaking hands, and chatting with each other. They seem to be excited about being asked what they think.
The atmosphere in the room is starting to warm up and the bank employees look more at ease. The longer Sok Heng talks, always underlining points with Cambodian proverbs about frogs and turtles, bamboo or jars that are covered with banana leaves, the more the employees participate in the discussion and listen attentively with self-confident and inspired looks.
The prospect of the Kingdom becoming competitive through a uniquely Cambodian combination of new ideas and Buddhist ideals, greatly appeals to industry director Meng:.
“People all over the world will praise Cambodian industry”, he says, and then adding: “the necessary mentality is rooted in our hearts already.”