Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Hun Sen Brings Back the Smile

“We must solve this problem; we cannot let failed students miss the opportunity. Therefore, in accordance with the ministry’s preparation, I think there will be a second exam within one or one and half month – and I support this second exam. [If the minister] asks for my opinion, I will support it. This means those who fail the first time will be allowed to sit in the second exam the ministry is to organise.”

Premier Hun Sen, 11 August 2014, Radio France Internationale

“If 80,000 students don't make it to university, the total revenue forgone is $24,000,000 for the whole higher education industry. So the university owners are likely to do "something" to protect their vested interest.”

Economist Chan Sophal, 12 August 2014, Campro Network

It is fascinating to observe how fast education minister Hang Choun Naron moves to appease the premier who only gives a subtle hint of a Bac II retest. The reaction is swift; within hours, the minister announces the retest within the timeframe to which the premier refers – one to one and half month. Hang Choun Naron goes a step further as if he is making up for his shortcoming: the ministry will provide tutorials free of charge to those who care to resit. It is a case of when Hun Sen whispering, "jump", others respond, "how high?"

Such display of awesome power ought to distress those who are dreaming of building strong government institutions to replace the current autocratic type that they see provides no future for Cambodia. A constant and favourite consolation for them is a romantic notion that changes take time, and that everyone is young enough to wait for a natural demise of the autocracy. The wait may be futile, however. The premier claims without him in charge, the country will then be thrown into another chaos; some say he will make sure of that, and he is capable of that too.

Building a strong institution is a tough game, as the minister finds out the hard way. His effort to prepare for a clean exam after years of cheating is commendable, eventhough he may not have run by the premier for an unwavering approval the idea of doing the right thing. Yet, in any case, the premier could still change his mind; after all he is just a politician, as he puts it, riding on a short boat. He lets the minister spend almost a whole year working on the clean exam only to back down when the reform is real, and its opportunity cost is painfully clear.

There is just too much money at stake. The clean exam would cost Hun Sen’s personal interest group that runs universities about $24 million a year, plus the loss of annual income supplements of a few million dollars for those involved in organising the dirty exams.

Nevertheless, what will the retest be like? Will the promised tutorials that cram a whole year of learning in a one and half month to make any difference? How much value will those who have planned an entire year to cheat put on the tutorials that are free?

It seems the minister is forced to make decisions on the run just to put the smile back to the premier and his personal interest groups: lowering the test standard, and/or a generous marking of the test. This should lift the anticipated pass rate of 30% in this clean exam back to almost 90% the cheats usually achieve.

Anyhow, in this corruption and cheating pit, there is a diamond in the rough. There are those, like the education minister, who are committed to reforms and are more than capable of carrying them through too. They must be allowed to rise to the occasion, soon.

Ung Bun Ang

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