Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hang Choun Naron’s Optimism

“… but in any problem there is always an opportunity.”

Education minister Hang Choun Naron, 29 August 2014, Interview with Radio France Internationale

“They [new graduates] don’t have any knowledge of business, and any knowledge they do have is [from] textbooks, and that part of it is extremely ancient.”

Jitu Manghnani, country manager of Tata International, Phnom Penh, 13 September 2014, The Cambodia Daily

“So why does the government sector still need to stick to the classic principle that lets government alone do [education funding]? And why don’t you consider to find [sic] a way to move up the productivity of the workers already existing in your enterprise?”

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour, 13 September 2014, The Cambodia Daily

“It is at primary and secondary school that young people will gain the foundation of knowledge and interpersonal skills that will carry them through life. Primary and secondary schooling must be a policy priority which, if not, will hamper the future competitiveness of Cambodia.”

Sandra D’Amico, managing director of human resources firm HRINC, Phnom Penh, 13 September 2014, The Cambodia Daily

“[Military] Brigade 70 is in need [of more soldiers to quell labour unrest], so I have agreed to recruit 700 more soldiers in 2015.”

Defense Minister Tea Banh, 1 September 2014, The Cambodia Daily

Minister Hang Choun Naron is definitely not a pessimist; he can see that the letter “O” in the word “problem” represents “opportunity”, not the last letter in Zero.

He certainly has an unenviable job of fixing the education system that has been left dilapidated for almost four decades. According to him, now 73% of investors think Cambodian university graduates fail to meet their needs; 65% of them think vocational training graduates do not match their skill requirements. He says a lot of graduates cannot find jobs. And he plans to turn these nasty indicators around.

Indeed, the minister has two important things that are going for him: his enthusiasm and his enthusiasm. Anyway, will he be free to perform, or will they tie one of his hands behind his back?

The first indication is not encouraging. His planned no-cheating message for students is compromised when his premier imposes an unscheduled resit that also may come with a lower test standard after his clean Bac II exams producing such low pass rates.

The challenge is that his government does not share his priorities. For the government that keeps on claiming education is their priority, its education budget fails to match its rhetoric. According to Education Secretary of State Nath Bunroeun, the government allocates to education less than 2% of the country’s GDP; he says it should be at least double, if not triple.

With peanuts, it is uncertain how the minister improves the teacher quality. The recently announced salary increase for teachers from $105 to $138 per month by April next year will do little to keep their concentration on teaching; they need $250. Even the minister himself complains the teaching profession has not recovered from its demise forty years ago. It has perfected the art of transmitting information from teachers’ notes to students’ notes without passing through the minds of either. Hence, what kind of teacher quality can the minister get for $138 from next April?

To complement the peanuts, the government becomes creative, and turns to private sector, claiming that if businesses invest in their own workers’ skill, they will make more money. The only catch is skill development that will make any difference begins from primary schooling, and never ends. And if the businesses refuse to pay up for the whole schooling, Cambodia will be stuck with a mediocre workforce for more generations.

Nevertheless, the mediocrity has its own merit – it provides cheap labour that the government heavily promotes to attract foreign investments. And to ensure the cheap labour lasts, it recruits new mercenaries to help squash any labour unrest, while starving teachers.

Anyhow, the minister seems so overwhelmed with the challenges that he claims his 2014 ministry budget is $554 million, which far exceeds the widely reported $335 million. Perhaps he could not face up to his government’s ideal of “nothing works better than mediocre labour”. He may just turn into an optimist who, while falling off a cliff, would yell, “See, I am not injured yet”.

Ung Bun Ang

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