Gaining momentum

Sun Chanthol, Cambodia’s recently appointed minister of commerce, explains his reform priorities

Christian Vits and Tassilo Brinzer
February 12, 2014

Sun Chanthol, Cambodia’s recently appointed minister of commerce, explains his reform priorities

By Christian Vits and Tassilo Brinzer   Photography by Sam Jam

You lived in the US for many years. What drove you to return to Cambodia?

My father put me on a plane to the US with $50 in my pocket back in 1973. When I arrived I had nothing and started working as a dishwasher at a restaurant at night and going to English classes in the day. Later I received a scholarship and had the opportunity to study. I then worked in the US, France and Thailand for General Electric for 16 years in various positions. I returned to
Cambodia for the first time in 1992. When you return, Cambodia is like a spirit. Whether it’s bad or good, it grabs you and tells you to stay. It’s this country, this environment – it embraced me.

Right after the election in 1993, I was asked to come help the country. It was a tough decision to make, to leave a well-paid job to come to work in Cambodia, but I have no regrets.  I was asked to set up the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) from scratch because of my private-sector experience.

I used to tell my friends and colleagues here that, in the private sector, you work very hard to increase the shareholder value. That is the objective. But who are they? You don’t know them because you actually have never met most of them. But now, as a government official, as a minister, I work to improve the standard of living for my shareholders that I see every day on the street: men, women, children. Cambodians are now my shareholders. I work for them.

Current Affairs, Business and travel news from Southeast Asia | Read Asean News from Southeast Asia Globe Magazine
Man of business: Sun Chanthol has a degree in Business Administration from The American University, an Advanced Management Program from the Wharton School of Business and a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University. He has represented Kandal province in the National Assembly since 2003, was minister of public works and transport from 2004 to 2008, then senior minister and vice-chairman of the Council for the Development of Cambodia. Photo: Sam Jam

How are you bringing your expertise to the ministry?

I bring with me my education background from American universities – the Wharton School and Harvard –  my 16 years of private-sector experience and my experience with the CDC and Ministry of Public Works and Transport to help reform and restructure the Ministry of Commerce. I started by requesting each department do a process mapping of how they currently perform their tasks and then look for a way to eliminate regulations and remove unnecessary procedures and requirements that hinder trade. I requested all departments to come up with their goals and objectives for 2014 and action plans to implement these objectives. I call it the Who, What, When. Who is doing what and by when. We will measure the performance of our staff against those goals and objectives. I believe that what gets measured, gets done. This is a tool used by the private sector.

To move forward with reforms you need support from old and new staff. How do you keep up with this? Government ministries are not renowned for moving at private-sector speed.

We are planning to improve the organisation further to better serve investors, exporters and to be able to make our staff more accountable. We are using the existing team but we may reshuffle responsibilities and add new blood here and there. We are working on introducing our process mapping to control how tasks and initiatives are moving forward.

For example, in recruitment, I announce open positions in the ministry and invite people to submit their resumes. Shortlisted candidates are interviewed first by seven secretaries of state. Each one scores the candidates, puts his name on the document, seals it and gives it to me. I interview, score and rank the candidates, then I open the other envelopes, put their individual scores on a spreadsheet and count the points. After I prepare that sheet, I invite the seven secretaries of state to sit down with me to go through it and finally decide on the candidate. This process is completely transparent.

What are the key areas of reform?

Getting things moving, and faster. We are currently working on an automation system to issue certificates of origin (CO). When it is done, the CO information can be submitted to us online and it can be printed out wherever the exporters wish after we give them the approval online. The fees are deposited directly into the bank account of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Taking out the human interface between the exporters and Ministry of Commerce staff will help reduce unofficial payments and speed up the process of issuing the CO.

We are also working on automating the company registration to speed up the registration of new companies and to reduce unofficial payments. While waiting for the system to be implemented, we created a single window to help people who want to register a company and trademark. They do not have to go to many offices to get their company registered.

What else is on the agenda?

Another area where we need urgent reform is CamControl. CamControl is the institution responsible for the inspection of goods entering and leaving Cambodia. It also reviews imports regarding quality, which sometimes creates a problem for importers and exporters. It is also responsible for the quality of food that is sold in the markets. We have to take a deeper look into this to see what we can do differently to facilitate business and consumer security instead of creating more headache for importers and exporters.

We need to reform and change that area to ensure that consumer safety comes first. One could create a new body similar to the US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a Cambodian FDA, which combines drug and food issues under one umbrella. My intention though is not to expand the empire of the Ministry of Commerce, but to make it the right size.

Furthermore, there is an organisation in our ministry, a state-owned enterprise, called Green Trade. They trade in rice, but their main purpose is to secure emergency food supplies. Green Trade owns a warehouse where 10,000 tonnes of rice are stocked – just in case of disasters. I would like to see this organisation evolve. I don’t want it to only serve as a warehousing organisation for the government of Cambodia, but to really expand to do some more commercial activity by trading more rice paddy. It has to expand more. That is the area I would like to see it in. Rice is becoming a major export commodity for us, and we need to maximise its use for the country.

We also need to strengthen the commercial counsellors who are located in various Cambodian embassies around the world. We need to strengthen the capacity of the existing staff to help in attracting investments and to open market access for us. Today, they don’t really have proper guidance or objectives or responsibilities. So I will change that and give them roles, responsibilities and job descriptions.

How are you communicating these changes to the people, so that they can see that reforms are happening, that there is progress and initiative?

Unfortunately, we haven’t done enough in this field. That’s for sure. Through social media such as Facebook, we can reach out to people. But we need to do more. The prime minister said during a meeting that we have done a lot but we don’t communicate enough. That’s why I’m going to use various media as an information source. We updated our homepage, which was necessary. There is a lot more to be done but we have to start somehow. I want to involve the youth and invite them to the Ministry of Commerce. We want to open a discussion with them on how to start a business, how to run a business. So we lined up speakers ready to rock ‘n’ roll. I spoke to my under-secretary-general and I told her to get young women engaged. We want to offer seminars for young women, too. They are great entrepreneurs.

Basic education and vocational training is a massive issue concerning investors in Cambodia. What has to be done?

We are aware of the issues connected to skilled labour. This is important for the economic growth of a country. We need to improve a lot  in that sector. Soon, you will see more and more vocational training. We have a lot of people with university degrees and high school diplomas, but there is a big gap between university and high school qualifications. Now we are going to move more and more towards providing vocational training. And we also encourage the private sector to set up private institutions training mechanics, engineers, etc. Today, there is a mismatch between the demands of the private sector and the supply of skilled workers that we get from our schools.

Read more articles