Illustration by Séra
In the spring of 2019, Cambodia placed near the very bottom of the global Rule of Law Index for the third year running.
The annual ranking by the World Justice Project (WJP) – a Washington-based non-profit which assesses rule of law based on political impartiality of judges, constraints on government power, absence of corruption and access to civil and criminal justice – listed the Kingdom in second-to-last place above only crisis-ridden Venezuela, and below perennial tough customers Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
An inauspicious placement for sure, and yet the report caused more of a stir outside the halls of government than within it. In comments made in March to the Phnom Penh Post, government spokesman Phay Siphan hit the same tack he’d used to dismiss previous iterations of the report and wrote it off altogether as a baseless attack on the country’s government.
“We are building and enhancing democracy step-by-step based on the rule of law. We are strengthening social justice,” Siphan, a member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said. “It is a politically motivated evaluation and we only want our country to be independent and sovereign.”
With governments deriving their legitimacy from their ability to uphold rule of law and governance, this partly explains the eagerness of Siphan and other CPP members to downplay reporting from WJP and other outside parties
Rule of law and systems of governance make up the backbone of modern states. The UN defines the former as a “principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws,” meaning, in essence, that no one is above the law.
The latter has a similar ring, being broadly described by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education as “the culture and institutional environment in which citizens and stakeholders interact among themselves and participate in public affairs”. In summary, how well and honestly the officials, institutions and public services around you function.
With governments deriving their legitimacy from their ability to uphold these two areas, this partly explains the eagerness of Siphan and other CPP members to downplay reporting from WJP and other outside parties, even as allegations of corruption and undemocratic practices pile up against the Cambodian state.
The importance of these areas has also placed them squarely in the sights of the contributing authors at Future Forum, a Phnom-Penh-based think tank, in their Cambodia: 2040 project – a collection of essays looking at the Kingdom in the decades to come, set to be published later this year.
Siphan’s comments came roughly two years after the Supreme Court ruled in November 2017 against chief political opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and dissolved them months before the 2018 national election. After the ruling, 118 CNRP members were given five-year political bans, with some high-profile members going into exile. In the years since, many CNRP members have been imprisoned, with the party’s leader Kem Sokha held under house arrest until his release in November.
With no viable competition – and amidst complaints of voter intimidation and misinformation – Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, including the 55 seats held by the CNRP before its dissolution. Cambodia, today, is effectively a single-party state, with the remaining opposition groups consolidated into a largely powerless advisory group.
Marching into the future
The Future Forum authors mostly avoid direct political questions of today in their book, preferring to look constructively at how capacity can be improved in public administration by the year 2040. That means strengthening the bureaucracy – the offices and administrators – that Cambodians interact with on a regular basis, whether they’re paying taxes, getting a building permit, or opening a new business.
But still, the topic of government accountability, both locally and nationally, remains inescapable, and for Future Forum contributor Yann Aoudourm, it has to be addressed to facilitate any kind of lasting reforms in the decades to come.
A political science researcher now studying in Australia, Aoudourm writes that current accountability mechanisms in Cambodia are “inadequate and hierarchical because civil servants are responsible to elected leaders, and/or appointed leaders, rather than the public”.
He attributes that to the highly centralised and all-powerful nature of the Cambodian government, which he suggests motivates bureaucrats and members of local government to respond more to party dynamics than public needs.
When combined with the expectation of “gift-giving” to receive basic government services and a “pervasive patronage network across all public sectors and structures”, Aoudourm continues, civil servants may find themselves party to a legion of poorly defined government structures, some of which are used to extract resources from the public.
“Too many ministers, advisors, secretaries and undersecretaries of state, ministries, departments, and offices are not needed,” he writes. These political roles are not meant to assist in Cambodia’s development, “but rather to secure power or client-network” he adds.
While the CPP has publicly committed to decentralising reforms this past year – devolving more power, and ultimately public accountability, to local government – entrenched, long-standing patronage networks will prove difficult to dismantle.
Cambodian political commentator Ear Sophal echoed this sentiment, adding that without checks on power, political elites are free to enrich themselves on the back of the Kingdom’s rapid economic growth.
“Anything that conflicts with the top won’t happen,” Sophal, an associate professor at Occidental University in California, wrote in a message to the Globe. “Sure at the margin you can maybe do a few things to improve the appearance of transparency. You can arrest a few frienemies for corruption, and make it look a crackdown. But the ultimate question that is asked of those in power that they themselves will never answer is: when will you leave [public office]?”
It’s unclear how that question will be answered by 2040. But by then, perhaps the thorny hedge of government will have been trimmed into a neater topiary of defined systems of management and service delivery, each guided by clear mandate to provide specific value to the public.
The Future Forum authors agree that the reshaping of Cambodian governance will need major back-end changes to increase efficiency by 2040.
In their vision, they see these reforms utilising more technology to streamline paper-heavy processes and allow residents to access services directly online, such as they do now with online banking. Aoudourm speaks of public servants in 2040 as digital doulas of sorts, guiding netizens through the digital structure of bureaucracy.
2040 could be a world in which the current silos of responsibility have been knocked down, pushing government offices with overlapping interests to collaborate on big, shared solutions that will be backed up with hard data freely available across government functions
“Civil servants are expected to become e-servants, if not [artificial intelligence] servants,” he writes.
Converting the public administration system to an AI-powered series of apps would certainly reduce bloat in human resources, but neither Audourn nor his fellow Future Forum contributor Min Seiha suggest removing humans from the system altogether.
Rather, as Seiha advocates, the governance of the future will need thoughtful efforts to build better human bureaucrats through good-old-fashioned employee mentorship and coaching, digital-friendly training and public salary reforms aimed at increasing recruitment, motivation and integrity.
Like Aoudourm, Seiha argues the digitalisation of government services is essential when imagining the future of the Kingdom, especially as far as the year 2040. Seiha, an associate dean at the University of Cambodia’s College of Social Science, imagines a more cohesive, efficient administrative system in which sub-national offices are empowered through greater access to resources and responsibility.
He also sees a world in which the current silos of responsibility have been knocked down, pushing government offices with overlapping interests to collaborate on big, shared solutions that will be backed up with hard data freely available across government functions.
Seiha looks at two big areas to make this happen: Vastly increased digitisation and wage reform for government workers.
In the first area, he emphasises the Cambodian government’s current pivot towards the digital world, which accelerated in mid 2010s. In 2014, the country adopted a master plan outlining full-scale policy on information technology and in 2017 drafted an e-Government Master Plan laying the groundwork for increased digitisation of state services.
Both of these mark important forays into a new world to come, Seiha says, and it’ll be important to see these steps continue for progress to continue.
The age-old issue of human resources is Seiha’s second focus. Giving better pay and benefits to make public service jobs more attractive, something that’s long been a stumbling block for those trying to improve governance in Cambodia, is his suggestion.
I don’t think that a government unable to admit there’s a problem can really begin to deal with it … taking this first step and admitting you have a rule of law problem can be difficult and scary, but it is foundationalEar Sophal, Cambodian political commentator
Organisations as diverse as the World Bank and the Council for Development in Cambodia have flagged low salaries for civil servants as a driver of crippling motivational issues, which breeds poor productivity. Even worse, workers are more susceptible to taking bribes, as their attempts to supplement their income often include corrupt or unethical practices that can erode public trust and undermine the efficacy of public institutions.
“When we’re talking about remunerative reforms, the money and payments [in the civil service] are still lower than in the private sector,” Seiha said. “But it’s far better than in the past. In the future, hopefully, we’ll have a more competitive advantage for working in public institutions.”
Step one: Acknowledging the problem
Higher wages will be important when staffing up with the highly skilled and digitally savvy recruits of the year 2040, while it’s also possible that better pay will curb some of the unethical practices now rampant throughout the country.
The Future Forum contributors seem in agreement that public administration has room to improve in both its structure and overall capacity. However, dismal rankings like that of the World Justice Project aren’t entirely the result of insufficient human resources or poor services in public institutions.
This begs the question – even if the most-needed internal changes are enacted, is meaningful public reform possible without structural change to the underlying system of governance in Cambodia, currently defined by corruption, nepotism, questionable elections and unequal law enforcement?
Sophal doesn’t believe so, and he argues reform will not happen without some kind of major incentive such as a political or economic crisis.
“I don’t think that a government unable to admit there’s a problem can really begin to deal with it,” he says. “Taking this first step and admitting you have a rule of law problem can be difficult and scary, but it is foundational.”
This article has been researched and written in partnership with Future Forum, in the lead up to Future Forum’s upcoming Cambodia 2040 book launch. Find out more here.