Cambodia’s education system has emerged from the darkness under a reformed ministry in the past four years. Management Insider takes a walk with Oknha Dr Hay Ly Eang through the modern history of learning in Cambodia.
From the Temples
When the French arrived in the 1930s, they introduced the concept of formalised public schools. Prior to that, education in Cambodia had being squarely the domain of Buddhist monks and local pagodas, where highly respected, religious-based teachings were handed down-along with a number of practical skills and trades-by monks, some of the most revered figures across the country. The beginning of the French protectorate marked a dramatic shift in the education of Cambodians, away from these traditional, moral and religious teachings that had shaped the people. It also meant that girls would gain access to learning, having been forbidden from participating in the temples.
“Interest in the new system was low initially”, according to Dr Hay Ly Eang, the founder and president of Confirel and Pharma Product Manufacturing and a leading advocate of corporate social responsibility in Cambodia, so the gendarmerie was employed to actually round up children and take them to school. “Slowly, Cambodians began to take to the idea”, he says, and make the most of what was in front of them. “We could even say that education became a priority, even more so than nutrition.”
“What was not undertaken 20 or 30 years ago, must be done now and there is much catching up to do.”
-Okhna Dr. Hay Ly Eang
The French Investment
Investment in the Cambodian education system saw schools built across the country: Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kompong Cham, Kratie and more. By 1953, Cambodia had two top schools: the French high school, Lycee Descartes, orientated toward French expatriates and the local elite, and the Cambodian-focused Sisowath High School. With the addition of the high schools, Cambodia suddenly had university candidates, many of whom benefitted from the relationship with France, where they studied for prestigious degrees.
“In some way, we can say that Cambodia’s independence really began in the 1960s,” Dr Hay says. “It was then that we started seeing a rise in academic infrastructure around the country, thanks in part to the willingness of the Cambodian people and its government to modernise and improve accessibility to education. It was also around this time that the government emphasised the importance of education by ensuring that teachers and educators were among the highest paid public servants.”
A Blank Canvas
In 1975, Cambodia faced its darkest times, with the Khmer Rouge wiping out intellectuals and leaving the country with a huge knowledge gap. After the regime fell, one of the most pressing, and challenging, issues was to begin reversing this. ‘With no teachers to teach a new generation of students, a cycle was broken and all of the sudden it was up to the survivors, who were students at the time and had not yet finished their education, to take the lead and share what incomplete knowledge they had with a new generation of students,” Dr Hay points out, adding that no other country in our time has had to start again from scratch, with no intellectuals to pass on knowledge to the next generation.
Following the end of the war, the government had to make a choice between rebuilding the economy of the country and rebuilding the education system. There was no right or wrong decision but many, like Dr Hay, prioritised the importance of getting education back on track, a topic he has been quite vocal about and uses a metaphor to describe: “A single head could feed a thousand mouths but a thousand mouths could not feed a single head,” meaning that the right brains had to be in the right places. To this day, however, we still see the business sector given preference over education.
On October 23, 1991, after the signing the Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia entered a time of peace and rebuilding, including, once again, the education system. Only scattered knowledge was available and Dr Hay believes that, in this vein, we are now seeing a degraded education system, wlhere a diploma or a bachelor’s degree does not demand the same respect that it previously did or should. Privatisation of the education sector also contributed to this, with low-income or remote families unable to access schools, and, much like Cambodia’s health sector, a two-tiered system emerged: one tier for the rich, and one tor the poor.
Picking Up the Ball
‘What was not undertaken 20 or 30 years ago must be done now and there is much catching up to do,” Dr Hay says, pointing to foreign companiescoming to Cambodia with their own teams and training programs, a common practice in countries where the education system Is not up to par with certain industry standards. The government’s emphasis on business, he says, has left the private sector to bear the burden of educating the workforce, a scenario he has firsthand experience with through his exporting pharmaceutical company, PPM.
From internships to fostering local innovation through the Kinal Prize, PPM has put great emphasis on ensuring that pharmaceutical students benefit from hands-on experience in a local company with an international presence. On-the-job training is not confined to developing countries, though; it is also common in the West, where companies often hire interns and apprentices after having trained them accordingly. While Cambodia has no laws forcing companies to participate in the development of the workforce, places like France, Australia and the US offer tax breaks and other incentives for participation.
PPM, through Dr Hay, believes that Cambodia needs to start moving toward giving diplomas more concrete value – meaning that graduates should not only ostensibly have intellectual knowledge but also hands-on experience. This will make candidates infinitely more valuable to companies looking to hire locally, he says. While the Cambodian population places great importance on education and there is a legal obligation for children to attend school, the reality is that economic situations don’t always allow for families to prioritise the way they would like.
“Cambodia needs to start moving toward giving diplomas more concrete value”
Bopha Suybeng is a regulatory and technical advisor for PPM
Transfer of Knowledge and Skills
Bopha has previously interned with PPM while finishing her pharmaceuticals degree in Europe. She speaks to Management Insider about the importance of PPM’s internship program as a medium for transferring knowledge and experience.
With my background in international regulation, I was also asked to share a rigorous and structured methodology and implement new concepts in the company to ensure its growth and international development. Despite having different working cultures, our overall commitment to upgrade our firm to international standards drives us to work as one. As we used to say: “If you want to go fast, do it yourself. But if you want to go far, do it together.” The teams were very receptive to these new concepts and caught on very quickly.
At PPM, we recruit notable students from the Transregional Mekong Pharma master’s degree. With the support of Pierre Fabre Foundation, this two-year term of postgraduate education trains high-level specialists in Southeast Asia who are extremely proactive and possess sharp and analytical skills.
Besides, in this dynamic of change boosted by knowledge and skills transfer, we have initiated some relevant partnerships. For example, the faculty at the University of Angers supports us by providing expert insights and technical assistance that allows our teams to continuously update their knowledge and skills to excel in the pharmaceutical industry.
Words by Vivaddhana Khaou