We have to try to understand the context, issues and constraints of the host country, says Ambassador Michael Tan

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Michael Tan
Ambassador Michael Tan delivering a graduation address at the American University of Phnom Penh. Photo Supplied

KT: Could you kindly enlighten us as to when you took up this posting, what were your terms of reference and has it deviated with the changing political and economic environment in Cambodia?

I took up post in June 2016. As foreign service officers, we work to promote mutual interest and good bilateral ties, in addition to identifying new areas of cooperation. One area which I found myself spending more time than I had expected was on the economic front – opening doors for Singapore companies to enter the Cambodian market. It’s a relatively new market for many Singaporeans. But I’m glad that hopefully, many of them will have a better understanding of Cambodia, its challenges and constraints, and its growth potential and investment opportunities.

KT: What were your most challenging moments since you took up this posting and in hindsight, knowing what you know now, would you have done things differently?

I began this posting without much expectations as I thought it would be a relatively quiet assignment. However, I soon realised that there was a narrative about Cambodia that many were unfamiliar with. Others continued to view Cambodia through a historical lens of what the place was like 10 or even 20 years ago.

I was convinced that a greater awareness and more holistic understanding about Cambodia – including the structural challenges, national accomplishments, investment risks, business opportunities – could help to refresh outdated perceptions, and allow businesses and other partners to make better informed decisions about doing business in Cambodia.

But it has been quite challenging and our efforts were not always appreciated. We are not the biggest embassy in Phnom Penh and there are always many pressing issues on our plate. I will say that the positive feedback from Singapore businesses and investors year-on-year continues to be encouraging!

KT: What are the main challenges you face in executing your responsibilities and could you name one of your most satisfying achievements which you would retain forever?

One of the challenges that Ambassadors might face on post is how bilateral relations could be strengthened during their term of office, particularly when relations have been traditionally problem-free and both countries have been longstanding friends. In that respect, how do you add value? How do we continue to build up and maintain good relations? These are questions that we grapple with, and they translate into our day-to-day work.

But I think one of the more satisfying outcomes has been to see the fruits of our labour. For example, Infrastructure Asia (IA) has made four visits to Cambodia this year alone. IA is a new government agency formed in October last year, and its aim is to bring the best-in-class, good fitting international solutions for infrastructure in Asia. But this did not happen by chance; I had to make a special effort to personally reach out to them. I am glad they have responded positively despite their full plate.

As it turns out, IA’s value proposition does meet Cambodia’s infrastructure needs. There are other partners that Cambodia can work with to address these gaps. More importantly, the Cambodian government was ready and suitable for IA’s unique approach. IA is currently in discussions with several Cambodian government ministries, all of whom are interested to bring these projects to fruition. Some of these include wastewater and waste-to-energy projects.

These projects could change how infrastructure is usually planned. IA leverages on Singapore’s development experience, the plethora of infrastructure MNCs and experts based in Singapore, as well as the huge array of financing options that are available through Singapore. IA’s involvement will bring the Public Private Partnership concept to a new level, and will showcase the versatility in matching international infrastructure solutions with a flexibility in financing.

KT: How do the Embassy and Singapore Club Cambodia (SCC) collaborate and do they complement each other in furthering Singapore’s business and economic interest?

I’m happy that we enjoy a close partnership. Our work in Cambodia complements SCC’s. The Embassy’s work in growing the Singapore branding, building closer bilateral relations between Singapore and Cambodia, as well as creating greater awareness and understanding about Cambodia has resulted in an upswing in interest from Singapore businesses and investors. These have direct benefits for the Singaporean community in Cambodia.

In turn, SCC is an important pillar for Singaporeans here. SCC helps to build rapport and foster a sense of belonging amongst the community, through activities and social events for Singaporeans and their families to get together. SCC is also a useful platform for networking and promoting business contacts, which Singapore businessmen have found helpful. The Embassy and the SCC achieve the best outcomes when we work together.

KT: What advice would you give Singapore corporate entities who are seeking have a foothold or enter Cambodia and what be the message to those already here?

Our sense of reality is influenced by our perception, so Singapore businesses and investors should first and foremost refresh their perspectives, cast aside outdated impressions and stereotypical views, and visit Cambodia to survey the market for themselves. Of course, they have to do their own sums and determine whether it makes commercial sense, because they will each have their own considerations and risk appetite.

For those that are already here and doing well, I would reiterate my usual reminders to Singaporean businesses and employers: One, be socially responsible in their commercial activities and undertaking.

Two, provide sustainable employment, training and knowledge sharing with Cambodian counterparts and employees. Three, identify meaningful ways in which they can give back to Cambodian society.

KT: You have obviously made a lot of friends in the Gover-nment. Has this come in handy in tackling issues, big and small in undertaking your many responsibilities?

My firm belief is that diplomats cannot be just messengers, conveying messages between capitals. Otherwise, DHL, Fedex and the email would do a much better job, and we risk being irrelevant. As diplomats, we have to try to understand the context, issues and constraints of the host country and its people from their perspective. Only then can we establish genuine understanding. We may not agree on all matters. Even the best of friends will have different viewpoints and opinions. But we must try to establish good rapport that allows us to speak with candour – we mean well and respect each other’s views, but we can agree to disagree.

KT: Where do you Singapore-Cambodia trade, economy and bilateral relations, from the time you assumed your posting till now?

I think the facts speak for themselves. One year before I arrived in 2015, our bilateral trade was at US$1.1 billion. In 2018, trade volume rose to a high of US$4.8 billion. Since 1994, Singapore has invested more than US$1.2 billion in Cambodia. We are its 8th largest cumulative foreign investor.

We continue to enrol more Cambodian officials in our technical cooperation courses. More than 14,600 government officials have attended a course or workshop under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, of which more than 9,200 have done so at the Cambodia-Singapore Cooperation Centre (CSCC) in Phnom Penh. Bilateral tourism figures for 2018 have also shot up, with 98,000 Cambodian visitors to Singapore, an almost 30% year-on-year increase. Singaporean visitors to Cambodia also rose to an all-time high of 86,000.

KT: What is your aspirations for Cambodia and how would these fit into the Singapore agenda for a shared community in Cambodia?

Singapore firmly believes in ASEAN and is committed to help bridge the development gaps amongst the newer ASEAN members. One of the many efforts is through the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) which the CSCC in Phnom Penh falls under. As Singapore has no natural resources, our development experience has taught us the value of building up human capital.

This has also been one of the key areas of focus in our bilateral cooperation, and something that is close to my heart. Beyond its economic boom and the peace and stability that we all wish for Cambodia, I sincerely hope to see the Kingdom excel in its human resource development, for Cambodians of different backgrounds to be proficient in a skill, knowledge, trade or craft. This will be a transformational change that will drive, and more importantly, sustain the country’s socio-economic development.

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