Old wine in an old bottle? Think twice before it’s too late

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) chairs the Council of Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh Oct. 21, 2015. Xinhua/Sovannara

A veteran Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) official and strategist told Khmer Times editors over the weekend: “Why is it necessary to have a complete overhaul of the 30-member cabinet? Didn’t the existing cabinet and members of the Royal Government get a clear mandate from the Cambodian people on July 29?

“Didn’t they gain a huge approval from the electorate that confidently voted the CPP into Parliament”?

The reaction was stunning to our editors. From the conversation, Khmer Times understands that except for a handful of positions and the shuffling of cabinet ministers, there may not be major changes. Also, there is a very slim chance of senior cabinet members retiring from office.

One political analyst and economist agreed with the sentiment, and euphemistically said that, “old wine in a new bottle” is still better than “old wine in an old bottle”.

In last Friday’s editorial, our editors put forward a cogent argument and gave convincing reasons why just moving incompetent ministers to new portfolios, in the name of maintaining CPP solidarity, would not work out when expectations are running high on the performance of the new government.

While Prime Minister Hun Sen may be inclined to adopt some measures of “old wine in a new bottle”, the fact that some party seniors are talking about “old wine in an old bottle” is troubling to say the least. If the latter is indeed the case on September 6 – when the new government is formed – it would deal a severe blow to the golden opportunity of the CPP and the prime minister to reconfigure and reform the 6th mandate of the Royal government with a young, dynamic and professional cabinet.

Time and again, the prime minister has opted to retain the old guard in portfolios that were beyond their capabilities, based on sentiments and the perceived need to maintain party solidarity and unity. This question now needs to be asked: Why can’t he put the aspirations of the people first?

As a responsible and independent media, Khmer Times has to voice public concerns and aspirations to the leaders in charge. Khmer Times has done its part to strengthen public trust in the government and promote state-society partnership by providing open and transparent platforms for opinion leaders and grassroots leaders to share their perspectives. In turn, it is only expected that the country’s leaders now put aside their own self-interests and serve the people.

If it is a forgone conclusion that we do indeed have “old wine in an old bottle” on September 6, we fervently hope that this will not be for the full tenure of the cabinet but on an interim basis while the prime minister further strengthens party unity and solidarity and builds up a younger, dynamic and professional cabinet with the 2022 commune election and 2023 election in mind. As it is, there is no room for complacency and being overconfident that the CPP will be re-elected back with another overwhelming majority is just delusional thinking, if no efforts are made to present a more dynamic and professional cabinet to the people.

Bold reforms must continue to be undertaken to fight corruption and also instill accountability in all ministries and government departments. The ethos of public service must be fully ingrained in the DNA of all cabinet ministers and public servants. If need be, the prime minister should not hesitate to call on members of his cabinet to answer questions at the National Assembly in order to make them more accountable to the public.

The threat of sanctions would be lessened if Cambodia can put forward a government with a new cabinet that is seen by the international community as fully competent and professional, with cabinet members passionately taking the interests of the people at heart.

The sanctions proposed by the US and the European Union might include denying Cambodian garment exports tax-free access to their markets, causing a loss of over $650 million in export revenue.

Sanctions are in no one’s interests and there are ample experiences globally to indicate that it would be only the poor that suffer – in this case around a million poor Cambodian factory workers, most of them women, in the garment sector.

To deal with these looming threats, we again reiterate that we need a new cabinet making innovative policies that will not hesitate to take the bull by its horns.

For this to eventuate, we cannot have geriatric ministers warming seats in the cabinet, oblivious to the country’s impending perils.

Cambodia, whatever policies or strategies it adopts, should not fall prey to the manipulation of great power politics as any sudden shift in superpower policies would leave the Kingdom vulnerable and once again it could become a pawn as it was in the early 1970s.

There is no room for short-sightedness in the new cabinet and long-term sustainable policies are needed for the government in its 6th mandate. It should be remembered that “old wine” left out too long will turn into vinegar and poison the chalice. By then, it could be too late.

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