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Cambodia cabinet 6.0 and Industrial Revolution 4.0

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The venue of the World Economic Forum on Asean in Hanoi. The WEF on Asean discussed at length the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the regional grouping. Xinhua

The dust has now settled on speculations of the formation of the 6th Mandate of the Royal Government of Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also taken more proactive approaches in engaging international friends to strengthen the legitimacy of his regime. His recent visits to China for the Asean-China Expo in Nanning and the World Economic Forum on Asean in Hanoi demonstrates the government’s commitment to regional integration.

Although the new cabinet had some new faces in the portfolios as ministers with special functions, it remains largely unchanged, except for the addition to the list of some new secretaries of state and under-secretaries of state to the already bloated top echelon of the civil service. Some have strongly questioned the roles and duties of these mid-level political positions.

This leaves one to speculate, yet again, whether nation-building, unity and reconciliation have been sacrificed over political expedience. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution dawns upon us, there needs to be a clear division of functions and duties of state institutions as Cambodia is forced to speed up its reform agenda and play catch-up with other regional countries.

The cabinet reshuffle was a golden opportunity to tap the latent young talent and infuse fresh blood and ideas in the running of the country. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be and the old faces are still there without a single change in portfolio. But there is still hope.

There can be a mid-term review, and a cabinet reshuffle should follow immediately after the review. It is imperative that Prime Minister Hun Sen carries this out, if not the legitimacy of his cabinet will be further challenged. Without the implementation of a reform agenda, the new generation of leadership will bear a heavier burden in earning trust and respect from the people.

The government has a good policy blueprint and development vision, however the main issue is the lack of implementation and leadership. To revive and energize the reform agenda, there must be a reform of the leadership structure. There is a need for a new type of leadership that can drive positive changes. These new breed of leaders are those who can mobilise people to use their energy in a positive way. They are indeed the agents of positive change.

The prime minister and his entourage in Hanoi last week, at the World Economic Forum on Asean, were made aware of the opportunities and challenges stemming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Whilst some have been gung-ho about Cambodia’s readiness to embrace technology, innovation, and progress, it also did sink in that Industry 4.0 also meant the possibility of the loss of jobs through automation – though Cambodia is still in in its infancy in this aspect. The key question is to what extent the empowerment of youth and lessons to be learned from past industrial revolutions can be learned and shared.

The WEF must surely have given an added impetus to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his entourage to observe their surroundings and how their counterparts and delegates travelled, reacted, mingled and networked with other participants. The real takeaway from the WEF on Asean was beyond the sound bites and rhetoric. It was more the learning, reflections and the building of international networks.

Is Cambodia really ready to face the challenges of industry 4.0? One of the biggest challenge is job losses and disruption. Artificial intelligence and robotics are rapidly increasing the jobs that machines can perform better and faster than people. While this may reduce costs and raise productivity, it will also threaten jobs, and some members of Asean will be more affected than others. The immediate threats are to low-skilled, repetitive jobs (such as assembly line workers), but services jobs are also at risk, threatening to undermine regional success stories. Up to 28 million jobs, or 2.8 million jobs per year could be displaced across the region as a direct result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution whilst only 4.5 new jobs would be created in the same period up to the year 2018, revealed a study titled: ‘Technology and the Future of Asean jobs’.

The International Labour Organization estimates that 56 percent of jobs in five Asean countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines) are at high risk of automation in the next few decades. In the short term, it is likely that unemployment will increase. This could lead to higher numbers of economic migrants within Asean and increasing inequality.

So what is the correlation between the Industry 4.0 and the new Cambodian cabinet?

The correlation is straightforward. The cabinet must be equipped to take on the challenges of Industry 4.0 with clear and implementable policies and decisions. If it fails to do so, it could become an elephant in the room – a cabinet with talent, experience and maturity but unable to grasp the realities of Industry 4.0 and also that of the nation as it fast approaches the end of yet another decade.

Concerns of continuity are now over and water is under the bridge. The challenge now is to have the right officials in place to undertake the right tasks and prepare not only the people and the country but also face new realities and challenges.

These challenges cannot be swept under the carpet through mere sound bites and repackaging old stock as this is just an exercise in rebranding and remarketing without the fundamentals and structural challenges being addressed through a concerted, coherent and cohesive manner.

The millennials are awaiting patiently and are filled with ideas, as seen from the fact that many young start-up entrepreneurs travelled all the way to Hanoi on their own expense to attend the WEF on Asean and participate in the many forums and sessions. Why? Simply because it is for their generation and they can already foresee the challenges and obstacles to attain the takeaways from Industry 4.0.

Time will tell and as one analyst put it quite simply just a few nights ago, “the feeling is that this is a soccer game which is played over 90 minutes – meaning 5 years for the mandate but there was nothing to stop the coach from substituting the players as many times as he wants and can as it is a friendly match and hence the three substitutions per game do not apply. However, in using this analogy, some have forgotten that there are also coaches who believe in their faithful team and refuse to make any substitutions even when they are desperately needed, thus leading the team to lose focus and eventually lose the game.”

Mr Prime Minister, as an avid soccer fan, what kind of coach would you be? We are putting trust and faith in you and would like to see a transformative team in your cabinet.

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