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Cabinet reshuffle must be fair and comprehensive

Prime Minister Hun Sen flanked by cabinet ministers and SCC members. KT/Khem Sovannara

The announcement of Prime Minister Hun Sen on an impending cabinet reshuffle has set off a flurry of activity from second-generation leaders who are reportedly making a scramble for positions.

The Prime Minister in making this statement, has also, for the second consecutive time, said that Minister Cham Prasidh will be retained. The first was in the run up to the 2018 Cabinet announcement when the Minister was first on the new list.

This time around, even when dates have not been announced, his name has again been publicly stated as the one minister who remains, albeit in a renamed ministry. This gives rise to questions on the reasons and motivations behind this. He was accused of practising nepotism when he was the Minister of Commerce.

In the current mandate, in fact way back in 2018, Mr Hun Sen had warned of his cabinet of key performance index, independent decision making and not relying on him for promoting and making decisions and so forth, but it seems that there are no clear criteria based on meritocracy in appointing new ministers.

There are several ministries which come to mind which should get a new face, not a makeover. They are Ministry of Rural Development, a portfolio which is regarded as one of the key pillars for development. Yet, after being moved from Agriculture to Rural Development, the same inefficiencies continue unabated.

The next would be Ministry of Health, whose Minister has led a lacklustre effort at reforming the ministry. The ethics and professionalism of some medical staff is questionable. And, currently, some observers argue, the Ministry seems lacking comprehensive, effective measures in controlling the outbreak of epidemic diseases such as COVID-19.

The Justice Minister should also be on the reshuffle list because his lackadaisical approach to legal reforms has left the country’s legal system in limbo with the Prime Minister having to step in and undertake reforms directly. The court system is well known for irregularity. The judicial system obviously needs surgery.

Following this would be the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, who, with his wide experience from the ministry of water resources, should have been able to do a better job in strengthening the agriculture sector.

Despite the greatest water resource in the country and region, the mighty Mekong, Cambodia still cannot become a food producing basket for itself and for exports, relying instead on neighbours for daily food supply. This is ridiculous. The poor management of economic land concessions and forestry are further negatives.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications is yet another ministry which needs new blood creativity and innovation to prepare for IR4.0 (the fourth industrial generation, which depends a lot on IOT – the  internet of things. The intense power struggle within the ministry and rumours of a ministry within a ministry must be put to rest and an able, capable candidate must be nominated.

The Minister of Mines and Energy also needs institutional surgery. The Ministry of Mines has been accused of allegations of sand mining activities that continue unabated, leaving some villagers literally hanging over the collapsed riverbanks. Some irregularities within the mining sector such as the lack of transparency, exist.

The Ministry of Commerce should be reformed as well. The Ministry was unable to promote and diversify export markets for Cambodian products, especially agriculture products. The failure to meet the target of rice exports is a case in point. Bilateral trade negotiation has been very slow. Only until recently has Cambodia started free-trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with some key economic partners such as China and the Republic of Korea.

The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology should also be looked at for the same reason as agriculture: no water for farming. This and the agricultural ministry should be merged for better efficiency.

In addition, the Commerce and Mines Ministry should be also merged into a Ministry of Trade and Industry while the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports should be split into Education to focus exclusively on improving educational and vocational standards while Youth and Sports should be tasked with preparing our youth to partake in sports and to prepare Cambodia’s athletes for the 2023 Southeast Asian Games and beyond.

By all standards, some underperformed ministries need to have a second generation of leadership. They need to seek a leader who is transformational, adaptable to changes and capable of leading an innovative team in delivering results. Meritocracy should be the key assessment criterion.

Some ministers have been at their post from 1993. Some cannot be moved or removed because of party stability and political reasons. But many of the old guard without portfolio and quality leadership should be dropped to pave the way for a new generation of leadership.

If these are not looked into at least in part, the cabinet reshuffle, expected to be a rumble, may end up being a minor temblor, and with this, Mr Hun Sen may have lost his chance of a new direction, spirit, dynamism and getting reform results critically needed to face economic challenges and eventually political challenges because economic troubles would have led to domestic political troubles.

Concerning the new generation of leadership, the decision must be based on both loyalties to the party and the nation, track record of past achievements, political commitment to reform, and the ability to build a transformational and innovative team that can deliver results.

Cambodia needs a whole-of-government approach to improve public service delivery and build the national capacity and preparation for the future. All state agencies must coordinate and work together to serve national interests. Nepotism, corruption, narrow mindedness and selfish individual and group interests must be eradicated. Public servants must serve the public interests, not family or group interests.

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