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Cabinet reshuffle: Determination in face of adversity to make changes

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has just reshuffled his Cabinet. AFP

Early this week, the National Assembly approved four new cabinet members for the four ministries, namely Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Cult and Religion and Ministry of Civil Service.

The reasons for this cabinet reshuffle was because of age and health conditions, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen. If it is true then there is no real reform, only just power transition from one generation to another based on age and health. From this judgement, some have said that the institutional surgery that the prime minister introduced was just a rhetoric: There is no real substance or meaning to it.

Nevertheless, Khmer Times still believes that reforms are gradually rolling out. The prime minister has kept his word and undertaken the reshuffle and, although it was not far-reaching, a thorough clean-up of underperforming ministers such as rural development, health, agriculture, water resources, mines and industry and commerce,  some of the incoming ministers need to be applauded. He has shown courage to carry out reforms during unprecedented challenging times and adversity.

This also shows a refreshing change because it was not a case of old wine repackaged in new bottles but rather new wine in new bottles. This is something which is actually unprecedented and gives hope for more such decisions.

Minister of Justice Keut Rith is the most noticeable and promising new minister. He has a proven track record of upholding professionalism as a lawyer and law professor. He just had his first task in drafting the Law on Emergency for tabling at the National Assembly tomorrow. He has done it well to suit the current needs under the grave conditions Cambodia is facing.

Ageing Minister Cham Prasidh  remains from the first mandate under different portfolios and now under the newly renamed Minister of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation, is not an ideal fit because this ministry needs an energetic, innovative individual and someone with technical expertise at the helm and the qualification and experience of the  chosen minister are not really appropriate. It is the Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0) era and this ministry should be in the forefront of such innovation. This is unlikely to happen, barring a miracle.

Chea Vandeth, as the minister of post and telecommunication, is a capable person, but some wonder whether he would be able to undertake any major reforms of the ministry and take it to the next level of the 5G era because he would be under pressure by princelings who had been vying for the position. It remains to be seen how effective he is going to be.

Prum Sokha who was appointed as the minister of the civil service is a promising change because he has the expertise and knowledge needed to shake up the sluggish department and turn it into a dynamic delivery of better public services. He does not have any scandal relating to power abuses or corruption. Perhaps he is the best among all the new ministers.

The elephants in the room, however, remain. The minister of health, probably because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic where a change midship may hurt the fight, has survived despite his years of underperformance, weak leadership complacency and lack of preparations for the COVID-19 pandemic, although the ministry had two months to prepare.

Ouk Rabun in rural development, one of the most important ministries in the government, has hardly been heard of and this is the ministry that can shape the future of Cambodia through development initiatives such as smart and sustainable rural improvements, which would bring development to various provinces and attract foreign direct investment in the process to generate employment opportunities at the local level. That he has remained as a minister, despite being lambasted by the prime minister during his tenure as agricultural minister, is indeed baffling.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Water Resources should be merged and have a new minister as well. With wise and effective leadership: The agriculture sector in Cambodia will be much more vibrant and resilient. This year, Cambodia is facing a serious drought. So far, there are no concrete, detailed policy and action plans in place to help farmers deal with this situation.

Having said that, Khmer Times still has some hope that reforms are on the way although at a slow speed. The prime minister may be playing a safe political game by avoiding hurting his friends who have struggled with him during wartime.

His sentiments for them remain deep. He is also concerned about internal unity of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In times of crisis, he tends to accommodate rather than eliminate the underperforming ministers.

Perhaps that explains his leadership style: accommodative leadership. However, when it comes to external threats posed either from the opposition party or Western powers, he is less accommodative.

Nothing is permanent. Power transition will come one day. The question is, however, how to ensure a smooth and peaceful power transition. Cambodia has gone through violent power transitions at least three times since gaining independence from France in 1953.

There is no role model in history showing the pathway towards a peaceful and smooth power transition. This is the biggest political risk that Cambodia is going to face in the future. PM Hun Sen seems to be confident that he can prepare the grounds for a stable power transition when the time is ripe.

If his health is fine, he might stay in power for another decade. It seems there is no reliable or capable leader who could step into his shoes immediately without being moulded or groomed first.

Therefore, forming a coalition or alliance of trustworthy supporters within the ruling class is the nature of the power game. The second and third generation of leaders are scrambling to create their own political and business networks to consolidate their powerbase ready to compete for power in the future. These power configurations are emerging to further complicate this Game of Thrones.

While the young generation of leadership are more open to new ideas and adaptable to changes, some of them lack wisdom and compassion. Some are driven by material interests rather than serving the public good.

The speed of public institutional reforms is far behind that of social transformations and technological revolution. Public trust and confidence in the government, everywhere, is declining. Political movement against the establishment is the norm in different parts of the world. It is not so much about political ideology or political system: It is more about the quality of governance and public service delivery.

For Cambodia to sustain peace and political stability, the government needs to urgently address social needs and concerns. The best way to meet those needs is to improve governance and the best way to improve governance is to change leadership.

If some ministers are found to be ineffective or associated with high corruption and nepotism, they must be removed, definitely not based on health and age. This is the only way for the Cambodia to thrive and move forward. There is no short cut when it comes to leadership and governance.

In difficult times, we look for leaders who can provide solutions. Cambodia needs communitarian leadership with compassion and vision. Cambodia looks for transformational and innovative leaders who understand the needs to reform and deliver results. Cambodia demands for clean leaders who could deliver quality public service. History will fairly record who are the respected leaders. The leaders should aim to leave behind good legacy.

Khmer Times still hopes that more leadership changes and reforms will come after Cambodia could overcome the crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. It wishes that next round of cabinet reshuffle will be more comprehensive.

The decision should be  made based on key performance indicators, not sentiment or age or health. Cambodians deserve better leaders who could lead and navigate the country through difficult and challenging times ahead. Cambodians deserve to be proud of their culture, history and the wisdom inherited from their ancestors and do justice to Mr Hun Sen for his tireless efforts.

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