[Viewpoint]Rich dreams for a poor country

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[Viewpoint]Rich dreams for a poor country

It is said that Cambodia is emerging as a new market for foreign investment these days. I wondered why, and, after hesitating for a while, decided to visit Cambodia. To get some information about Cambodia beforehand, I told a Japanese journalist I met in Hanoi that I was going to visit there. He immediately retorted, “Why do you want to go there?”
Then he told me bluntly there was “no hope” there. According to him, there is nobody to lead Cambodia. And he was of the opinion that the only thing the country could do was raise tourism income by offering tours of Angkor Wat, the cultural property inherited from their ancestors.
Frankly speaking, Cambodia cannot be compared to its neighboring country, Vietnam.
No matter how much they take pride in Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is nothing but a historical legacy, like the Parthenon of Greece. The reality now is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Even its population is a mere 14 million, compared to Vietnam’s 84 million. On top of that, it is a country where around one fourth of the population, mostly intellectuals, were massacred in the notorious “Killing Fields.” It is not too much to say, as the Japanese journalist did, that there is no one to reconstruct the country even if they want to. Putting aside such things as the profitability of a business project, finding a business partner itself brings a great deal of risk. Hospitals and school buildings standing here and there were mostly built by foreign aid. There is no natural resource that the country can boast of, and the rampant corruption is beyond description. How can foreign investors expect to make profits by investing in a country where there is no hope for the future?
However, the Cambodia I saw was not a land of “no hope.” I could feel the strong will for economic development and vitality. Even the Cambodians themselves say Phnom Penh is changing by the month.
According to the staff of the Korean Embassy in Cambodia, the number of cars on the street is increasing so rapidly that it is even causing traffic congestion nowadays. Hotels are crowded with foreign businessmen. Although Cambodia does not have a proper manufacturing factory, almost everyone I met carried a cellular phone.
I was lucky enough to meet a few important government officials of Cambodia. They were strong men, like the elite officials of the Economic Planning Board and the Ministry of Finance in the 1970s and 1980s in Korea. I also heard stories about the heads of Cambodia’s representative businesses, like Samsung in Korea, and leading figures in the business world. Most of them studied abroad, in Moscow or Austria, and were fluent in English. I learned their strategies in a short amount of time.
Their first strategic goal was to actively induce foreign investment into Cambodia through neighboring countries such as China and Vietnam. The essence of this strategy lies in creating comparatively advantageous conditions in the investment environment and labor market.
I asked a government official about the merits of Cambodia compared to China or Vietnam. “In China and Vietnam, they take into account ideological factors, but in Cambodia, we do not care about ideology. We just want good business.
It will also be much easier for foreign funds to set up a financial company here. We also actually permit foreigners to purchase land. Only Cambodians are allowed to purchase land, but we allow dual nationality, so all you have to do is buy the nationality and the land together.”
One thing that attracted my attention was that both government officials and businessmen frequently mentioned Singapore during conversations. They point out that although Cambodia is no doubt a weaker country compared to its neighbors in terms of economic power, population and resources, it has played ― historically and geopolitically ― the role of the hub of the Indochinese Peninsula. On top of that, Cambodians seem to think, under the present circumstances, it would be most effective for them to benchmark the open-door policy and economic priority policies of Singapore.
In any case, it is quite certain that the Vietnamese economy, which is making a great leap forward, will have a not-so-small effect on Cambodia, which is willing to take even more active open-door policies. We will wait and see how the dreams of Cambodia, which aims to follow in the footsteps of Singapore on the basis of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s strong leadership, unfold.

*The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine.Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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