To strengthen the visualisation of “Cambodian Economic Dreams”, the Kingdom is in real need of “economisation of political discourse” against the current dangerous trend of “politicisation of economic discourse”.

Politicisation of economic discourse is dangerous not just for domestic politics but also for international relations. For instance, Cambodian diaspora is seen as pursuing high-level politicisation of economic discourse when they commonly call other nations to impose sanction on their own native countries.

This is a stark contrast to Vietnamese diaspora who always bring in investment capitals from all over the world to their own motherland, defying all ideological divide. Even among politicians in the Southeast Asian region, it is completely unheard of that they would resort to calling on foreigners to impose economic sanction on their own nations, no matter how harsh their political competition is.

In terms of international relations, the politicisation of trade barriers and discrimination of economic activities based on geopolitical orientation is a growing matter of concern. Such politicisation does not only divide nations, and limit self-determination on the choice of development but also disrupt the continuity and sustainability of economic development and empowerment of developing nations.

When one thinks of economisation of political discourse, there can be two approaches for discussion: future direction and policy tools.

Future direction

The core question lies on what kind of future economy that Cambodia is aspiring to become. Such discussion should be based on the past achievements of Cambodia’s socio-economic development, and it cannot be an abrupt imposition of perfect over-expectation of foreign economic and social models.

Does Cambodia want to become an industrialised economy or still want to pursue a modernised agricultural nation? This question remains a “tug-of-war” in terms of deep thinking, soul-searching and real development on the ground.

Some may think that agriculture cannot make Cambodia rich; agriculture sector still faces challenges in terms of unsustainable market development, cost of logistics and elevation of farmers’ living standard; profit from producing rice the whole year can only buy one iPhone but producing one iPhone a day can buy a whole year of rice stock, etc. This group of thought think that Cambodia should shift towards “industrialisation” and “digitalisation” of its economy.

But another group may think that Cambodia cannot be totally independent from agriculture considering its industrial structure and labour force. When it comes to “industrialisation” and “digitalisation”, we tend to be over-conscious or over-reliant on external market, and thus Cambodia can be vulnerable to external shocks.

It should be reminded that Cambodia was saved by agriculture twice, when the country was affected by the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and global financial crisis in 2008. Agriculture had acted as buffer industry to absorb shocks from the crisis when factory workers found safe haven by returning to the farmland of their parents. This can happen only because the current factory workers are first-generation factory workers. We would not be so sure that the second-generation of factory workers can rely on their parents’ farmland again when their factories face a similar crisis.

So we could see that developments of various industries are not totally self-exclusive and self-independent, rather they can be mutually stimulating and have simultaneous development. In a sense, such “tug-of-war” can also be healthy for Cambodia’s economic development as it seeks to build stronger industrial base while enhancing resilience towards external shocks.

Policy tools

There are endeavours that Cambodia has been pursuing, and there can be some new inspirations along the way too.

Firstly, the digital economy. Currently, the government is developing the digital economy policy and will introduce Policy Framework for Digital Society and Economy in the near future. Cambodia sees the opportunities that new technologies can provide to developing countries to skip the learning curve of the traditional industrial development phase.

Such policy will also better enhance Cambodia’s capability to cope with the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. It is observed that the government’s strategic vision is not to create a Cambodian version of a Silicon Valley but to focus on a robust digital environment that allows the countries’ enterprises to connect with global value chains.

Secondly, the development of the multi-purpose special economic zone (SEZ). Cambodia plans to develop Preah Sihanouk province as a multi-purpose SEZ modeled after the Chinese city of Shenzhen. This is being pursued through, among others, the Industrial Development Policy (IDP) 2015-2025, and the formulation and consequent implementation of the urban development master plan emulated from the 1991 Shenzhen Master Plan.

Thirdly, the revitalisation of border economy. This is an inspiration from Thailand that is implementing its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) to develop cross border trade with neighbours. In fact, Cambodia also has a lot of provinces with its neighbours; however, there is no known specific trade and economic policy designed exclusively for border provinces other than the establishment of checkpoints and corridors.

Indeed, there are many other inspirations for the development of Cambodia’s economy. Many of these endeavours and policies have already been clearly laid out in the government’s Rectangular Strategy Phase IV in a very comprehensive manner with substantive inputs from all policy-executors.

It is known that the Rectangular Strategy Phase IV is considered as policy tool to support Cambodia’s goal of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income nation by 2050.

But as we speak, not many people can really visualise what Cambodia’s Vision 2030 and 2050 look like. It is anticipated that the next successor policy of the Rectangular Strategy, whatever the name may be, should provide the public a better visualisation of these ambitious economic dreams. It is important to make the dreams “visible”and “feel-able” for all Cambodian people in their ordinary livelihood beyond the numeric display of economic statistics.

For example, to aim for science-based agriculture with high productivity and good income generation for farmers. To make Cambodia become a“geographically-central” logistic hub in the Mekong region by 2050. To build highly operational railway links by 2050. To create nation-wide quality hospitals to mitigate reliance on overseas medical treatments, and reliance on central hospitals in the capital city. To create one million technological manpower by 2030. To create social security system to ensure that working people would not feel insecure when they fall ill, retire or lose their jobs by 2035. And so on and so forth.

These are merely the playing of thoughts. Of course, such dreams can be extreme, radical and unrealistic, but dreams can also be seen, felt and shared by people. Dreams can also give people the sense of hope on what economic development really benefits them in their daily life. Dreams can give Cambodian people strong confidence on their own country’s economic development, and feel the sense of security when we think of the wellbeing of our next generations. Dreams can also help strengthen Cambodian people’s pride on their nation and common identities.

We need to further promote “economisation of political discourse” so that we can collect and identify common desires among all stakeholders in our effort to further visualising and consolidating “Cambodian Economic Dreams” that are shared by the people and leaving no one behind.

Sim Vireak is strategic adviser of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI)