An Exclusive Interview with the Australia Ambassador, HE Angela Corcoran
By I’mACE Team

You’ve been the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia since 2016. What parts of Cambodia have you visited?

I’ve been fortunate to see Australia’s aid program at work in many parts of the country, and I also love to jump in my car and explore on weekends, so I think I’ve been to nearly all of Cambodia’s provinces. I’m about to head off on a trip to Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Preah Vihear and Kompong Thom, so I’m still adding to my list!

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and Cambodia dates back to the 1990s, during the UNTAC peace keeping mission. You were also in Cambodia during those early days, with Australia taking a leading role in the mission. What do you see now that amazes you in terms of Cambodia’s human capital and educational opportunities?

Yes, I worked here with UNDP in 1993 and 1994, arriving just prior to the 1993 election. I vividly remember the beginning of IDP/ACE’s growth here. Back then, IDP/ACE was already contributing to the education of Cambodians. Since then, opportunities have continued to grow, with Cambodian families now increasingly investing in their children’s education.

In your opinion, are Cambodia’s education reforms on the right track? Are there any particular areas in which you think greater attention or resources are needed?

We’ve seen some significant improvements in the education sector in recent years, in terms of the quality of early childhood education and literacy rates. We’ve also seen considerable progress in equality of access to education – girls, as well as boys, are now better able to access educational opportunities.

The Australian Embassy has strong relationships with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoeYS) and Ministry officials, and we support policy developments in the higher education sector. Specifically, along with a number of other donors, we strongly endorse the Minister’s focus on establishing and maintaining support for STEM. Our Australia Awards Scholarships program invites applications from all fields of study, in recognition of the genuine development challenges across all sectors in Cambodia, including fields related to STEM.

We’ve also seen a number of local universities forming partnerships and relationships with overseas universities, including Australian universities, and I hope that these partnerships continue to grow and strengthen. They’re important for enhancing the quality of local tertiary institutions, opening doors to exchanges between academics and students, and developing and strengthening both individual and institutional relationships between Australia and Cambodia.

Today, many young Cambodians are committed to furthering their education overseas. With Australia one of the top study abroad destinations for Cambodian students, what advice do you have for those students who wish to study in Australia?

The Australian brand of education has never been stronger in Cambodia – Australia remains the most popular English language destination for Cambodian students. We’ll continue to work with IDP/ACE and other institutions to maintain the excellence and reputation of the Australian education brand.

I’ve been delighted to see the commitment of Cambodian students to their education. English language proficiency really helps you in your tertiary education, especially if you’re keen to obtain a donor-funded scholarship, including through the Australia Awards. Strong English language skills help to ensure that you’re on an equal footing with other international and Australian students. It’s important to be committed to your study and to achieve good results – Australian universities will assess your academic competence before accepting your application.

In April 2019, the Australian Embassy introduced the Regional Women’s Leadership Initiative in Cambodia. How important is this initiative for women in Cambodia and other ASEAN countries?

The Regional Women’s Leadership Initiative builds on Australia’s longstanding support for women’s leadership. I can’t emphasise strongly enough the importance of this initiative in helping to build people-to-people connections between current and emerging women leaders from ASEAN countries. Our inaugural event here gave 70 influential Australia Awards women alumni from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam the opportunity to build networks and professional leadership skills, and to contribute to discussions on complex issues facing women and men in the ASEAN region.

You’re strongly involved in social policy issues and politics, and you’re the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia. What made you who you are today?

I grew up in rural Australia, and my parents were both primary school teachers. In fact, my primary school had only two teachers – my mum and dad! They were both very strong advocates of gender equality and human rights. Some of my earliest memories are of my mum advocating for the rights of indigenous Australians and working with them to promote their cultural heritage, and of my dad telling me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. My parents fostered my interest in social and political issues, both in Australia and internationally. I was always encouraged to read widely, work hard, and have a lot of ideas. I never felt that there were any barriers to achieving my goals.

After studying economics at university, I joined the Australian government’s aid program, where I worked for most of my career. It underwent a few name changes during that time, and is now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Working in development was a natural fit for me, and I deliberately chose this path over a more traditional economist’s career. Becoming an Ambassador was not something I planned, but it’s been the perfect way for me to combine my interests in politics, international affairs, social policy issues and development. It’s an incredible job, and so interesting. I know I’m very lucky to represent my country.

How do you see Cambodian women in leadership today? Do you have any words of advice and encouragement for young Cambodian women on how to become future leaders?

Women are emerging as leaders in their own right in Cambodia today, including many who are alumni of the Australia Awards program. The public sector, private sector and civil society are all brimming with talented, ambitious young women who want to make a real difference through their leadership – for example, Sopheap Chak, who heads up the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

But taking on a leadership role is not without its challenges, particularly for women. We know that family and gender role expectations are very strong influences in women’s lives that can affect their career ambition and motivation. I always encourage women to seek out women in leadership roles and learn from them about the strategies they’ve used to manage competing priorities and forge a successful career. Mentoring is really important. Professional associations and using professional development and training opportunities are ways to meet other women, and to develop skills that are essential for leadership in contemporary organisations. Equally if not more importantly, I’ve found that establishing a strong personal support network is essential. My family and close friends have been the keys to my career achievements.

As diplomatic relations between Australia and Cambodia continue to grow and strengthen, what can we expect to see in the future between the two countries?

We have a longstanding diplomatic relationship spanning over 67 years, built on historical engagement and strong people-to-people links. I think the future of the Australia-Cambodia relationship also looks strong. As we’ve done to date, we’ll continue to support Cambodia’s development through education, trade and investment, tourism and our bilateral and regional aid programs, which are valued for engaging in principled and solution-focused development partnerships. 

We’ll also continue to work with Cambodia to build a stronger, more secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is well positioned to support Cambodian efforts to seize the opportunities and reduce the risks associated with the changes occurring in our shared region.

In addition, we’ll continue to foster connections between our people through art and culture. We recently held a great Australian short film festival, and throughout the rest of this year we’ll be supporting some really exciting exhibitions, speakers and collaborations between Australian and Cambodian artists. These include Cambodian Living Arts’ Arts4Peace Festival in November, which will be targeted towards young people. It celebrates the transformative power of art and culture in building peace. Its centrepiece will be the Cambodian premiere of Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, which had its world premiere in Melbourne in 2017. We’re bringing three prominent Australian performers and artists to Cambodia to play key roles in the festival.

Share this article