An exclusive interview with

H.E. KUNG Phoak

Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation

Former Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community


MAM Julina & Andrew MILLAR


As soon as his term as DSG in Jakarta ended and he returned to Cambodian soil, we jumped at the chance to interview one of Cambodia’s political heavy weights and an experienced diplomat on the world stage.


Can you describe yourself in three adjectives?

I am a pragmatic person. Perhaps it has to do with my work background, the policy worlds, and talking about what we can and cannot do, especially when you are dealing with issues involving many countries.


At the same time I am an optimistic person; although we are constrained by practical things, I am more than happy to push the envelope if there is a need.


And the third adjective would be nimble, being able to adapt quickly to situations around me. When you are dealing with some of the toughest issues with many different partners and sets of interests, you need to be adaptive, to know the right time to strike a deal.


What can you remember about your time as an ACE student?

Back in 2005 before I departed for my degree in Australia, I spent six months studying. It was a very enjoyable time, not just the language courses but the preparation as well. There were a lot of opportunities to learn about the [Australian] culture and people, and the information was very useful.


I also had a great time engaging with other students, some of whom were not part of the scholarship program but very smart young people with lots of ideas. It was not just about learning prepositions and conjunctions, but also about social and economic issues, as well as personal growth topics, so I have very fond memories of the time I studied at ACE.


It is one of the best schools in town, if not the best, and when it comes to how ACE teaches students, and the ways teachers interact with students, it was a memorable time.



H.E. KUNG Phoak with leaders at the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Council


What are your most memorable achievements as Deputy Secretary General for the ASEAN SCC?

It is important to understand the Socio-Cultural Community pillar. It is the biggest among the three major pillars (we also have the Political Security Community pillar and the Economic Community). We have 15 sectoral bodies all of which are doing things closely related to people’s livelihoods. That is why many call it ‘the people's pillar’, because people can feel the impact of all the policy activities and programs that the sectoral bodies are working on, and relate to the overall work of the community building process.


Another thing that puts this pillar in a unique position is that one of its main responsibilities is to make sure our people understand us, not just general information about ASEAN, but also how people can contribute to the community building process and benefit from it. Next year, Cambodia will be the ASEAN chair and there will be a lot more activities.


It is also the pillar that consumes most of the resources that ASEAN mobilizes from partners. During my term as DSG for the ASCC, we mobilized around $200 million for all the activities under this pillar, ranging from the health sector, education, youth, sport, to the environment, disasters, culture, information, gender, you name it, all aspects of human development.


Let me focus on four memorable achievements:


The first was the response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. We tried to coordinate responses among the member states but we are talking about trans boundary problems, global problems that a single country cannot manage alone; they needed to work together and set up regional mechanisms in a very short period of time.


The first step we took was to create a platform for all the relevant stakeholders to exchange views on how to tackle COVID-19, to understand its genomic sequencing, its infectiousness, how to put in place surveillance, and so on.


The next step was how to make sure all members had enough PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. In the early stages of COVID-19, not all countries had enough masks, gloves and protective gear, and it was quite a challenge. When we are in a crisis like this, it is natural for a country to bring everything to their own warehouse and not share with others. It happens at the national, regional and global level, with export restrictions in many parts of the world.


We also had to think about how to mobilize enough resources to support member states in procuring vaccines, so we set up the COVID-19 response fund. After a crisis, people tend to forget; we do not invest much in building strong regional structures to support our responses. So my biggest achievement was to establish the ASEAN Center for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases which, in a way, is the ASEAN CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).


There had been talk about ACPHEED for at least 10 years, but they could not do it because it was not yet the right time. No matter how good ideas are, we need to look for the best opportunity to introduce them. When the pandemic hit I said now is the time, and quickly proposed it back in April 2020 in only the first two or three months when the pandemic started spreading in the region. We managed to get support from ASEAN member states and established it.


The second achievement that consumed a lot of energy was the Myanmar issue. I started with Myanmar and finished my term with Myanmar! When I joined, the first thing about Myanmar was to help a member state repatriate refugees from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.


Then there was the political situation and we had to support them not just in building peace and stability, but also in fighting COVID-19 and responding to humanitarian needs. It was responding to a disaster in a complex situation where you have a political element, the COVID-19 element, the humanitarian issues, and the violence. It was a mix of all these destabilizing factors which made it very difficult to respond to all the issues we were facing.


The third achievement was the shift to focus more on environmental sustainability, something which was not always at the top of the agenda. Thanks to COVID-19, it resurfaced the conversation because the pandemic is closely related to environmental issues.


Many point in the direction of bats for the origin of COVID-19 because we have taken over wildlife habitats and are getting closer to places where these viruses have existed for many decades or even centuries. It is just that we were never this close to the virus, and we do not have immunity, we do not have the knowledge about the diseases.


It is a good time for people to start talking about how we can do more to protect our environment and link the environment to a broader agenda, not just within its own field of interest but also how environmental issues cut across many sectors.


And the fourth achievement is to transform the ASEAN Secretariat into a Knowledge Hub, to provide support to all ASEAN member states.


We are going through a number of mega trends now. Some countries are better prepared for the fourth industrial revolution, for climate change, demographic change, pandemics, and when it comes to the knowledge, capacity, capability and technologies, some member states are in a better position such as more well-advanced countries like Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand.


You have other countries that are still catching up and are also very important in terms of charting the direction of the countries, and being part of a regional solution.



H.E. KUNG Phoak bids farewell recently to the ASEAN Secretary General


What is the most significant impact the pandemic has had on the ASEAN community?

COVID-19 started as a health crisis then quickly became a socio-economic crisis, even a political crisis in parts of the world. There were so many other issues unrelated to health, but those issues undermined the responses of member states, as well as making them less effective.


There are some problems with the way we do things, with our community building process, and we owe more to our society, our people, and need to do more, not just focus purely on how we can grow the economy and make sure skyscrapers are being built, but also focus on the well-being and health of our people, the environment and.


Learning from this crisis, member states will invest more in these areas because we can see there are so many other socio-economic problems out there, and many people are still having a difficult time.


The pandemic has revealed a lot of cracks in our society and I hope we can learn from this painful lesson and put in place solutions. We need to think about the long term and things that will help us survive when another crisis hits.


COVID-19 is not going to be the last pandemic. If you look at the amount of investment in vaccine research, we now have 10 known viruses but we do not have the vaccines yet. And it only costs around 50 billion or so to develop vaccines, for example. But if you look at the cost COVID-19 has had on all the countries, it is trillions of US dollars, so we need to be more farsighted and think long term, and learn from this experience to put in place more robust and comprehensive solutions.


Education is also under my purview and we are trying to invest in a number of policy frameworks to help member states make education more inclusive. When COVID-19 hit, schools had to close and education had to be delivered online. For some countries, the practice has been there for quite some time, in Singapore or Malaysia. But then you have some member states that rely heavily on physical delivery of education. It is not just about adopting technology and then plugging in, you need the entire ecosystem to support online platforms.


We talk about different curriculum, more tailored curriculum, not just for online but also for different groups of people, such as persons with a disability. So it is a big problem and we have to understand that for some people, especially those from poor families, if they are out of school for too long there is a high chance they will not return. That was happening even before the pandemic; inequality in education is always there, but with the pandemic it is worse.


And school is not just a place of education but also a place that provides life-saving support, counselling and mental health provision. Young people can get school meals, especially important for children whose families cannot provide for them. Meals at schools have all the protein, vitamins and vegetables required, which helps physical and mental growth, and cognitive development.


So when we talk about how we cope with COVID-19 and online learning, it is not that simple. And when we talk about inequality, we tend to focus on whether people have access to a platform or not, access to the internet, access to a laptop, but the issue of being unable to go to school is much worse than that.



H.E. KUNG Phoak with Mr. Qu Dongyu, Director General of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)


What new opportunities exist for the ASEAN region coming out of the pandemic?

There are plenty but it depends on how prepared we are to take advantage of these mega trends. There are three to focus on that will continue to shape the region for many years:


The first opportunity is the fourth industrial revolution. You have to understand this mega trend and prepare a country, its people, to take advantage of it otherwise you are going to get stuck in a loop.


When we talk about automation, a lot of people think they will lose their jobs. This is a standard explanation of the fourth industrial revolution, that automation will take all the jobs we have. But I think that is inaccurate. Automation has always been here, since the beginning of societies we have used horses and buffalos to help us with farming, then came the steam engine, electricity, the assembly line, robots and so on.


What is different this time is that 4IR and AI [Artificial Intelligence] affect us in areas we normally think of as our territory such as our ability to solve problems, to analyse things. If you are a lawyer, you think there is no way a machine can replace you because the skills required come from your brain. You need to do the analysis; you need to strategize.


Now a computer can do your job with big data storing millions of cases. Imagine you have a case. You just put this information into a program which goes through the millions of cases lawyers have worked on in the past and give you good advice on how to solve the problem. That is putting some people in a position they are uncomfortable with.


At the same time, when we talk about the fourth industrial revolution, it is not just about the adoption of new technology but also the way we do things in a more effective manner. We can improve productivity by leveraging new technology and adopting new ways of working. What we need to do is be prepared for it and understand it as much as possible so we can take advantage of it.


Another opportunity is demographic change. Our society is aging quickly. Though most of our population is still young, that is not going to be true for long and I think conversations will centre around the need to become rich before getting old.


For young people, we can devise policy interventions to help, but they also have to be given the skills, opportunities, and resources they need.


Another aspect of demographic change we do not spend much time discussing is old people. We need to find ways to incorporate them into society.


Some countries have increased the retirement age, as old people do not have to do laborious work; they can complete tasks requiring minimal use of energy or less exposure to injury. This is also related to the fourth industrial revolution. It will not be a big surprise to see somebody in their 80s using a laptop and engaging in coding and programming activities.


Not many people are talking about the grey economy. Old people are rich with their pensions and savings while young people are poor because they are still working and earning a living. However, most products and businesses focus on the younger generation, therefore, that will be a big area going forward in terms of restructuring of the economy.


There will be more focus on economic activities related to aging populations, including care services, entertainment, products, services which will need to change to make sure their concerns are addressed, and their tastes are met.


The final opportunity is climate change, but not specifically the impact of climate change alone. While we must do something to address climate change, we must also look at opportunities stemming from the shift from fuel-based economies to a green economy.


Member states are talking about green jobs which were never talked about in the past. Now we are talking about the circular economy, while some of the giant companies are taking advantage of this by shifting their paradigm, such as Uber.


A circular economy is about reducing, reusing, recycling and refurbishing. It is not single product usage. We must consume and produce responsibly, and there are a lot of new businesses and ideas coming out of this trend. You do not need to build a hotel to rent it out, for instance, and with Airbnb you can visit the website and rent a room that somebody has for the night.


I believe these trends are going to pick up speed in the coming years and young people in ASEAN states need to learn about them as quickly as possible and look into opportunities that may arise.


What advice do you have for young Cambodians looking to advance their education or career prospects?

I would offer five points.


The first one, STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, Mathematics], is of course still important. We need to invest in STEAM and provide opportunities to our young people.


The second is to get the basics right in education: school systems, curriculums, quality education and the basic components to support students so they can benefit from STEAM opportunities. Schools must be managed in a way that allows students to grow, make friends and think creatively. Teachers need to have the capacity, capability and the know-how, while curriculum must be up-to-date and reflect market demands.


The third point is lifelong learning. You cannot stop learning! There are many online platforms with interesting courses and even I have enrolled in some courses. I am not an expert in all areas and sometimes I find a topic interesting and want to learn more, for example cryptocurrency or Buddhist scriptures. I can just enrol in a course and learn about it. With online platforms, you can learn wherever and whenever no matter how old you are.


If we talk about the fourth industrial revolution, and the pace of change now, some of the skills you obtain today will be obsolete in the next two to three years. However, if you keep building resilience within yourself then no matter how fast change takes place, you can adapt quickly.


The fourth point is cooperation between education institutions and the private sector. Around 50% of jobs created by the fourth industrial revolution are not yet known. We need to strengthen the basic skills related to science, technology and engineering, and focus on lifelong learning, to adapt and learn quickly. This must be done in a coordinated manner and cannot be done by public or government institutions alone.


For example, ACE works closely with the private sector and you have a lot of discussion about what would be the best courses and skills needed by students. Some of this skilling, upskilling, and re-skilling can be done by private companies in partnership with education institutions.


Young people do not have to go back to university to obtain new skills, they can get them from the workplace. It costs less for companies to provide new skills to their staff than to lay them off and hire new ones.


There is an incentive for the private sector to move along this line, but we need a coherent strategy to support them especially for small and medium enterprises. It is okay for big corporates because they have a lot of cash, but small and medium enterprises normally struggle.


In the middle of the pandemic the easiest way for small and medium enterprises to cut costs was to lay off staff then, when the economy gets better, re-hire them. I do not think this is the best way to do it. Stimulus packages rolled out by the government should focus on supporting small and medium enterprises to retain and upskill their staff, so these people are ready for future challenges that the company will face.


My last point is the social contract. Companies often try to find ways to make work more effective and productive, by buying more machines and employing less people.


They put in place modern and innovative managerial processes, sometimes rolled out without participation from their workers, so when they put in place these new structures staff are not happy; they protest and stop working.


I would suggest we need a new social contract that, when it comes to the adoption of new technologies and innovation, has broad participation from different stakeholders including staff so they know what to expect.


Employees must also understand that the company cannot stay the same forever and if it needs to grow, they also need to change the way they do things. There is an incentive for them to change to support the company in the long term and it is important they participate to share perspectives on the adoption of technologies or artificial intelligence, and become a part of the equation to support future growth.


What core skills do you recommend for anyone wanting to work in politics or diplomacy?

I would suggest being a generalist in this specialized world because the profession of a diplomat is not only about dealing in politics but also talking about trade or the environment, for example. Try to broaden your base as much as possible.


As a diplomat, you are the ears, eyes and mouth of your country. It is not just about being there but also understanding the local context and mega trends affecting it, and the implications they have on the relationship between your country and the host.


Sometimes major foreign policy comes from people in the field of diplomacy so you need a strong sense of observation and understanding to provide good advice. I work at the Foreign Ministry and I do not know everything that is happening in other foreign capitals. I depend on our eyes and ears in those foreign capitals to tell me what is going on and to what extent it will affect our trade relationship, etc.


The second skill area you should focus on is building good relationships with the host country and the people who have leverage over the deals you seek to make. It is not only about business attitude; sometimes personal relationships are more important than the official position you have, and you need to nurture such relationships.


I have been through some tough conversations with partners and it is easy to agree on something when our interests converge, but extremely difficult when our interests diverge. If you do not have strong personal relationships, it will be difficult to get your ideas across and offer honest opinions. You need strong personal relationships with all key stakeholders.


Interpersonal skills and soft skills that many students obtain from school, such as communicative capacity, can also be very helpful. Being open to different ideas and cultures; you will not always find somebody who shares the same view as you, so you have to understand when to push, and how to reconcile differences.


You should also have sympathy with the job they have because when all of us come to the negotiation room we are all under pressure.


The third skill is to learn as much as possible, not just reading international relations textbooks, but expanding your knowledge in those areas related to your work such as economics, trade, the environment, communication skills, negotiation skills, etc.


These will be useful when you engage with partners because you will not talk politics all the time. When you go to lunch, you will enjoy friendly conversation with jokes and you should be able to do that because being a diplomat you cannot be boring!



H.E. KUNG Phoak with Former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd

Photo taken at the University of Oxford while a visiting doctoral scholar


How has studying abroad shaped your worldview and general perspectives?

It has helped a lot. It expands your horizons and understanding, especially when you study in higher education institutions in Australia, the UK or the US, there is no shortage of big ideas, creative thinking and new topics. I spent a lot of time going from one seminar to another, trying to learn new things, and each time I was surprised by how little I knew!


Another advantage is it builds this habit in you, that there are many ideas and possibilities out there. If you listen closely enough, you will find a lot of interesting ideas from different people.


For a leader, the channel of communication will become narrower the higher your position. There will be fewer people you can talk to or who give feedback. However, if you are open to different views, perspectives and ideas, and challenge yourself, it helps a lot.


I greatly enjoyed all those opportunities and it contributed a lot to the way I do things and my achievements over the years. I always carry those experiences with me.


When it came to our COVID-19 responses, the first thing that came to mind was to bring together all the experts because I needed to hear their views. I did not know much about COVID-19 as my background is in engineering, international relations and economics. I am not a doctor so I do not know about infectious diseases. We got experts from John Hopkins University, National University of Singapore, the University of Cambridge, Oxford, and so on, and they came together and shared their views on the problems and potential solutions.


My life experience spending time studying at overseas universities has influenced how we approach ideas and problems at the regional level.


You are an avid reader and recommend books on your Facebook page. What you are reading now and what is your favourite book?

I am currently reading ‘The Spirit of Green’ written by William Nordhaus, the Nobel Laureate in economics. It is about greening our economy or growing our economy without destroying the planet. I am really enjoying it.


I read widely, not necessarily foreign policy and politics, but also anthropology, economics, the environment, science and whatever interests me. I have quite a sizable library with around 1,000 books, so I keep stocking books and try to finish them one by one. I started recommending books only recently, especially when I come across a book that I think would be useful for many people.


Now, when it comes to my favourite book of all time, it is tough. I think it depends on the subject. Whether it is written by a Nobel Laureate or a professor in the US or Australia, or here in Cambodia, there is always something to learn from a book. Every bit of knowledge that we obtain from reading is important, and I highly value it.


There are a couple of books related to foreign policy I enjoy, for example ‘Politics Among Nations’ by Hans Morgenthau, ‘Diplomacy’ by Henry Kissinger, or some contemporary books on the relationship between the US and China, or the future of ASEAN and how we are going to survive all these mega trends, in addition to the competition between the major powers.

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