An exclusive interview with

HE Pablo Kang

Australian Ambassador to Cambodia

I’mACE Team

2020 was a challenging year for most people including His Excellency, Pablo Kang, Australia’s new ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia who was only just settling in as the Covid pandemic hit. Fortunately, he was able to spare the time for an interview with I’mACE Magazine.

Welcome to Cambodia Your Excellency. Why was this your preferred destination?

In the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, overseas positions are advertised roughly every six months and staff are invited to apply.  I’ve previously been posted to southeast Asia (Manila) and have travelled extensively to what is a dynamic part of the world and critical to many of Australia’s national interests.  As such, I applied for Cambodia and was lucky enough to be successful – it’s a popular posting and many colleagues in the Australian foreign service have served here and really enjoyed it. 

What are your thoughts on the last 30 years of shared history between Australia and Cambodia?

Australia played such a prominent role, for a medium-sized country, in the development of the Paris Peace Agreements and then subsequently through our significant contributions to UNAMIC and UNTAC. Many of the older generation of Cambodians I meet recall Australia’s role with fondness and sincere appreciation. However, they also point out, correctly, that the history between Australia and Cambodia goes back much further than the 1990s. They always say, “Oh, yes, very important but Australia’s been involved in Cambodia much longer than that!” Our relationship with Cambodia really began in 1951 with Cambodia’s participation in the Colombo Plan, the ambitious scheme to re-develop the countries of Asia following the trauma of World War II. This included the provision of scholarships for Cambodians to study in Australia. We established diplomatic relations with Cambodia in 1952, one year before Cambodia’s independence. During the dark years of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians resettled in Australia during the 1970s – to the extent we now have around 60,000 Australians of Cambodian heritage who make a significant contribution to our diverse, multicultural society and who retain a keen interest in what happens here. It was Australian NGOs who led the way in re-establishing relations during the 1980s. And then, of course, we have ACE. ACE has been here for such a long time and a lot of the people I’ve met, including at very senior levels, learned English through ACE, so they always talk about that. I remember meeting Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, and he told me he had learned English at ACE.

What are your development and trade priorities for Cambodia?

Australia has spent over a billion dollars on development assistance programs in Cambodia since the 1990s. It’s a very long standing aid program. Previously, we focused on delivering services directly to local institutions but as the economy has continued to grow and the Cambodian Government’s budget revenues have increased - budget revenue has doubled in the last five years – we’re trying to transition our aid program towards assisting the government to plan and direct resources of its own more effectively, rather than running programs directly ourselves. On top of that, of course, this year COVID-19 has changed everything. My priority has been to make sure the USD 50 million we will spend here this year is well targeted to assisting Cambodia’s COVID-19 response. That’s why we recently agreed a bilateral COVID-19 development response plan with Cambodia that supports priority areas such as health care, social inclusion and economic resilience.

In the health space, our support to the Health Equity and Quality Improvement (H-EQIP) project has been designed to ensure the Cambodian Government can deliver services more efficiently on the ground, to the poorest Cambodians, through hospitals and health centres that are provided incentives to perform well. We’ve also been heavily involved with contact tracing, laboratory strengthening, vaccine development and the provision of new ambulances during COVID-19.

Social inclusion and welfare services have clearly become a priority area during the pandemic. Australia has financed the development of the IDPoor database over the past ten years and this year we were pleased to provide additional support, so that the many Cambodians who unfortunately have fallen into poverty during the pandemic can be eligible for direct cash transfers provided by the Government.

On the economic resilience side, agriculture has assumed more prominence this year as the construction, tourism and garment sectors were heavily hit by COVID-19’s economic impacts. We have been working more and more with the Government to provide year-round supply of water to farmers through irrigation schemes managed by our Cambodia Australia Agriculture Value Chain (CAVAC) program, helping greater mechanisation of agriculture, diversification of crops and developing supply chains for export. Allied to this, more agricultural land has been made available through de-mining, which is a sector we’ve supported since 1994. The Cambodian Government’s aim is to have the country mine-free by 2025. That’s an ongoing priority for me and for the Australian Embassy. There is also a lot happening in the infrastructure space - how to plan and finance infrastructure properly, how to ensure sustainability and construction safety, and how to provide piped water (critical for COVID-19 hygiene!) and electricity to households in rural and remote parts of Cambodia. We are doing that through our Investing in Infrastructure (3i) program.

On the trade side, my aim is to increase the level and diversity of trade. Both our countries have liberalised trading regimes with less emphasis on tariffs and other forms of protectionism. We work well together in the World Trade Organisation and in regional free trade agreements such as the ASEAN Australia New Zealand FTA and the soon to be signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But we need to have strong supply and demand to take advantage of these agreements. There’s a number of different sectors we’re looking at, food and beverage is one in particular with more and more Australian quality produce we’re trying to introduce into Cambodia. We’re also helping Cambodia to increase its exports to Australia, where all goods receive preferential access. For example, Cambodia in 2020 is exporting record numbers of fragrant white rice to Australia. We have some strong interest from Australian resource and energy companies seeking to invest in southeast Asia, including in Cambodia, and we have been busy facilitating introductions.

In services, education is a big one and is our dominant services export to Cambodia, but that has been significantly affected by COVID-19, just as Cambodia’s export of tourism services to Australia has likewise been almost wiped out. It’s important to continue to plan for recovery once international travel comes back on line, hopefully next year. 

What do you perceive as the greatest opportunities and challenges that Cambodia faces?

Cambodia’s got a very young and increasingly technologically savvy, mobile and internet-literate workforce. I think that is certainly the way of the future. Other opportunities include involving women more and we engage it multiple programs through the Embassy to promote women and their role in the productive economy, and to ensure gender equality targets are met in actions, not just in words. There is parity at the primary level in terms of girls and boys being able to access schools, so it’s building on those foundations.

One of the challenges is going to be about diversifying the economy and I think even before COVID-19, the slowdown in China, the trade war between the US and China, the EBA issue with the EU, has shown that there has to be ongoing efforts to diversify the economy away from traditional sectors like garment manufacturing, tourism or construction, especially as wages are rising and costs of production are increasing, making Cambodia relatively less competitive. That is the normal trajectory from a lower middle income to a higher middle income country, it’s no different to other places, but it’s obviously a key challenge that the government and the private sector needs to address.

The other thing is the inequality of wealth distribution. Obviously the economy is growing very fast, Phnom Penh is growing very fast, you see cranes everywhere, buildings going up, a lot of fancy cars on the road which you wouldn’t have seen even two or three years ago. But at the same time you also see significant poverty, kids living on rubbish dumps, a lot of very stark illustrations of just how poor some people are.  I think it’s making sure that inequality and wealth distribution are brought under control, is managed and the bulk of the population increases its prosperity rather than it going to a tiny percentage at the top.  And the trajectory, prior to COVID-19, has been consistent growth and the emergence of a middle class as part of that.  Of course, the immediate and ongoing challenge for Cambodia is managing the global pandemic, ensuring cases are under control, the most vulnerable groups of the population are supported, and the economic impacts are weathered.  Then planning for the economic recovery on the other side.

What initiatives are the Australian Embassy involved in to promote youth development and education?

We support the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) and through them a lot of NGOs like Save the Children and Care Australia work at the primary education level. There’s a particular project that we work on with Care which is focused on the north eastern provinces, and it’s about having a multilingual approach to education for indigenous groups (where Khmer is not their mother tongue) being able to learn in their own language which research has shown greatly assists learning outcomes.  I’ve also visited another Australian NGO, See Beyond Borders, and witnessed their work with primary schools in Battambang to improve the standard of teacher training and interactive teaching methods, which has been great to see.

 Then, of course, at the higher education end, we’ve been involved for a long time with the Australia Awards Scholarships program. That’s been running since 1994 and we’ve had more than 850 scholarships at Master’s and PhD level handed out. It’s amazing the number of meetings I’ve had since I’ve been in here where that is commented on. They say, “I studied in Australia” or, “My sons and daughters are studying there” or, “My grandchildren are studying there”. Of course, scholarships are very competitive but there’s a lot of Cambodians who are also self-funded in Australia, nearly 3,000 who are enrolled this year, which represents about 20 percent year-on-year growth. 

Who should consider applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship?        

We encourage students from all walks of life to apply. Just before I came to Cambodia, I was in Sydney and met about seven current Australia Awards scholars who are studying at different institutions in Sydney. They were all from the private sector, doing public policy, psycho-social trauma, banking and finance, a whole range of very interesting things.

The key message is we want to encourage all Cambodian students to apply and hopefully the management of the COVID-19 pandemic will allow international study to resume in Australia from next year onwards. There is an English language requirement they have to satisfy (IELTS 6.5) and they also have to have an existing undergraduate degree, but it’s a great opportunity to open your horizons, live overseas, in a country that not only has very high quality institutions but is actually a great place to live and explore.

What advice do you have for Cambodian students seeking education opportunities in Australia?

The English language requirement is very important so make sure your English is up to scratch, whether for scholarships or self-funded study. In Australia, we also like to enjoy ourselves so it’s getting that balance between studying hard, getting the most out of your higher degree, but also having a bit of fun, making friends, making sure you travel a bit, getting to know the country and the culture.

Australia’s a very big country, it’s got a lot of things to see and do, and I think it would be a shame if you went there and didn’t really get to see much of the country, so I think that’s key. And getting to know the place well, trying to immerse yourself in the culture and the lifestyle so it is a life experience. A lot of people I’ve met and have come back from Australia have described it that way, it’s been a life changing experience. It’s not just the fact they’ve come back with a masters or a PhD but a different outlook on life, a new perspective. 

What role do you see Cambodian graduates playing in bilateral relations between the two countries?

I think that’s a really interesting development actually, meeting a lot more people who have studied in Australia and some of them now being in quite senior positions. It’s very useful for us to be able to use those linkages to both countries’ advantage, to have a group of people here who understand Australia; it’s not just some foreign destination that people are unfamiliar with.

There’s a very active alumni association, the Australian Alumni Association of Cambodia (AAA-C), where people are very involved, there are ongoing mentoring and networking opportunities, and we work very closely with them. Part of it is organic, having people here who know about us, who know our values and priorities, and who by and large have had a very positive experience and are positively disposed to working to improve the relationship between Australia and Cambodia. 

As a family man with two children, how are you adjusting to life in Cambodia?

We are very happy to be here! We actually found out about our posting in early 2019 – nearly two years ago, so it’s been a long time coming, and now that we’ve been here for nearly a year it’s great.  Of course COVID-19 has thrown up unexpected challenges, none of them are insurmountable at the moment.  Like any new place there’s an adjustment process; my wife takes the kids to and from school each day.  Before COVID she could spend up to four hours per day in the car with the traffic, so the pandemic may have brought one silver lining.  Home learning from March to August was a challenge, definitely, and we are so grateful our kids are able to resume face-to-face schooling, with relevant COVID-19 safety protocols in place, of course!  It’s a great opportunity for our kids to live in another country, to learn about another culture, to learn about the history and to interact with people not just from Cambodia but from other countries. My eldest son is now 12 and this is the fifth country he’s lived in.  Both our children have a great opportunity to broaden their horizons.

As a successful career diplomat, what has made you the person you are today?

I’d have to say education. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my parents pushed me very strongly that having a good education was important. Like all Asian parents (my parents came from Korea) the focus on education as a stepping stone to a good career is very strong, including for people who have migrated to Australia. So studying hard at school and at university as a stepping stone to be able to have a career in a field that you’re interested in, you can only do that if you have good education results. I think that’s the thing that’s been most important to me.  Of course, having an interest in the world around you, in global affairs, does open up diplomacy as a career pathway, as it did for me.  As well as being sociable – to like being around people and finding out their backgrounds and what makes them tick.

Was a desire to travel something you had from a young age?

Yes, I was lucky enough to have travelled overseas from a relatively young age.  Whether exploring Australia by car, or travelling overseas by plane, I’ve always had the travel bug.  Most Australians have it.  We have such a large country, and we are quite far from many other countries around the world, that Australians are in general natural born travellers.

What other messages do you have for young people aspiring to being career diplomats?

An interest in what’s happening in the world is the key thing, and this will occur naturally to a lot of young people who want to become diplomats or do something that involves living overseas. Without a really keen interest in international affairs, it’s probably not the profession for you. The other thing that diplomats do a lot is public speaking, so being confident and articulate, and also enjoying meeting people from all kinds of different backgrounds, are keys to being a diplomat.

Apart from English, do you speak any other languages and how is your Khmer coming along?

Khmer’s an interesting language but I only started learning it when I arrived here. I have a tutor and we do two hours a week, plus he gives me homework when I push him! It’s not a difficult language grammatically but the sounds can be quite difficult for a native English speaker, especially some of the vowels.

My background’s Korean. My Korean is pretty rusty now as I don’t use it that much but at some point in the past I spoke it OK. I’ve studied French and German, Mandarin, Japanese, a bit of Arabic. I can speak two Pacific island languages very well (Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin) as I have done a lot of work in the Pacific throughout my career, as well as having lived in Vanuatu, so they’re probably the languages I’m most comfortable with.

What is your favourite Cambodian dish?

Difficult question! I don’t know how to say this, bai sach chrouk? I have had it for breakfast, from the street, and I liked it. I like the idea of having rice for breakfast so I’m a big fan of the Asian breakfast, but the only challenge is it has quite a bit of garlic so if you’re having it for breakfast you have to make sure you brush your teeth and use breath freshener afterwards! I like beef lok lak and I find the combination of beef, egg and tomato is really nice. Fish amok is interesting. It’s not as flavoursome as some curries I’ve had, it’s quite understated, but it’s nice.


Favourite Restaurant

Malis (Khmer, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), Jaru (Korean, BKK1)

Favourite Place for Shopping

Decathlon (Aeon 2), Phsar Tuol Tom Poung (for clothes), Phsar Thmei

Favourite Free Time Activity

Swimming with the kids, visiting The Factory (for trampolining) playing cricket in the garden

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