"Our generation has been working on things to fix and heal
DYNA HENG, ECONOMIST AND PRESIDENT OF THE CAMBODIAN ECONOMIC ASSOCIATION
Dyna Heng, 31 years old, was recently elected President of the Cambodian Economic Association (CEA), an organization dedicated to providing a forum for promoting debate, building capacity, and sharing knowledge of Cambodia’s socio-economic and development issues.
Born in Memot District Tbong Khmum Province (formerly Kampong Cham), he went to Baktouk High School, received his Bachelors in Economics at Nagoya University (Japan), Masters in Economics at Hitotsubashi University (Japan) and PhD in Economics at the Australian National University.
Dyna is an emerging economist in Cambodia and is helping to promote economic and development policy analyses for the country. I interviewed him to get his thoughts on the state of Cambodia's economy and development and the roadmap for economic success for Cambodia.
Q: What was it like growing up in Cambodia? What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to be where you are today?
A: I moved to study in Phnom Penh at the age of six. I remember that in early1990s, I was one of the kids who chased foreigners and UNTAC officers to say “Hello”. I was eager to learn and speak English whenever I had a chance. I went to a private English school near Bak Touk Primary school. There, I had a chance to practice English one day per week with the backpackers who volunteered to teach English. So, my foreign teachers changed almost every week. I have also liked math since primary school.
At school, we had a limited number of quality math textbooks and study materials. But I am fortunate to have had the opportunities to work hard. First, my grandmother, parents, uncles, and aunts value education very much. Although many of them had no opportunity to finish primary school properly, they saved money and supported me to study as much as I could. Second, I have been guided by teachers who taught me and my classmates with their pure hearts and high spirits the value of public service, despite their meager salary. There was one period when my math teacher spent his weekends with me for free in order to prepare me for the national math competition. I still remember their names and respect them a lot.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
A. My grandmother, who did not have a chance to finish primary school, influenced me a lot by examples and by her wisdom. During the Khmer Rouge Regime, after my grandfather was arrested and disappeared, my grandmother managed to escape and save her 10 children and all the in-law families. Through her experience of survival, she motivated me to study and give back to society, especially the underprivileged, as much as I can. And by studying to build my personal capacity, I will be able to serve and give more.
Q: Name three economists or academics past or present who have influenced your views on economics and development.
A. I have been fortunate to have the combination of academic and practical experience which has shaped my view on economic issues.
On the academic front, the graduate program in Macroeconomics in Tokyo and Canberra (Australia) have equipped me with the theories and frameworks for observing and analyzing macroeconomic management at both the regional and country levels. The topics of great interest to me are capital flows, monetary and fiscal policies, and financial sector development.
On the practice side, two economists have influenced me a lot. First, IMF Resident Representative in Cambodia, Dr. Ahmed Faisal, has influenced me by the way he keenly observes sectorial issues and then figures out how these issues fit together at the macro level. Second, Mr. Chan Sophal, our former president of CEA, has guided me a lot about Cambodia’s real economic issues on the ground. These sectoral observation and macro-view analyses have helped me a lot to connect and put pieces together.
Q: Cambodia has had impressive economic growth over the last decade, around 10% between 1998-2007, and 7% on average for the last few years. Going forward, how can Cambodia maintain its rapid growth, reduce inequality, and alleviate poverty further?
A: Maintaining the momentum of growth requires not only political and macroeconomic stability but also effective institutions and governance structure, investment in people, financial and private sector development, and diversification of the economy. At the same time, Cambodia needs to ensure to translate that growth into poverty reduction fast enough so that growth is inclusive. Research shows that inclusive growth also tends to be more sustainable.
In the shadow of economic growth, some rise in inequality is inevitable, but inequality may have been exacerbated rather than mitigated by a number of policies. Changes to some policies could halt or even reverse the increasing inequality. Improvement in Cambodia’s policies to fund basic public services for poor areas and poor households can help reduce social disparities, preventing widening inequality and mitigating the shocks on the vulnerable. Again, needed to be enhanced are public and private investment in infrastructure, education, health; and social protection programs. In the current context, institutional and administrative reforms to improve public budget efficiencies matter a lot.
Q: What are some of Cambodia’s economic strengths and weaknesses? What are some of the risks now and on the horizon to Cambodia’s economy?
A: Cambodia is young and dynamic country. Around 70% of the population is under the age of 35. It is located in a rapidly growing Asia. It is a very open economy in terms of investment and trade. It has large land and abundant resources. Cambodia also has incentives for investors such as Everything-but Arms (EBA).
However, Cambodia needs to improve the investment climate and address the main constraints such as the high cost of energy, inefficiencies in the transport system, limited access to finance for Medium and Small Enterprise, skills shortage and mismatch. Moreover, Cambodia needs to diversify as economic growth so far depends on few sectors (Agriculture, Tourism, Garment, and Construction). And each sector depends on a few products and services, which captures low value added in the production chain. This is just a big picture. And we shall discuss each aspect in detail in technical discussions for specific policy design and implementation.
Risks to Cambodia’s economic growth include political uncertainty, extreme domestic labor market condition, extreme weather risk which could interrupt agriculture production, and risks of global and regional adverse spill-over. Moving forward, within a complex and competitive global economic environment, Cambodia should reduce its structural vulnerability through diversification both at the sectoral level and the value-chain level of each commodity/services and build a macroeconomic policy space to deal with potential economic shocks. Meanwhile, a conducive environment to promote both domestic and foreign investment needs to be promoted.
Q: Where would you like to see Cambodia’s economy/development in 10 years and what will it take to get there?
A: In the next ten years, I would like to see Cambodia as a rising star in the region both in terms of economic growth, poverty reduction, and welfare. We are already attracting attention with our impressive growth over the last decade. But having another decade of rapid growth and poverty reduction would be very significant. Cambodia stands at the frontier of becoming an emerging market economy in the heart of the most dynamic hub of the global economy. And we need to work harder to maintain the growth momentum.
We, the Cambodians, need to do a lot of things, some of which are not easy. Many things have been improved, but much more remains to be done. Diversify our economy for broader-based growth and build credibility of macroeconomic policies will the main task. At the same time, we need to improve our institutions, and increase investment in our education and healthcare system within a fiscal sustainability framework as much and as fast as we can.
Q: As the newly appointed President of CEA, what is your vision for the organization and how will CEA contribute to improving Cambodia’s economy and development?
A: CEA envisages an active hub of research and information sharing as well as professional networking. As Cambodia moves forward to win its future, the demand for economic analyses and evidence-based technical inputs is going to be stronger. CEA wants to meet this demand and be part of Cambodia’s development process by encouraging economic research and discussions without “partisan attitude.” This platform will allow economists and researchers in Cambodia to work together constructively, pushing out the frontiers of our economic knowledge and analyses.
CEA also aims to serve as a platform to bring together leaders and the young generation to exchange views and have more engagement. This interaction can help address the generation gap in Cambodia, and help the country to manage its generational, institutional, and aspirational transition that is taking place now. Such dynamics should also gradually create a momentum that we can always sit and work together.
A society grows great when senior people plant trees whose shade they know they may never sit in. Our heroes and founders planted the trees that shade us today. In CEA’s mindset, we must plant the trees that will provide shade for the generations to come.
Q: You’ve been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have for young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar career path?
A: I have had both failures and successes. I’ve learned how to benefit from the failures. So, I have three small messages here. First, make the benefits of failures as some failures are inevitable in life. Failures can teach us things about ourselves and the challenges that we might not be able to learn in other ways. Second, have a dream and work smart to achieve it. Along the way, please embrace the wider world, find and connect to the role models you can look up to. Third, be patient. Sometimes, things take a bit longer time and in an unexpected way, but as long as we are consistent and persistent in pursing it, we should get it.
To learn more about the Cambodian Economic Association (CEA), visit: http://www.cea.org.kh
2015 YOUNG LEADERS