Finding Her Voice
Vichara Chhy (MPP 2014)
Under Secretary Of State
Ministry of Civil Service, Cambodia
I’ve always wanted to work in the public sector—I think it’s the best way that I can make an impact on society. After I did my bachelor’s degree in economics in Japan, I worked in Cambodia’s Office of the Council of Ministers (OCM) as an official. Most officials there had a master’s degree and many of them had PhDs, so I was a small fish in a big pond. Paper qualifications aside, I didn’t feel I knew enough about my specialties. I wanted to improve myself. The other thing was that I was shy and afraid to speak up in a crowd. Before I could change my country, I wanted to make a difference in myself, and that’s what spurred me on to attend the LKY School.
Back then, my boss had a chat with me because the OCM wanted to promote me. He said, “I have a position in mind for you—if you leave for your studies, you’ll lose this chance. What’s your decision?” And I replied, “I want to get promoted but not right now, because I’m looking at long-term growth.”
One of my most memorable moments at the LKY School was my first presentation, in economics class. English isn’t my first language, and I was presenting to native speakers. I was so nervous and I talked so fast that I finished my presentation in 10 minutes, even though we were each allocated 15 minutes. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to ask my professors questions either, because I was afraid of not asking the “right” questions.
The LKY School is known for its academic rigour; it was tough and I had sleepless nights, but I found the learning environment encouraging and conducive for discussions. We would regularly break up into small groups to talk, and that helped me to open up and be more confident. I also enjoyed group work despite the inevitable tensions—we came from different backgrounds and held diverse ideas, and we tried our best to assimilate into the group and accept others’ perspectives while making our convictions clear. I felt the setup mirrors what happens in the work environment, because in the real world, we work in teams and need to respect diversity, so that we can align ourselves with a common goal to achieve results.
Although I had to forgo a promotion and leave my family for two years to be at the LKY School, I know it was the right decision. Today, I can stand in front of an audience and be comfortable giving a speech. I also teach at Cambodia’s Royal School of Administration—something I never thought I could do before. I believe in myself, and it’s all thanks to the School.
I now work at Cambodia’s Ministry of Civil Service as the Under Secretary of State. There are a lot of young people like me who’ve risen quickly up the ranks, and some of the senior staff resented that. At the same time, some of my peers were condescending towards the seniors. I held a meeting to address this, where we all came together, and I reiterated the government’s rationale for injecting fresh blood into the leadership: 70% of our people are under 30, and our policies need to reflect the needs of our people. But I also wanted to acknowledge the contributions of the senior staff, and I said to them, “Because of you, our country has progressed this far. We’re not here to upset you—we may have degrees, but you have wisdom and we respect that. We want to help you and learn from you.”
The meeting served as an ice breaker and a form of emotional release for many of us, and the work culture improved tremendously after that. I would say that was one of my proudest moments at work.
How did you cope with the workload at the LKY School?
We had a lot of readings and I couldn’t read every page—it took me too long, especially since I needed to check the dictionary often. I later found that I could speed up the process by discussing the readings with my friends. There was stress, but we didn’t let it overwhelm us. At College Green we threw quite a lot of parties, and I never felt alone during deadlines, as everyone’s light would be on and no one slept. Sometimes I would hear students singing at one in the morning. We had fun too!
What’s a skill that is crucial to your work?
It’s leadership. Even though I’ve assumed several leadership positions, it’s still a challenge to find ways to motivate people, especially in the public sector. In the private sector, if someone doesn’t perform, they’ll lose their jobs, but in the public sector, people get to keep their jobs for life. As a leader, you assign your staff different responsibilities, but if they don’t carry them out, what are you going to do? These are the questions I’m constantly asking myself: How can I motivate people to do what I want? How can I convince them to follow my lead?
Do you have a mentor in your life?
Yes I do. His name is Dr. Rethy Chhem and he used to be a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since his retirement in 2014, he’s served as Executive Director at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute. I got to know him via my husband, and he gives both of us valuable advice pertaining to work, studies, and family. He was the one who first suggested that I attend the LKY School. When I consult him, I come away with the sense that anything is possible, and he always says to me, “Why don’t you give yourself a chance?”