Across Cambodia Sunday, nearly 5,000 candidates took the first civil service examination in recent memory, the first step in applying for the job of commune clerk.
Sunday’s test is supposed to ensure that the 1,600 jobs will go to those most qualified, regardless of party affiliation. Another 300 candidates will be listed as possible alternates.
The clerks will serve under the commune councils, scheduled to be elected in February 2002.
The candidates faced three tests: a question-and-answer segment designed to test general knowledge; an essay section; and a mathematics section.
“We will choose those who have a high score,” said Sak Setha, director-general of the Staff Department at the Ministry of Interior. “We are trying our best for a transparent test.”
Election monitors have said the commune clerk position could still be politicized because candidates will be chosen by the Ministry of Interior.
Candidates, however, said Sunday they are confident the jobs will be filled based on merit.
“If we can pass the test, we can get a job,” said Chea Panna, 21, a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh who took the test at the city’s Preah Norodom School.
Chea Panna said he is apolitical but wants a government job to help develop the country. “It is better for the country to have a test based on ability rather than [political] connections,” he said.
Independent observers, however, worry that it may not be that easy. More than 20 observers from NGOs were on hand Sunday in Phnom Penh, where 525 candidates competed for 76 commune clerk jobs and 14 alternate slots.
Most of the Phnom Penh candidates seemed to be recent high school graduates or university students. Ninety-nine were women.
“I want to help build the country,” said Phal Mealea Phal, a 19-year-old student at Norton University, though she says she knows the clerk jobs will pay only $7.70 to $10 per month.
“I don’t think about the salary. I will make my living by running my own business,” she said. “I want to show that a woman has the same ability to do the job as a man.”
Although the observers were allowed to stand outside the classrooms and watch through the windows as the candidates took the tests, they could not speak to them during breaks between tests.
“That is not transparency,” said one observer from the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections who did not want to be identified.
But Mann Chhoeun, cabinet chief of the Phnom Penh municipality, said the observers would be allowed to speak to candidates after the testing was completed. “We do not want the candidates disturbed” before the testing is completed, he said.
Officials say the tests will be graded at Phnom Penh City Hall during the next 10 days, and that observers will be present.
Observers said a bigger problem involves how the test results will be posted. “If the officials just say, ‘Pass, pass, pass,’ that’s not good enough,” said the Coffel observer. “They need to post people’s names, and their [numerical] scores.”
Otherwise, the observer said, candidates will not know if the jobs are going to the most qualified people or not.
Mann Chhoeun noted that Cambodian schools typically post just students’ names and if they passed or failed.
He said it has not yet been decided where or how the scores will be posted.
“This is the first time we’ve done this, and we do want feedback,” he said. On the issue of posting names and numerical grades, he said, “I will try to do this.”
Sak Setha said the only province that experienced problems Sunday was Koh Kong, where only 14 candidates showed up instead of the expected 46. He said the test was not held; the new deadline for applying will be April 11.
Kong Sophat of Coffel said observers will continue their work. “Right now, it seems fair. But we will follow up.”