With an under-educated work force, poor infrastructure and just a few thousand Internet users, developing an information technology industry in Cambodia could be viewed as an overly optimistic goal.
But technology experts and government officials from South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and India told government and NGO officials, private businessmen and students Tuesday that creating such an industry here is possible, even if that possibility seems remote when most of Cambodia’s roads are unpaved, rural villages do not have electricity and only a small percentage of Cambodians have access to a computer.
In South Korea, where information technology has created employment and wealth, “many constraints considered to be fundamental in the past have now been breached,” according to Dr Kwang Sok Oh, vice president of South Korea’s National Computerization Agency.
Just a generation ago, South Korea’s economy was centered on agriculture. Kwang Sok Oh told a seminar on Information Technology Awareness that South Korea now has a $102.5 billion technology industry.
With new technology, Cambodia could develop its IT sector even faster, Indian Ambassador PK Kapur said.
“What would have taken 10 or 20 years to do a generation ago, could take just a few years for Cambodia. Cambodia can learn from the experiences of others,” he said.
Much of India is still undeveloped, with the quality of life in some villages the same as it was in the 17th century, Kapur said. But India has nonetheless developed its work force to the point where its technology sector “can be compared with anywhere in the world.”
One foreign business expert doubted that the success of India, where many Western corporations send simple, computer-oriented tasks like data entry or Web site design, would be duplicated in Cambodia. The level of Cambodia’s English-language knowledge and technological skills cannot be compared to India, he said.
Furthermore, the hot information technology industry of the 1990s has recently cooled off worldwide, which could mean Cambodia is two years too late to jump on board the IT revolution, the consultant said.
“E-commerce is not such a buzzword anymore,” he said.
Bill Herod, a consultant to NGO Forum, said the seminar is still useful for Cambodians, who can at least learn what is going in nearby countries.
Speaking at the seminar at the Inter-Continental Hotel, Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the government’s National Information Communication Technology Development Authority (NiDA) to create a national plan for developing the country’s technology sector.
The premier also said he wanted English to be Cambodia’s second and working language. Khmer should always be the nation’s official language, but learning English, French and an East Asian language will give Cambodia a comparative advantage, he said.
Bill Pigott, UN resident coordinator, told the seminar that information technology can empower people politically.
“[IT] gives new channels for voicing concerns, organizing popular movements and enabling governments to be more accountable to those who elect them,” he said.
Phu Leewood, secretary general of NiDA, said Cambodia needs more Internet service providers. But he said Cambodia also needs a law stating the requirements for being an Internet service provider, as well as a policy on what and how much information would be made available to Cambodia’s Internet users.
That is a slippery slope, said Herod. Government officials have in the past talked about blocking access to some Internet content, particularly pornographic Web sites, he said. But once some Internet sites are banned by the government, then it is possible for other sites which could contain political content to be banned also, he said.
Koy Kim Sea, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said the government will not censor Internet sites because of political content. But he said he favors blocking access to pornography.