As the clock counted down, the women’s team unleashed their final set of arguments as to why Cambodian women shouldn’t be entrusted to take high-ranking political office.
“They have too much to do—they can’t join politics and have babies at the same time,” argued Heng Socheata, a 21-year-old university student, before passing the microphone to her teammate who agreed that politics would be a waste of time for Cambodia’s housewives.
A shout from the back of TV5’s Phnom Penh studio indicated that their three minutes were up: it was time for the men’s team to put forth their rebuttal.
The oratorical battle of the sexes Feb 7 marked the third episode of a new reality television show intended to promote civic participation among Cambodian youth.
Inspired by Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” the US reality show for would-be business executives, “Yuvakchun Chhnoeum,” or “Youth Leadership Challenge,” combines the high drama of reality TV with the ideals of democracy building and community engagement. Since Jan 28, the hour-long show has been aired on Sundays at 1:30 pm and then been repeated on Tuesdays at 10 pm.
Divided into teams, contestants have a day to prepare for the week’s challenge; at each show’s conclusion, the losing team selects its four weakest members, two of whom the judges choose to eliminate.
For the third episode—which was aired earlier this week—contestants were divided by gender and assigned positions to debate on five issues—forcing them, at times, to argue against their own sensibilities.
In previous weeks, contestants have also raised more than $1,000 for an orphanage in 90 minutes and collected signatures to petition a garbage-collecting company to clean up a litter-strewn street.
Funded by USAID, the program is jointly produced by the Youth Council of Cambodia and the US-based International Republican Institute, said Mak Sarath, YCC’s program coordinator. Using free airtime donated by TV5, the eight-episode show will conclude in early March, sending the winner to attend a leadership program in the US that the IRI will select.
While socially conscious Cambodian youth may have replaced Trump’s aspiring business moguls, the program’s outspoken judges, occasional infighting and free-flowing tears remain true to the reality television spirit.
Arguments flew during the rapid-fire debate Feb 7. The debate’s topics included the controversial adultery law, military conscription and reproductive health education in schools. Even the idea of educating people about democracy itself was up for contention: would making it a part of the school curriculum empower a country ravaged by years of civil war—as the women’s team argued—or unleash anarchy in a country that was free already, as the men contended?
“I don’t think such a serious and important program—particularly one related to democracy and politics—has ever been shown before,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, a media trainer in Phnom Penh. “I’m surprised this was allowed to be aired.”
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he had not seen the program, but added that any organization is permitted to produce radio or television broadcasts.
The government “does not interfere with a broadcast before it airs,” he said by telephone Monday. “If something is wrong, we can intervene afterwards,” he added.
Vong Sokhoum, 20, a history student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, was one of 70 student audience members at the show’s recording Feb 7.
“The show gave me more knowledge [about] how to solve social problems,” she said.
Last week’s victorious contestants met with US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli on Thursday, who said it “was reassuring and inspiring to be among young Cambodians so dedicated to the future of their country,” according to US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle.
But for all its ambitions, the show ultimately delivers the dramatic pay-off of any good reality show.
Following the debate Feb 7, the contestants gathered in the mock boardroom for the final moment of truth: the men’s team had won the debate, and two female contestants would be going home.
One fled the room for the parking lot, bursting into tears. The other slowly exited the stage, her teammates rushing up to console her.
“I accept my mistakes, but I’m sorry to go—I learned how to speak in front of society,” said Hul Srey Neang, 20, an accounting student at Build Bright University, as she gave her final testimonial to the camera.
“The skills that make for good television are also the skills we want to engrain in youth—we want to draw out their emotions and passions,” said Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development and one of the show’s judges, along with Mak Sarath and film star Chea Samnang.