The Director General of Cambodia National Bank talks to ASEAN Forum about the sector’s rapid transformation and what the future holds. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS.
Composed, polite and well-presented – traits naturally expected from the head of Cambodia National Bank (CNB) – there is one crucial feature that sets Chea Serey apart from her peers, the fact she is a woman playing in what is traditionally a man’s world.
“I usually enter a room full of men, and I’m probably the youngest there as well,” she says, adding that she hides her amusement when they realise she is leading the meeting. “They think I’m the secretary. When I start talking I can see them thinking, ‘What does this girl have to say?’ This is a real prejudice I have to face, along with many other women in Cambodia.”
Gender discrimination is a topic that Chea is passionate about, and in between managing the country’s coffers, she finds the time to promote female empowerment. “I have to remain serious, professional and firm, and work hard to establish my credibility,” she says. “If I were a man, it wouldn’t be as hard or have taken as long. I want women not to be discouraged and to work to get what they want.”
Despite her father being National Bank Governor, Chea Chanto, rising through the ranks to the esteemed status of director general has not been an easy ride for Chea. As the mother of a girl and boy, aged 11 and six, she faced criticism from some for neglecting her traditional role in the home for her career. “That is hard for any parent to hear and was difficult to take,” she says, adding she was lucky to have the support of her parents. “My children are my life, but should I give up my career to please people? Do children need your presence 24/7 or should I give them independence? Because we’re not together all the time, it makes the moments we are more special.”
Born in Cambodia, Chea moved to France at the age of eight, where she studied at secondary school. During her last year, she moved to Singapore to attend the French International School of Singapore. Deciding to read for a degree in commerce, majoring in accounting and finance, Chea went on to study at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Her Master’s in Australia was cut short in its first semester when health issues developed with her son, and she moved back to her homeland.
Undeterred, several years later Chea returned to her studies to complete a long-distance MBA in banking at a London university while working full time with the national bank. She sat her three-hour final exam heavily pregnant. “It definitely wasn’t easy, but it’s one of those stages in life that everyone has to go through,” she says casually.
Upon returning home in 1999, Chea started her career with CNB, working as a cabinet officer helping to translate documents from French to Khmer. She was promoted to deputy director general in charge of banking supervision, until taking on her current role in November 2013. And in an industry that has evolved at a rapid pace, Chea has witnessed huge developments during her time with the institution.
Restructuring the country’s banking system, regaining public trust, stabilising the economy and stimulating economic growth have been the biggest changes Chea has experienced during her 16 years with CNB.
“In 1975, within one day, personal property and ownership of a bank account were worth nothing,” she says of the dark day when the Khmer Rouge started its deadly four-year reign of terror. “If you had gold or diamonds, you could barter, but paper money was worthless. From this trauma, it’s understandable that people don’t trust institutions because they can be taken away at any time.”
In 1992, the UN pumped tens of millions of dollars into the economy, causing a rapid switch to the American currency. This led to depreciation of the riel, triggering further distrust. In 2000, with the start of the huge restructuring programme, many banks tumbled into liquidation leading to more people losing hard-earned cash. “This just added salt to the wound,” says Chea.
However, recent years have seen the banking industry boom. Aided by the introduction of respected international banks, trust has started to rise with more than 60 percent of Cambodians having access to finance, either through a traditional bank, micro finance institute or other form of money transfer, such as Wing.
Another sector she feels passionately about is reviving the use of the riel over the dollar. She is careful not to use the term de-dollarisation, preferring to promote the use of riel over the dominant American currency. “Yes, there is national pride, but it’s more about us having control over the economy,” she says. “Now, I can’t lower interest rates to promote growth; I could lower interest rates to zero but still no one would borrow because everyone uses the dollar. I cannot print dollar bills; I can only print riel. I cannot pass on benefits to Cambodians.”
However, this is something Chea is hoping to change and is gearing up to launch several schemes, such as the retail payment system. Here, transactions made in riel transfer immediately from bank to bank, rather than having to wait sometimes several days in dollars. The Young Entrepreneurs’ Association of Cambodia’s 500 members also recently agreed to list all their prices in riel to push the point.
Looking to the future, forward-thinking Chea realises the needs of the Kingdom’s young and increasingly tech-savvy population, and the importance in investing in them early.
“I’m very optimistic about Cambodia’s economy in the future,” she says with confidence. “We have a very bright young population who are very talented and creative. We have art in our genes and our roots, and we have this amazing ability to master several languages. People just need a bit more guidance to bring them to the next level to shine.”