Cambodia Investment Review

Cambodia – “An Overlooked Destination for Business and Investment”: A fireside chat with the CEO of AquariiBD Cambodia

Cambodia – “An Overlooked Destination for Business and Investment”: A fireside chat with the CEO of AquariiBD Cambodia

With the Aquarii events and publication tagline – “Cambodia: An Overlooked Destination for Business and Investment” – continuing to resonate well with many in the local and international business and investment community, CIR Leader Talks sat down with CEO Michael Tan, who coined the phrase, for a deeper understanding on the thoughts behind the term.

Q1: How and why did you choose this description for AquariiBD?

MT: In this digitally connected world, where information is available at the touch of a button, I never cease to be amused when foreign businesses and investors visit Phnom Penh for the first time and marvel at how developed Cambodia is when compared to their preconceived ideas.

Was their current or previous assessment based on objective, verifiable facts or was hearsay the main crux of their considerations? Have they visited Cambodia to see for themselves what it has to offer, or was their mindset influenced, shaped or constrained by how international media and certain actors have portrayed the Kingdom? Have they interacted with resident foreign businesses here, or were they overly reliant on second or third-hand reports and publications that merely reinforce a certain agenda or narrative without the appropriate context?

Read more: Cambodia: An overlooked destination for business and investment (Video)

The unfortunate fact is that many businesses and investors have overlooked business-friendly facts and investment-favorable factors that underpin the Kingdom’s potential and opportunities or are just stubbornly intransigent.

What we, therefore, hope to accomplish through the use of the succinct tagline is to challenge the misperceptions and outdated perspectives of international investors and businesses, to provoke them to re-examine the considerations of their investment and business expansion plans, or at least to arouse their curiosity as to whether they may have inadvertently overlooked or erroneously assessed the real potential and opportunities of one of the fastest growing emerging markets.

Q2: In your opinion, what are some of the favorable factors that international businesses and investors have overlooked or ignored in Cambodia?

MT: For a start, more than 70% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 35. This demography means tremendous growth potential. Its pre-Covid economy has also grown at more than 7% for the past two decades and looks set to hit at least 5% in 2023, a clear sign of the resilience of its economy and social systems.

Businesses here can be 100% foreign-owned, unlike other regional economies where local partnership is mandatory by law. This means international businesses and investors need not compromise on equity or control unless they prefer to work with a local partner. Manufacturers and producers can take advantage of various tariff exemption schemes that Cambodia enjoys for the export of products manufactured or produced here as well as the host government’s pro-business and pro-investment policies and regulations, which means lower costs and higher margins for final export products.

Aquarii CEO Mr. Michael Tan.

USD is also the predominant currency of commerce which means exchange rate risks can be mitigated or are predictable, and exchange rate loss on remittance of their profits or dividends is hence minimized through just one conversion to their home currency.

During our business delegation visit to Jakarta in October 2022 to raise awareness about Cambodia, Indonesian businesses and investors who attended the seminar and who interacted with our delegation members acknowledged that they were not aware of these facts. They then committed to visiting the Kingdom, one of which did so in April this year. We expect more delegations to visit this year, and we have received more inquiries and expressions of interest from businesses in Singapore, Thailand, Europe, and elsewhere. We’re also planning for a business delegation visit to Singapore to raise awareness, all as part of our commitment to put Cambodia on the map as a destination for business and investment.

Q3: Some of the outdated perspectives of Cambodia include its level of development and political stability, causing concern for some businesses and investors, how are these misconceptions being overcome?

MT: In 2016, Singaporeans were still getting accustomed to the mobile payment wallet known as PayLah, the concept of food delivery service, and the use of ride-hailing apps. But when I assumed duties in Cambodia (in my previous capacity as the Ambassador to the Kingdom) that same year, e-payment systems were already prevalent, food delivery was commonplace and there were six ride-hailing apps by the end of 2017.

Today, QR code payment is widely used and preferred over cash payments. Cambodia’s infrastructure has also developed rapidly over the past five years in terms of road and air connectivity, and numerous hotels, condos, and office buildings are part of the modern urban landscape of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Read more: Aquarii introduces Market Readiness Assistance service to help Singapore SMEs access Cambodian market

Over the past two decades, Cambodia’s socio-economic growth has increased in tandem with continuing and growing investments from the EU, US, China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and many more. This trend looks set to continue as Southeast Asia is among the fastest-growing markets in the world, and IMF has forecasted SEA to be the fastest-growing region in the world in 2024.

As regards to Cambodia’s political stability, perhaps the simplest way I can explain it is that there will always be potential and opportunities in an emerging market, but if it were not because of my considered assessment – from my previous capacity in the Kingdom – that Cambodia will continue to be politically stable in the foreseeable future, I would not have left my previous career to start Aquarii BD Cambodia.

Question 4: Aquarii has signed many partnerships and MOUs, how does this add value to AquariiBD’s consultancy services?

MT: Our partnerships are part of a business philosophy that I have established for Aquarii, which places a strong emphasis on synergistic collaboration and the power of aggregation. This is underpinned by my personal values of trust, integrity, credibility, and accountability.

The platform was designed to be a bridge to help international businesses and investors better understand and appreciate what Cambodia has to offer. Hopefully, with my track record and reputation as the former Ambassador to Cambodia, a former Singapore senior civil servant, and the fact that my parent company – Aquarii SG – is in Singapore where it is known for the rule of law and accountability, the platform can become one of the trusted go-to platforms for international businesses and investors.

Phillip Bank, Aquarii and Cambodia Investment Review.

This is complemented by our consultancy and advisory service where we help with market entry facilitation, provide market insights, identify credible local partners, distributors and service providers for them to work with.

This twin offering allows us to leverage on our diverse network of contacts and partners to build a carefully curated group of trusted service providers and partners to provide value-added solutions for local and international businesses and investors. Essentially, our approach is to help connect businesses, create opportunities and grow partnerships, and in so doing help enable and empower the larger business community.

Q5: You place a lot of emphasis on trust, accountability, credibility, and integrity. Why is that so?

MT: The Singapore system, my upbringing, personal encounters, and experiences, among other factors, have made me who I am today. I do not conduct or condone practices that take advantage of others under the guise of half-truths, false pretenses, or fabrication of misleading and false information to further one’s own personal interests and gains.

They exacerbate the trust deficit that Cambodia already suffers from because of the negative perception that has been created and propagated about the Kingdom.

To be clear, like most developing countries, Cambodia has its own challenges, missteps, incongruences, and faults, but then so do more developed countries. But as guests in a host country, we must make sure we do not inadvertently or deliberately tarnish its image, which means being responsible and conducting ourselves properly, whether in business or otherwise.

Question 6: Talking about trust and accountability, what are some of the challenges Aquarii has faced?

MT: I know of a few who told others they knew me well or have partnered with me or Aquarii just because I met them once or twice. There have also been a few who made exaggerated claims that their events or projects are endorsed by Singapore agencies such as Enterprise Singapore (ESG), among others, when they were in fact not.

Some tell me this phenomenon is a compliment of the Singapore branding, but I resent this irresponsible conduct and find their lack of integrity objectionable because they rely on deceit, misrepresentation, or false claims in order to further their own selfish and personal agenda and interests. Investors and businesses duped by these charlatans or pretenders will lose confidence and think twice about doing business in Cambodia if they fall prey to their dishonest intentions.

It is impossible to stop others from disingenuously or falsely claiming an association or partnership with Aquarii or me or other established agencies and persons, but those in doubt should do their homework and verify such claims. I would ask anyone who would like to know about us to visit our open, free to use platform or contact myself or my team, as it is better to be safe than sorry.

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