Australia Awards – Cambodia

Mr Im Phalla, Business & Investment Advisor, CBD Partner & Consultancy
Updated: October 2014

Australia Awards’ graduate Im Phalla returned to Cambodia in 2001 after completing his MBA at the University of Queensland.

Australia Awards’ graduate Im Phalla returned to Cambodia in 2001 after completing his MBA at the University of Queensland.

Since then, Phalla has made the most of his newly acquired skills in business, establishing successful businesses in Cambodia in investment and business consultancy and wine importing and wholesaling – and has still had time to complete another Master’s degree at the Yokohama National University – and be married!

“Going to Australia for my scholarship was my very first experience of travelling and studying overseas”, Phalla said.

“My friends in Australia said that I looked like a “lost child” when I first arrived. I admit that I was a bit stressed and overwhelmed by the whole experience.”

Nevertheless, Phalla believes that Brisbane was the best place for him, as the other city options such as Sydney and Melbourne would have been too big, and created too many distractions from his studies.

“But living in Brisbane also made me go beyond my comfort zone. I had to make and mix with a much wider group of friends than if I had been in other cities where there were already large Cambodian communities.”

However, he sees both the up and down sides of being away from other Cambodians while studying in a different country.

“Sure, it’s comfortable to have people around you who have the same language and like the same food, but when you have to face the challenges of cultural isolation, you are challenged – and simply have to succeed.”

Phalla was born into a farming family in the small Traeng District in Cambodia’s Takeo Province. The Province, bordering Vietnam in the south, is often called the cradle of Cambodian civilisation, as the province has several important pre-Angkorian sites built between 1300 and 1500 years ago.

He studied at the local primary school in Traeng, but when he was about eight or nine, his parents sent him into Phnom Penh to stay with his aunt and uncle, and to study in a larger and more challenging school than the one in their village.

“I was one of four other brothers and sisters, and my parents decided that I was too skinny to make a good farmer… so I had better get an education to survive”, he laughed.

At school, Phalla was not much of a scientist, but he did like literature and mathematics. He clearly excelled in these areas as, for the last three years of his secondary schooling, he was selected into a special class in Santhor Mok high school, intended to give gifted students the opportunity to “shine”.

Then, in his mid-teenage years, Phalla wasn’t too sure about what he wanted to with his life, but, “I did know I wanted to become a businessman… I wasn’t sure what type, simply a businessman.”

In 1993, he was awarded a scholarship to the National University of Management in Phnom Penh, to study for his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing; and as soon as he was part-way through that degree, he also began a second Bachelor’s degree – in Law… and had completed both by 1997.

“I was lucky with timing”, he explained. “In 1993, it was just at the start of the period when education was reformed and made more accessible to the children of poor families.”

“Before that, you would be the child of more wealthy parents to be able to study at the university .”

According to Phalla, the small scholarship he received from the Government was not enough to survive on. Although his fees were met, he (and other students) received a stipend of only a few dollars each month.

His parents and his aunt and uncle helped him in any way they could, to ensure he could concentrate on his studies. “Without their support, I would not have succeeded at all.”

In his final two years at the National University of Management, Phalla’s horizons were broadened when visiting American lecturers were assigned to his university. That early taste of what the world could offer in terms of a wider education encouraged Phalla, and he started to plan how he could gain a scholarship once he had graduated from university in Cambodia.

With his Bachelor’s degrees “in his pockets”, he applied for and got a job in a Cambodian Government agency, hearing there about the (then AusAID) Australia Awards.

He was told, however, that he was too young to apply for a scholarship in Australia, and besides, he hadn’t been working for very long. Already showing his determined personality even at this young age, Phalla decided he would still try for an Australia Award.

He studied hard for the interview and worked hard on his English language skills – and surprised his work colleagues by winning an Australia Award at his first attempt.

He spent 1999 refining his English language, study and research skills and in the first year of the new century, travelled to Brisbane to begin his MBA.

“My studies in Australia showed me the opportunities available in Cambodia and elsewhere. “They (studies) opened the door to the rest of the world.”

As well as building his existing skills in business and management, Phalla also gained much-needed self-confidence.

My approach was – and still is – that I may not necessarily know the answer, but I do know the answer can be found somewhere.”

Determined to make the most of his scholarship opportunity, Phalla would spend most of his walking hours at the St Lucia Campus of the University of Queensland.

When he first arrived in Australia, his English skills weren’t as good as they could have been, so for his first semester, he did nothing else except study hard and to try to improve his language skills.

“It was a bit of a shock to come from Cambodia where our educational standards weren’t as high as Australia”, he explained. And he also had to learn how to make the most of the many opportunities Australia’s internet access now gave him.

“When I left Phnom Penh for Australia, there was only a single Internet Café in the city”, he laughed.

Back in Phnom Penh two years later in 2001, Phalla worked across all employment sectors in Cambodia – government, civil society, donor agencies, and the private sector.

Phalla realised that his Australian studies had opened up the horizon for him, so he started looking around for other ways to extend his expertise and skill base even further.

He heard about human resource development scholarships being offered by the Japanese Government – the Japanese Development Scholarships (JDS), at Master’s level also.

And although told that the JDS program was intended to be accessed only by Bachelor degree graduates who had not yet completed a Masters program overseas, Phalla was able to convince the program administrators that his planned study topic – Post-war Reconstruction had particular relevance both for Japan and Cambodia.

His argument clearly worked and he was awarded a scholarship to undertake his studies in Japan between 2004 and 2006.

With an increasing group of both Cambodian and international friends when back in Cambodia, Phalla made the most of his business acumen, and after a period working with donors and in a Phnom Pen law firm, he started the first of his businesses – concentrating on commercial laws.

With a few successful businesses now behind him, Phalla is keen to help and advise young Cambodians thinking of applying for an Australia Award.

“You must be well prepared”, he tells them, “both in terms of the discipline you plan to study and also in relation to English skills.”

“Cambodia today is much more competitive than it was when I gained an Australia Award, so don’t underestimate how many other people will be out there also trying to change their lives through a scholarship.”

And in an increasingly competitive Cambodia, Phalla believes that Australia Awards should be promoted in the country’s secondary schools, so that potential applicants have time to prepare to build and make the most if their skills when it is time to apply after their Bachelor’s degree.

“It may sound too soon to start worrying about international study and a postgraduate degree when in high school, but if you are successful in gaining an Award, and if you can survive your studies in Australia and graduate with a Master’s degree, life will become much easier.”

As well as his MBA-gained skills in business, and having gained “soft skills” such as team leading, communicating, writing and negotiating, Phalla is particularly impressed with the increased confidence his Australia Award gave him.

“I was a lonely boy before I travelled to Australia”, he said. “But just after I came back I remember an old friend saying to me ‘you are different person since you came back from Australia’ – I had gained much confidence.”

“I personally appreciate and value very much the scholarship Australia gave me”, he said. Without that, I would not have succeeded as well as I have today… This sort of experience simply cannot be bought.”