My Southeast Asia Ventures: Here’s how I went from Normal stream to running an international school in Cambodia
Southeast Asia might not be many young Singaporeans’ first choice as a destination for work or study, but some have taken a leap of faith and ventured into the region. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts of those who have spent time in Singapore’s closest neighbours for a variety of meaningful pursuits.
In this instalment, Mr Wang Junyong, 32, describes his initial uncertainty when he was invited to run an international school in Cambodia. Knowing that such opportunities were rare for someone who had a “weak start” in education, he decided to take up the offer.
“Do you have to carry a weapon when you do business in Cambodia?” Are there still lots of landmines in Cambodia?’ “You siao ah, move to Cambodia for what!”
Those were the exact questions I faced when my friends knew I was moving to Cambodia in 2018. I first went to Cambodia in 2010 when I was 20 years old as part of a seven-day school community service project to help villagers in rural areas.
After spending the next 10 years as a Taiko drum trainer, an adult student of mine asked if I would be keen to explore running a Taiko drumming programme in Phnom Penh.
To understand more, I flew there for a market assessment where I met some Cambodian partners in the education industry.
At the end of the trip, I concluded that Cambodia’s enrichment market was not ready as parents focused more on academic development. Still, I was fortunate to receive an invitation from the Cambodian partners to join their international school as a shareholder.
It was a big decision as the risks and uncertainties were high. Unsure, I sought the advice of Mr David Lim, my mentor in the Philip Yeo Innovation Fellowship Programme under NUS Enterprise.
He said: “Just go! If you fail, you will come back with a lot of experience in Cambodia and companies in Singapore will hire you for your expertise!”
So I took out a bank loan, packed my bag and started my journey in Phnom Penh.
Friends often asked why I would want to run a school in Cambodia. Perhaps it was because I knew I would not get such an opportunity in Singapore.
I also had a weak start in my education and know that opportunities are hard to come by. I went from Normal (Technical) stream to the Institute of Technical Education and then to a polytechnic before spending six years obtaining a degree part-time.
As exciting as it gets, running a business in a foreign country was not all smooth sailing.
Moreover, the school’s employees come from different countries, backgrounds and faiths. Even today, we are constantly adjusting our policies and methods to find the sweet spot.
Operationally, it was also a challenge. In Singapore, I never had to worry about counterfeit banknotes. However, it is almost instinctive to check the banknotes when you receive them in Cambodia. Improvising and communicating are the key to overcoming these challenges.
As the saying goes, “today’s tears water tomorrow’s gardens”.
In January 2022, my school formed a joint venture with Singapore’s Crestar Education Group in a bid to grow in Cambodia.
As a newlywed, my wife also resigned from her stable job to join me in Cambodia so that I could focus on my career here. We enjoy the slow and quiet life here, and the friendships built with our local friends.
Cambodia has transformed a lot. Travellers no longer need to bargain with tuk-tuk drivers; given the prevalence of hailing services such as Grab and Tada.
Despite the recent reports of human trafficking in Cambodia, it is still relatively safe to move around in Phnom Penh. I would encourage Singaporean youths to consider spending time in Asean.
There are many untapped opportunities. With a relatively small start-up budget, you could do much more compared to Singapore.
That being said, when seeking opportunities in Cambodia, one should still practise due diligence and personal safety (just like when you are in any foreign country).
This can be done by connecting with the Singapore Cambodia Club, Enterprise Singapore’s Southeast Asia desk, and the Singapore Embassy in Phnom Penh.
So, what are you waiting for?