Learning about how to get people together to talk in ways that help us understand one another better, I’ve been focusing on some fun stories with guests for my weekly zine, S P A C E these days.

S P A C E quests S P A C E and is designed for curious people to read about what I find out when I ask lots of questions, wherever I am in the world.

For now I’m sharing one of the Q&A stories that I published in S P A C E this week. It’s called ‘If we don’t know each other.’

What can we learn about communication from a former ambassador?


I met Michael Tan, who was the ambassador to Cambodia from Singapore up until as recently as 2020.

Like all of the people I interview in S P A C E, I reached out just to start a conversation about anything and see how a process of asking one or two questions a time might lead us into curious conversations that have real depth and substance. When they do, things get interesting.

I found out so much.

We talked about all the things he’s learned from having 20 years’ international experience including postings in Myanmar, Japan, Korea, and Cambodia.

Here’s how the conversation unfolded.


S P A C E | ‘If we don’t know each other’

DIPIKA KOHLI: Thanks for talking with me. I had hoped to learn more about your way of gathering people, after reading a story you wrote for the Khmer Times that mentioned a popup kitchen at your residence for people to meet and engage. That was quite nifty to read about, and aligns with my own versions of similar projects to convene new and different others for conversations, because we learn so much from those whose paths we may not have otherwise crossed. Coincidentally, this is also the impetus behind this zine, too. But, I’d like to hear about your work. Can you tell me about what you do?

MICHAEL TAN : I established Aquarii BD Cambodia as a business and investment consultancy to help fulfill a role that I felt had been sorely missing: to be a bridge between international businesses and investors and Cambodia [and] to help them better understand the Kingdom [and] its potential and opportunities. [These] have been overlooked or dismissed.

DK: Why a consultancy? Why now?

MT: Cambodia suffers from a negative international perception, whatever the reasons. But the consequential trust deficit that it has to endure is probably one of the main root causes as to why it has not been able to attract as much FDI and businesses from the international audience as it ought to, despite its dramatic socio-economic development over the past two decades.

If this challenge can be mitigated or managed, even just a fraction of it, then the potential upside for Cambodia’s businesses and people can be tremendous.

DK: Is FDI important? Why or why not? The context for this question is a ten-year accumulation for me of anecdotal data: acquaintances in the NGO field have often told me they are a quite jaded with the whole idea of coming in to ‘help a country.’

They and others could perhaps be cynical about foreign ‘aid’ or ‘investment.’ Any comment?

MT: All countries or economies, regardless of their developmental status or maturity, require FDI to grow their industries, create employment, generate value-added products and services, level up their local talent pool through the trickle-down effect of knowledge and skills from overseas, among other benefits.

As developing countries and emerging economies need time and space to develop their infrastructure, governance and the skills and knowledge of their populace, foreign aid and NGOs have been vital in helping to fulfill critical bridging roles in the developmental journey of a country, particularly in the areas of healthcare, education, skills training, infrastructure and governance.

However, to date, there are more than 5,000 NGOs in Cambodia, which brings to mind the adage that it can be too much of a good thing.

There are NGOs that are genuine, professional and eminently qualified in their areas of expertise and do very good work for Cambodia and its people, often working in close collaboration with the host government. These are, however, the minority and include UN agencies and national development agencies, among others, whose track records and tangible outcomes speak for themselves.

But unfortunately, the majority, to put in bluntly, exist and persist for their own narrow agenda and for selfish purposes; they submit ‘report cards’ that are damning or partial of the actual state of socio-economic development to elicit donor funds and justify their continued existence.

I shall not elaborate further as it will certainly upset those guilty of this, but the reality, if you check with those in the development circuits and are willing to be candid, less than 5% of donor funds actually reach those whom they are supposed to be helping while the rest goes towards maintaining their expatriate or local lifestyles.

They are also one of the primary reasons there is such an entrenched negative perception of Cambodia.

DK: Five percent? Oof.

MT: The other commonly held view is that too much foreign aid and NGOs creates a dependency mindset, a crutch mentality.

To their credit, the host government is aware of this danger and has put in place mechanisms to manage foreign aid and assistance, to align the latter’s programs with national objectives. It is a works-in-progress of course, and under the new mandate, they will continue to review how better alignment of goals and outcomes can be achieved.

But the Achilles heel is the development community’s resistance to aggregating their resources and expertise, something I had long advocated so that the impact can be deeper, and the beneficiary effects much wider.

DK: What are today’s biggest challenges for you?

MT: Understandably, commercial and development entities tend to be cagey and are reluctant to [start] working together, perhaps because they feel that they have to protect their own turf, agenda and outcomes. But that mindset is too old schooled and limiting.

If resources, connections and expertise can be aggregated, imagine the deeper impact and wider effect.

DK: I understand what you mean.


On the importance of quality messages

MT: We organized an outbound private sector-led seminar in Jakarta, Indonesia in October 2022, to bring the message of Cambodia to an overseas source for investment.

[In contrast to initiating], most businesses take a conventional approach, [which is] to piggy-back on government-led roadshows and visits. But these would usually be perceived as less believable, and so, most foreign businesses and investors inevitably [would] adopt a wait-and-see posture.

But that, in my view, would be too passive.

Against the tide of misperception about Cambodia, we need to cut through it by bringing the message out.


DK: What’s the message to bring out?

MT: That Cambodia is an overlooked destination for business and investment, because of misplaced reasons and outdated perspectives. International businesses and investors don’t know what they do not know, but are contented to rely on and believe media reports and questionable publications about the Kingdom.

A recent international publication ranked Cambodia below countries such as Haiti, Afghanistan and Myanmar, among many others, in the law and order ranking. That is absurd when bombs and all manners of unrest happen in those countries every other day or week.

One observation that I have often made to those who are cynical or unfamiliar with Cambodia, except from their regular diet of negative reports and publications of the country, is this:

It is a fundamental fact that all developing countries, emerging economies and frontier markets will have their potential and opportunities, which is why entrepreneurs and investors are attracted to them.

But, what is the key consideration for long-term business and investment decisions in those places?

Thus far, only one out of the hundreds I have spoken to was able to provide the right answer. And that is, political stability. Not peace, [as] that can be transient, as sadly evidenced in Myanmar and other countries. Cambodia has been politically stable for more than two decades, yet most whom I presented this view were surprised.

In fact, other than political stability, it has another ‘bonus’ ingredient — political continuity.

This means longer-term policies and planning, a boon for foreign businesses and investors, on top of its business-friendly environment and investment-friendly policies.

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Where problems begin: ‘Trust deficits’

DK: Based on your 20 years of experience in overseas assignments, how do you feel is the best way to resolve conflicts? I heard you say that it depends, as no two cases are alike, but there are templates one can use to first understand where someone else is coming from.

Namely, when people are approaching a new conversation with someone for the first time, or maybe for the tenth time, they need to be aware of differences. Things like perception, trust levels, transparency, communication.

High trust and low trust levels can really get in the way of having a fruitful discussion, I heard you say, and though there are so many things written about ‘effective communication,’ it’s hard to find materials on that step before you start. The approach itself. Is it a mindset thing?

MT: George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright… aptly said, ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Think about perception, trust and communication, overlay them with the human need for information, [our] tendency for some form of structure and order, and personal habits, and we have the symptomatic outcomes of effective or ineffective communication at either ends of the spectrum.

There are many materials and references out there on communication, conflict resolution and business negotiations… but it’s in the translation of those pointers into practice that is the hardest part.


This story continues in S P A C E. To get it: