Cambodia: The extraordinary journey of a resilient banker
CIMB’s boss in Phnom Penh, Bun Yin, is the only Cambodian to run an international bank anywhere, but that’s not the only remarkable thing about him: the fact that he’s alive to do so is another.
Few international bankers can claim to have learnt their deal-making skills during a genocide. But Bun Yin, chief executive of Malaysian-owned CIMB Cambodia, is not your average banker – and his homeland is no normal financial market.
Yin, 62, is a veteran of Phnom Penh’s fast-developing banking sector, a genial man nearing the end of a 37-year career that neatly tracks Cambodia’s recovery from the terror of the Pol Pot years.
The only Cambodian to run an international bank, Yin is regarded by peers, competitors and staff as a pioneer of modern Cambodian banking, a tribute he modestly waves away.
As for CIMB Cambodia, Yin tells Asiamoney that he is “quite pleased” with how business has developed since 2010, when he first joined from Campu Bank, and since 2015 when he took over as the bank’s chief executive.
CIMB Cambodia’s net profit rose 23% to $7.8 million in 2017, of which 44% was derived from commercial banking; the bank expects pre-tax profit for 2018 to reach $14 million, up about 40% from the previous year’s figure of $10.1 million.
Yin’s family, too, seems to be thriving, and is influential in Phnom Penh. An adult son and daughter have their own businesses, while another US-educated son runs one of Cambodia’s leading law firms and is an authority on the country’s banking code.
Though the bank is part of Malaysia’s CIMB Group, all of the 340 staff working across 14 branches and business centres are Cambodian, with an average age under 30. That youthfulness reflects the country generally because so few of Cambodia’s older generation survived the Pol Pot era. Yin’s talents, such as his education and a capacity for foreign languages, were considered a death sentence under the Khmer Rouge.
To be a banker was my inspiration since my school time - Bun Yin, CIMB Cambodia
CIMB Cambodia has financed a range of local and foreign companies in construction, engineering and commodities. Some of Cambodia’s biggest companies bank with CIMB. Yin has known some of them since their early days: when he worked at Campu; he provided some of these then-small and medium-sized enterprises with their first loans.
“There are many companies in Cambodia, in trading, importing and construction, who started with me when they were small and now they have become big companies,” Yin says. “When I came to join CIMB, all these clients supported me.”
Cambodia’s banks have coined it during two decades where average annual growth has been 7.6%, the world’s sixth-fastest-growing economy, according to the World Bank.
Cambodia’s biggest domestic bank Acleda, which is part-owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Bank Corp, reported taxed profit of $91.68 million in calendar 2017. The number two bank, Canadia, which has close ties to the government, earned a net profit of $72 million in 2017.
The IMF gives a qualified forecast that the good times will continue, although the European Union has warned that Cambodia could lose its $6 billion-a-year privileged trading access to the bloc if the country’s autocratic strongman Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving leader and a former Khmer Rouge communist commander, doesn’t address growing human rights concerns.
“Cambodia’s economic outlook is positive, although there are downside risks,” the IMF noted in a recent statement, highlighting macro-financial risks and governance issues.
“Bank credit, increasingly concentrated in the real estate and construction sectors, is expected to grow around 20% in 2018,” it says, adding that “concerns about credit quality, external funding, increasing concentration in the real estate sector and unregulated lending by real estate developers and high credit growth and growing systemic importance of microfinance institutions continue to pose risks to financial and macroeconomic stability.”
While CIMB Cambodia has seen strong growth in consumer lending (up 30% year-on-year as of the end of September 2018) and commercial lending (up 35%), its non-performing loan ratio has fallen from 0.27% to 0.19% in the same period and compares with an industry average of 2.4%, according to the bank’s figures.
From CIMB’s office high in the Hong Kong-built Exchange Square tower in Phnom Penh, it’s easy to see evidence of the boom. Cambodia’s sprawling riverine capital reveals new construction in all directions.
A decade ago, it took barely 15 minutes to drive the 10 kilometres from Phnom Penh’s airport to downtown; now it can take more than an hour in gridlocked traffic. Phnom Penh has become an apprentice Bangkok as Cambodians have leapt enthusiastically from Lenin to LinkedIn. Billions of dollars of Western aid and, more recently, state-directed financing from China, have helped.
“Cambodia has changed a lot from where we were,” Yin says.
Flashback to the ‘killing fields’ madness between 1975 and 1979: the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in the regional power vacuum at the end of the war in neighbouring Vietnam. Yin was in his late teens, recently married and with hopes of a banking career.
“To be a banker was my inspiration since my school time,” he says.
|The National Bank of Cambodia
was symbolically destroyed by the
Khmer Rouge after it abolished money
But in Pol Pot’s ‘new society,’ banking, finance, indeed all business was abolished, and money too. The central bank was looted and then symbolically blown up as redundant. Schools and colleges, factories and industry were shut down.
Private property was seized, and agriculture collectivized. Borders were closed to seal off Cambodia from foreign ‘cultural pollution.’ Entire cities were depopulated as millions of urban ‘parasites’ were marched to the countryside for ‘purification’. Yin was one of them. This was the dystopia of Pol Pot’s ‘Year zero’.
Yin was one of those at risk: he was educated and from a relatively well-to-do family in Phnom Penh, with some ethnic Chinese ancestry. His family owned a Volkswagen car, a luxury at that time. His wife taught French and Yin also spoke the language of Indochina’s former colonial rulers, as was mandatory at school.
Khmer Rouge classified city-dwellers such as Yin as expendable ‘new people’, innately opposed to the agrarian revolution and in need of ‘re-education’ or worse. A chilling slogan of the day directed at new people stated that ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.’
In early 1976, the Khmer Rouge came for him.
Yin’s crime was that he spoke French, and he was thus condemned as an intellectual.
“My wife and I were talking about something and someone heard from the street,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge said I was a puppet of foreign powers. I didn’t know what that meant. We were considered as intellectual people as we were able to speak another language.”
Like millions of his countrymen, Yin was marched to the rice fields outside Kratie in the remote north east of Cambodia, about 300 kilometres from Phnom Penh. He toiled there for two years, pulling rice and cutting bamboo, sometimes working beside the remains of those who had died from exhaustion, malnutrition or a cadre’s bludgeoning.
After Vietnam finally overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Yin recovered from his ordeal in his mother’s home village for a year before returning to Phnom Penh to look for a job. But many in his wider family were not so fortunate. An estimated two million Cambodians, or a quarter of the population, died during one of history’s most gruesome genocides.
Four decades on, Yin’s lingering memory of his time in Kratie is of the unbearable bugs in the rice fields there. He had noticed local peasants smoked a tobacco that kept insects away, so he started smoking too.
“The tobacco became a very important commodity,” he recalls.
Field work would begin at 4am, but Yin would rise earlier to tend a secret tobacco patch. Trading the cheroots with Khmer Rouge cadres helped save his life.
“Three times they were going to kill me,” he says, “and three times I survived. I gave tobacco to others in the field in order to gain friendship with them. With that generosity, I managed to have many friends who were helping me when I had trouble.”
When Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge, it replaced Cambodia’s Mao-inspired autarky with Vietnam’s Soviet model.
Yin remembers Cambodia’s riel banknotes re-appearing around 1980, when the central bank had to virtually give them away, such was the lack of confidence in the old currency.
The central bank was rebuilt from scratch in 1979.
His first job in banking started in 1981 under the communist systems of the Phnom Penh Municipality Bank, an arm of the central National Bank of Cambodia which had been re-opened only 18 months earlier.
The current governor of the central bank, Chea Chanto, was Yin’s boss at the municipal bank. From 1984 to 1987, the central bank sent him to study at the ministry of finance’s faculty of finance, accounting and banking.
“The system was socialist,” remembers Yin. “There were no private banks. All the capital came from the central bank. It’s a bit different than the commercial banks now. We did the payroll for all the government civil servants.”
Through the 1980s, Vietnam-backed Cambodia was in a civil war with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and remained Hanoi’s client state until 1991 when an international peace agreement installed the United Nations as Cambodia’s government ahead of democratic elections in 1993.
The UN administration ushered in a boom for Cambodia. That legacy remains evident today: the dollar is still preferred over the riel, despite repeated entreaties by the authorities to favour the local currency. Awash with foreigners and their aid dollars, the country’s first private banks opened in the run-up to the UN’s arrival. Malaysia had been a signatory to the 1991 peace accord and, at Kuala Lumpur’s urging, Teh Hong Piow’s Public Bank began Campu Bank in Phnom Penh in 1992, among the first foreign banks to enter the market.
The new banks were desperate for competent local staff; in the absence of a conventional banking sector, the central bank was an obvious place to look.
Yin was hired in Public Bank’s first intake, joining as a credit officer and steadily rising through the ranks to become deputy general manager. In 2010, he was headhunted by CIMB.
Today, the avuncular Yin is something of an industry treasure in Cambodia’s small banking community.
“He’s a legend,” says Joe Farrugia, an Australian who runs the local offshoot of Hong Leong Bank, CIMB’s Malaysian rival. “Bun Yin is a charming man, very straight and a very good operator.”
At Campu, deputy general manager Ong Ming Teck says Yin “was born and bred here, about 20 years with us. When he first came, he could hardly speak English.”
Yin also became a minor social media sensation after CIMB’s visiting former chief executive, Nazir Razak, posted a selfie with him on his Instagram account, describing his “incredible personal journey.”
The thread under the image was swamped with emojis, requests to meet ‘Uncle Yin’ and comments like “inspiring,” “determination” and “awesome.”
Says Razak: “Watching him thrive today as a banker shows how we should never give up hope.”
So what makes a good banker in Cambodia, according to Yin? He says his years in the rice fields taught him a valuable lesson, one that saved his life then and would make his career.
“I learned my principle that everything must be two ways,” he says. “When you help people, people will help you back. It’s good to be friendly, for mutual benefit. That builds a trust, and that has always served me well in my career, even up to today, after 37 years as a banker.
“You must learn to control yourself, to have discipline. As a leader, you must set an example for your staff.”
Four decades later, the Khmer Rouge still casts a shadow over Cambodia’s emergence to normality. The day after Asiamoney meets Yin, Phnom Penh is in a reflective state; two senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Pol Pot’s deputy Nuon Chea and Cambodia’s former head of state Khieu Samphan, are finally convicted of genocide. It’s taken almost four decades to bring these old tyrants to account. But memories of the time remain fresh for some.
“This was an unaccountable madness for all Cambodians, including myself,” Yin says. “It became a history that everybody should not forget, to prevent its recurrence. The most important thing for our new generation is to look forward.”