Framed photographs line the walls of Sok Siphana & Associates at the firm’s Phnom Penh office on the 8th floor of Maybank Tower, where lawyers and their assistants work in silence.
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Thick, heavy books feature prominently throughout. Far above the buzz of city life, the dim natural lighting and the wooden walls give the offices a formal, almost courtroom-like feel.
But the work of the Cambodian legal firm, among the most prominent in the fast-growing South-east Asian nation, is more vibrant than it looks. Behind the scene, Sok Siphana & Associates has played a role in spurring the massive foreign direct investment that’s helping propel Cambodia’s economy. More recently, the firm’s legal framework for the transport industry opened up the market for the entrance of Uber and other ridesharing operators.
Forced into the Killing Fields when he was fifteen-years-old, Dr Siphana escaped to the US as a refugee. He returned after the conflict to help develop the nation’s legal system, formulating Cambodia’s laws and regulations. Dr Siphana was the first secretary-general of Cambodia’s Bar Association and has represented Cambodia on multiple, international fronts.
“For a lawyer, it has become sort of an instinct when it comes to negotiating. Negotiation is not about win-all, lose all. It’s about getting what you want. Don’t worry about the other side,” says Dr Siphana.
In 2017, the Financial Times named Dr Siphana as one of Asia’s ten most innovative lawyers, citing his drive to rebuild Cambodia after the nation’s decades-long civil war.
Dr Siphana’s experience spans government, international development organisations, financial institutions and private practice including a stint as Cambodia’s Commerce Secretary of State.
Today, he focusses on his private practice but has continued to work with the government in several advisory roles since 2009.
“I can only give advice but it’s up to them to follow,” he says.
His next big role is to serve as a mentor to “young and rising stars” to fuel Cambodia’s up-and-coming startup sector.
Cambodia’s advantage in a regional context, Dr Siphana says, is “the demographic dividend” – an energetic, well-educated generation of entrepreneurial youths that could help shape the nation’s future.
“Cambodian kids are very savvy in terms of (developing) apps, innovation comes very fast. Tech enables them. The drive and the passion is there.”