Monday, January 29, 2007

Back to Cambodia!

I've been busy packing for my trip back to Phnom Penh tomorrow morning (my cheapie flight is at 7am! argh!). My luggage will be overweight, because I went on a shopping spree in Johor Bahru, Malaysia (the Singapore dollar is twice that of the Malaysian ringgit, so it makes things really affordable.)

Jetstar, the budget airline I am flying, allows 20kg check in, and every additional kilogramme costs SGD8 (USD5). DHL's Jumbo Box (up to 25kg) to Cambodia costs around SGD200 and that's door-to-door delivery. The cheapest way to send things appears to be via Singapore Post--SGD100 for 20kg. But, as Singpost does not have a branch in Cambodia, there is no guarantee it will arrive. Sigh. So for the moment I am lugging things with me on the plane. Thankfully my dad has offered to come to PP--just to help me carry the bags!

What's in my bags? Beautiful lace and other ornate trimmings (to add on to our bags), embroidered organza cloth (I think they'd make beautiful table runners), and many other accessories. One challenge in running Bloom is accessories are hard to find here in Cambodia. I buy cloth from Orussey Market but even then the variety is limited. Oh yes, I even bought cloth from Chinatown in Singapore to bring back to PP!

We're lucky in Singapore in that we have a dedicated art supplies store that sells anything you could possibly need to make craft. In Phnom Penh, the closest we get is IBC (International Book Centre). I will miss also Singapore's excellent libraries--in fact the library was the first place I visited when I arrived! I think it's such a privilege to have a place where we can just read for free, and read about anything under the sun. And then there are the bookstores: Borders and Kinokuniya and Times (Monument Books is expensive and does not carry any of the books I'm interested in).

What else will I miss? The food! Really, the best thing about Singapore is the food. I lost 5 kgs since moving to Cambodia, but put on 2 kgs in only 2 weeks back home! Food is fantastic in Singapore--it's a mixture of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Eurasian and Western. And I had to eat them all! I've got to get recipes from mom for the cafe. I'm thinking Bloom's signature dish could be a Singaporean one. Hmm, maybe Laksa.

Of course I'm going to miss my wonderful family and friends incredibly. But the much lauded public transport system? Well, while waiting for a bus the other day, I thought, if this was Cambodia, I would not have to wait, just hop onto a moto and away we go.

I'm excited about going back to Phnom Penh and seeing Alan and our dogs again. I also can't wait to show Bloom's workers all the stuff I bought and see their excitement. We're always excited when we can make things that no one else is making in Cambodia.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fugly Singaporeans

The Internet is a wonderful thing. I've been away for seven months but have still managed to catch up on home news. I don't read up on Singapore much in Cambodia because surfing is so expensive and I'm also more focused on Cambodia. How expensive? Well, we pay USD50 for 600 megabytes a month for cable broadband access. If you want unlimited download at 512kbps, it will cost you USD1000 a month. Yes, yes, I know I've griped about Internet charges in Cambodia before, but I just can't help it.

Anyway, so there was this incident involving an MP's daughter Wee Shu Min. The MP is Wee Siew Kim. Check out
or Wikipedia which has an entry on Ms Wee. Wee Shu Min, an 18 year old, had posted comments on her blog criticising Derek Wee (no relation), a 35 year old university grad working for an MNC. Derek had written about his insecurities living in Singapore. Here are some gems from Wee Shu Min:

"derek, derek, derek darling, how can you expect to have an iron ricebowl or a solid future if you cannot spell?

"if you're not good enough, life will kick you in the balls. that's just how things go. there's no point in lambasting the government for making our society one that is, i quote, "far too survival of fittest".

"please, get out of my elite uncaring face.

19th Oct 2006
posted at 12:08 PM

Wee Shu Min's blog shut down after the hullabaloo. And here is her dad Wee Siew Kim's attempt to apologise:

"But she wrote in a private blog and I feel that her privacy has been violated. After all, they were the rantings of an 18-year-old among friends.

How interesting coming from an MP. Where was Mr Wee to defend Chen Jiahao, who had to shut down his blog after being threatened with libel from Philip Yeo, chairman of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). In his similarly, "private blog,", graduate student and 23 year old Chen Jiahao had criticised several government policies, including the A*STAR scholarship system and Yeo’s justifications of them. You can read about the affair on the Reporters Without Borders website.

(This entry was previously called Sinkapore. I took the name from posters at one of my favourite sites on Singapore, But I've now changed it to "Fugly Singaporeans" because it's more accurate.)

I wanted to add my own experience to the catalogue of "Fugly Singaporeans". I had gone to meet my friend Leon at Lau Pa Sat, a hawker centre in the financial district that is Shenton Way. As I don't have a Singapore mobile any more, I have been using my mom's. The battery died while I was waiting for Leon to turn up. I was panicky because I wasn't sure about our arrangements. So I approached a table of young women in their 20s (who in Singapore are called "executives") and said, "I'm very sorry, my handphone battery has died and I need to contact my friend. Can I borrow your phone and pay you for the call?"

To which they responded flatly, "No phone." I managed to borrow another lady's phone and Leon finally came. And then, unbelievably, I saw one of the women taking out her handphone. I was furious and stormed up to them, "Why did you lie to me? If you didn't want to lend me your handphone, say so. Why lie?"

They were shocked and the guilty party muttered, "I never answered you, it wasn't me who said I had no handphone," indicating it was her friend who had lied. Can you believe it? Does this person believe this absolves her of guilt? Not answering is a cowardly way of not saying she did not want to lend her handphone.

Anyway, this incident left me incredibly disappointed. What is the point of having paved roads and shiny cars and buildings and a good education system when people are rude and ungracious? It was a real eye-opener coming from Cambodia where people have so little yet are generous and kind. I can tell you that it is the people that makes a place, not cars and buildings and roads. I couldn't wait to go back to Cambodia.

Jimmy said he was glad I told them off. He mentioned someone had written to the papers about a similar incident. I've found the letter here.

It's appalling how Singaporeans just turn a blind eye to other people in need. Just recalling this incident makes me want to jump onto the next plane to Phnom Penh, where a tailor had kept my friend's iBook for 3 hours, after she left it at the shop. A friend says in Singapore, the shopkeeper would say, "What iBook, where got iBook?". We had a good laugh about it.

It starts with a spark

I just got off the phone with my friend Pauline who is the sweetest person. She was encouraging me to update my blog because she knows of people who read Cambodia Calling. She said someone she knows actually flew to Cambodia after reading this blog and subsequently uploaded photos of Cambodia onto *his* own blog. I think that is so great! "It's like a spark," said Pauline. "What you do generates awareness and interest in Cambodia, even though you may not even realise it."

I've been feeling stressed out over Bloom because Channel 8, the main Singapore Chinese channel, did an interview with me. The series focuses on Singaporeans who change careers. I'm stressed because I've been thinking, it'd be so embarrassing if I fail, if Bloom fails, cos I've been on TV and all that. I know it's silly, but these feelings are real. Anyway, Pauline says she is telling me from the bottom of her heart that I would not have failed. Even if the Bloom shuts down, the women have learnt a skill and have gained some pride (when I think how Neang has changed--she's the one whose abuser husband left her for her friend--I think Pauline is absolutely right).

Anyway, so I'm a bit emotional about the whole thing. I'm very happy my friends get it. Someone told Alan about me, "You've got to give it to her. A lot of people talk about it, but she's doing it." Comments like this really help me because there are days when I think it's just too difficult, and I feel like coming home to Singapore, where life is so comfortable and making money so easy.

Ok enough about me. Poor Alan has been living without electricity since yesterday. They cut off the electricity at our house in Phnom Penh because we didn't pay the bill. It was entirely my fault. I had left the bill in the letter holder but failed to tell Alan about it. Then I left for home in a rush (I only booked my ticket the day before I was due to fly). Alan only found out what had happened at 6pm when our neighbour passed him a letter saying we had been cut off. It was Friday evening and we're not sure if the electricity department works on weekends. So Alan may have to be in darkness for the weekend too. I feel so sorry for him and Wee our housekeeper and our puppies. But Alan's taking it well. "Just like being in the Boy Scouts," he said. Sometimes he puts me to shame with his positive attitude.

So that's the other thing--utilities get cut off fairly quickly in Cambodia (the bill was a week overdue). So if you're in Cambodia, remember to pay your bills on time!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Singapore Culture Shock

I'm writing this in Singapore. I came back for a visit last Tuesday. My friend Swee, whom I've known since college days, came specially to see me in Phnom Penh and I decided at the spur of the moment to follow her home. My friends are so sweet. Swee bought a breadmaker for my soon-to-be-opened cafe, and loads of lace and trimmings for Bloom bags from Arab Street in Singapore while Jimmy gave me an expresso machine, so I've got real coffee! Yay!

Anyway, the first day I met up with my friends at Plaza Singapura (PS) and I suffered a bit of culture shock. I've only been away in Cambodia for 7 months but I had forgotten how affluent Singapore is. My friends were updating me on all the new malls that have opened since I'd been gone, the biggest being Vivocity at Harbourfront. At PS I was quite upset seeing the teenagers with their arms full of shopping bags. I suppose I was depressed that we're a nation of excess and waste, that most Singaporeans exist just as consumers, earn money in order to spend money on things we do not need.

Who am I to judge them? I was like that too. I returned to my room filled with clothes and shoes and CDs and books and felt so disgusted with myself. How could I have lived like that? Some of the clothes and shoes even had tags on! But I know why. When I was working like a fiend in my corporate job, I had little time to myself. Free time was spent channel surfing or shopping. I had no hobbies and retail therapy became my hobby. Any free time I had, I would shop. It was the act of shopping that relaxed me, not the purchase, for oftentimes, I would not even open the package.

Since coming to Cambodia I have not bought a single thing for myself. It is amazing. I had brought about 10 tops and 5 bottoms and found they were more than enough. Actually I loved having so few clothes, because there was little clutter and I did not have to think about what to put on. Conversely, the clutter in my room makes me irritable and upset. I packed so many clothes and shoes to give to Bloom's workers.

I was asked at an interview recently what happened? How did I snap out of living like this? I don't know either. It was as if someone had removed my blinkers. I think what had happened was I had reached a point in my career where the next stage would have been to just work harder for the firm in order to earn yet more money. But I had been high up enough at the firm to realise that corporate life was just a game: it was all about forecasting budgets and beating them; creating shareholder value but often little real value. At that point, it would take a lot of money to keep me at the job. And so I asked for a lot more. The firm counter-offered but we could not come to an agreement. So I walked. Everyone was shocked because we were doing well and were destined to do even better. The other people at the firm were asking me, why? Why, when everyone wants your job? The reason is because of the sense of exploitation. I resented working so hard for the firm, and demanded what I think was fair. It wasn't like I needed the extra money--I was already very well paid. I demanded the money because I wanted to be fairly compensated for my work.

And so, that's why Bloom pays our workers well above market rate, and has profit sharing. I have been criticised by organisations in the same industry for overpaying Bloom's workers. I got into an argument with the GM of an NGO who insisted that "Cambodians are only worth USD45. Even if you pay them more, they will only do USD45 worth of work or less."

Well-meaning friends advise me to pay market rate because they are concerned for the business's viability. But many still say "USD1 a day is a lot for Cambodians! You don't have to pay them so much."

That's like saying "SGD900 a month is a lot for a Singaporean!" To me, there's some racism in comments like that. For some reason, many people think that because Cambodia is a poor country and Cambodians are poor, they don't need what we need, all they need is a little bit. It's complete bullshit.

The cheapest house you can rent in Phnom Penh (and one that I visited) is USD10 a month, and that is a wooden shack with thatched roof that is about 60sq feet. There is no door and no running water and no electricity. If you earn USD45 a month, it's almost a quarter of your salary spent on rent (so that's why the SGD900--the cheapest room you can get in Singapore is SGD200 in a government flat).

That leaves about a dollar US a day for everything--transport (taking the moto can be expensive, that is why almost all of Bloom's workers cycle to work--a bicyle costs USD30), water, food, toiletries, candles etc etc. So it is complete bullshit to say USD45 a month is enough for workers in Phnom Penh. USD45, by the way, is the minimum wage for the garment and shoe industries, according to Cambodian labour law. To get this USD45, workers have to work a 48hour week, i.e., 8 hours a day for 6 days a week. For the record, Bloom's workers are paid between USD70 and USD120 for a 40 hour week (they were paid between USD45 and USD85 at their previous jobs), plus profit sharing.

As for how I stopped my consumer lifestyle? I stopped shopping soon after quitting my job, partly because I needed to be more sensible about money now that I had no income, but mainly because I had time to do the things I really enjoy, like reading, watching movies, spending time with Alan, my family and my friends.

I also made a decision not to simply throw money whenI encountered a problem, but to try to solve it creatively first. I also finally invested my money--after years of making money for other people, I was finally thinking about making money for myself.For the first time in years, I was thinking again about what I wanted in life. I simplified my life and focused on answering the question "How should one live?". For me, the answer would take me to Cambodia.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Working at Bloom

It’s 7am and I’ve just returned from taking Austin for a short walk down the street. Sophea, Bloom’s best sewer, and Neang, the woman who was living in the concrete bag house have already arrived for work (work doesn’t start till 8am). They both stay at Chhbar Ampov across the river. Neang cycles to work everyday on a bicycle that looks much too big for her, while Sophea is dropped off by her brother who works as a motodop. She was quite upset one day to see me paying a cyclo driver (a cyclo is similar to what we in Singapore call a trishaw or rickshaw) USD2 for a trip. She says I paid too much and told me her brother earns 10,000riels a day (about USD2.50) on a good day. I knew it was way more the going rate but I like to pay cyclo drivers more because many of them are old men with weather beaten faces because they have to work rain or shine, and they sleep in their cyclos. I feel that old people shouldn’t have to work. They should be enjoying their life. It really breaks my heart when I think about these old men, many of whom suffered during the war and then under the Khmer Rouge and then now having to eke out a living pedaling people around in the chaotic traffic, risking their limbs all the time, breathing in all that exhaust. I can’t blame the cyclo drivers for wanting to smoke (you see many pedaling with a cigarette dangling from their lips)—if you’re breathing in that crap all day long, what’s a cigarette or five?

I am happy to see Neang dancing, trying to amuse Nessie, our puppy. I have joined her and Nessie thinks we’re mad! Neang really is a changed woman since working with Bloom. When I first met her, she was thin and pale and tired looking all the time from her construction work. The transformation did not take long. I remember teasing her about a month after she joined on how she was putting on weight while I was losing weight. She used to wear these really dark shirts and trousers, but have bought herself a new purple outfit (1000riels) and one bright blue top (500riels) since. She is taking care of herself now, This is what makes me happy, seeing how Bloom’s workers have changed over the past 3 months when they joined Bloom. The other big transformation is Bonthuen, who was so ill-looking that I almost did not hire him. He’s put on weight too, and now smiles and attempts to talk to me in English. He was a new father when I hired him in September and was out of a job for a year, so was struggling. The other day his family and new son came over to say hi. Cambodian children are really, really cute. I find them to be a good-looking bunch, the Cambodians. To me, they look like the Malays, with big eyes and pretty features. It is hard not to be touched by the children, especially. If you have seen Maddox, Angelina Jolie’s son, that is what many of the kids look like, although Maddox is much, much bigger.

Sipha, our trainer, Edany, Channo and Saren have arrived for breakfast. Eating is a communal activity in Cambodia and Bloom’s workers often buy breakfast to eat here at the house. At lunchtime, everyone sits on the floor and shares the food they buy, different dishes, like fish and vegetables, that they eat with rice. They always ask me to join in but I don’t have the stomach to share food with everyone. Actually, this is the way we Chinese use to eat in Singapore, until we learnt about hygiene. So now, we have an extra spoon for each of the communal dishes, for scooping food into our individual plates. Alan reminds me it wasn’t so long ago that Singaporeans spat in public, just like Cambodians today. It has taken decades for the government to educate Singaporeans on not spitting and not littering and on being polite (we had “courtesy campaigns” when I was in growing up).

It is now 5 to 8, and everyone has started work. I am very pleased that our workers seem to be motivated and do not need me to prompt them to start work, even after lunch break is over. Since day one, I had resolved to manage using more of the carrot than the stick approach and I am pleased that this seems to be working out.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Visitors from San Francisco

Dale is here to visit Riverkids and her friend, Karen and her 13-year-old stepson, Alex, have come along, visiting Cambodia for the first time. Karen and Alex are from San Francisco and Alex had major culture shock when he first arrived. It is the traffic and the smell of pee when he first got out the airport. The traffic can be intimidating and even traumatic, motocycles everywhere, fighting for space on the roads, together with SUVs (I’ve seen two Hummers in the last month), sedans, cyclos, tuktuks and people. Alan and I took Alex and our two dogs to Hun Sen Park for a run yesterday, afterwhich we walked to our favourite pub, the Happy Phnom Penh Pizza, which has one-for-one draft beer for USD1 during happy hour, half the price of the FCC. Alex was getting stressed by the traffic and was glad to reach the riverside. It was about 6pm, peak hour, and it was not pleasant to cross the main streets at all.

Alex and Karen spent two months in Singapore, living with Jimmy and Dale and their four adopted Cambodian children. They like Singapore (Alex notes Singapore is among the top five wealthiest nations in the world and believes Suntec City to be the world’s largest shopping mall, while Karen admires how clean and well-run the country is). Singapore *is* unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, but some travellers dislike it for precisely that reason, complaining it is bland, like any other city in the world. One guy has described it as “Disneyland with the death penalty”. Singapore is clean and green and I do miss the clean streets where I don’t come across a sanitary towel now and again. It has a convenient public transport system which I miss. I also miss the aircon and tree-lined streets. Alan often remarks how beautiful Phnom Penh could be, just by doing little things, like not allowing cars to park everywhere on the pavements.

Alex is a really sweet kid who spent all morning of his first day in Cambodia taking photos of Riverkids which he will upload on a new blog about his travels. He also has a big heart and went with Dale and Karen to a baby orphanage and plans to return when he is 15 to volunteer at Riverkids for a couple of months.


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