Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Questions I get about Cambodia

I get a fair number of emails from people who read "Cambodia Calling". I always reply to emails because I think it's only polite when someone has taken the time to write to you.

Some of the questions I get about Cambodia really amaze and amuse me. One of the stranger ones must be:

Q: What's their habit of bathing? i mean in Hot or Cold water?

A: All the Cambodians I know bathe cold water. Perhaps it's because they cannot afford to pay for hot water, but I also think it's because of tradition. My maternal grandmother, who was half-Thai and half-Malaysian Chinese, always frowned upon her grandchildren who insisted on having a warm bath. It was her belief that cold water keeps you healthy. Our housekeeper Wee, bathes cold water at the washing area where the washing machine is. For some reason, she does not like to use the bathroom. She's from Baray Province, Kampong Thom, and perhaps is used to bathing in the open. For modesty, she wraps a kroma (like a sarong, but with small chequered print, usually in red and white) around her.

And another:

Q: Do they sell clothes suitable for casual wear?

A: Yes of course! Cambodia has a big garment industry, and produces many casual clothes for big brand names. You can buy casual clothes cheap at the Russian Market. I pay no more than USD2 for a T-shirt and USD3.50 for a pair of men’s trousers.

Other common questions:

Q: Is Cambodia dangerous?

A: I've found Cambodia to be a very safe country. If you've watched Ian Wright on Cambodia, at the end of the programme, he confesses to feeling foolish for thinking Cambodia was a dangerous place to visit. It might have been in the past, but visitors will find Phnom Penh and Siem Reap especially to be very tourist-friendly. And in the cities, many people speak English. Even motodops (motocycle drivers who ferry customers).

I’ve also found the Khmers to be very, very, honest. I’ve never ever been cheated when I ask for the bill at a restaurant, for instance, the way I’ve been everywhere else in Asia when restaurant owners “miscalculate”.

Cambodia is much better than say, Bali, in terms of having to fend off touts and “white man price”. I remember being so tired and cynical that whenever I was offered the right price in Bali, I wanted to pay that person more, just to reward him for his honesty. In Cambodia, there is a market rate (USD1-2 for tuktuks for instance) and this rate doesn’t ever stray very far.

Like anywhere else though, you can find trouble in Cambodia if you go looking for it.

Q: Are there ATMs in Cambodia?

A: There are ATMs here. I have a bank account with ANZ Bank here in Cambodia, and can withdraw money at the local gas station, Total. As long as your bank card has a Cirrus sign at the back, you will be able to access your home bank account. Of course, credit cards can also be used. Check the bank fee first.

Q: What’s the food like?

A: Cambodians eat a lot of fish and you can find whole grilled fish (“trey ang”) almost everywhere. Soups are also very popular, I quite like Khmer sour soup with fish. Singaporeans who like “kiam chye” (salted vegetable) will be pleased to know Khmers love it too. Some Chinese dishes are also common, like stir fried sweet gourd with eggs, stir fried morning glory (kangkong—no sambal here though!). BBQ meat is now very popular and I love to eat BBQ pork with rice (not quite char siew, but for me, even better) at the market (only 2000riels, or 50 cents). Cambodian pork curry and Amok (a special curry dish) are some of the more famous dishes.

If you don’t like Khmer food, you can always eat at the many, many Chinese, Vietnamese and Western restaurants in town.

Q: Do they have proper grocery stores?

A: Yes and the variety of Western food is even better than some supermarkets back in Singapore. It’s the French influence and also the fact that the supermarkets here cater to the Western NGO crowd. As there are many many Koreans here, you can even find speciality Korean stores. There is also a Japanese section at Lucky supermarket.

Q: How's the transport there?

A: There is no public transport system. Travel within the city is negotiated between individuals. You can travel by moto (cheapest and shouldn’t cost more than 2000riels one way anywhere in town), cyclo (like a trishaw, and more expensive, as should be in my view, as it takes more effort, with the cyclist, usually a very fit old man pedalling you around), or tuktuk (a small carriage drawn by a motobike). Of course you can rent you very own car or SUV or bicycle if you like.

Travel between the provinces and between major towns is also very convenient. There are many bus companies and you can even take a ferry up the Tonle Sap to travel to and fro Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. You can also fly to major towns.

Q: For money, should I change US dollar or Khmer money?

A: Change money at home before you come. The rates are generally better. Change to USD. Riels are not available in Singapore, so it’s probably the same for your home country.

Q: How's the Internet connection?

A: Public use at Internet cafes is incredibly cheap (you can get it for 1500 riels an hour at some places) and usually quite fast and reliable. There are also wi-fi spots in larger hotels and restaurants. It’s only expensive for home use. I’ve written about my Internet costs elsewhere in the blog so I won’t repeat it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Popular Singer Shot

Friday was a sad day for some of my Cambodian friends in Phnom Penh. A leading pop singer Pov Panha Pich, 23 was shot and critically injured. Rumours are that the attack was the result of a love triangle. But friends tell me unlike other Cambodian pop songstresses, Pov Panha Pich has never been tarred by negative publicity, so the shooting came as a suprise. According to my friends, Panha Pich was first rushed to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh but later moved to a hospital in Vietnam at her mother's insistence. I was also told that her driver was killed in the attack, but I could not find anything in the online news to confirm this.

You can see Panha Pich's photo here: http://www.voanews.com/khmer/2007-02-23-voa1.cfm

Acid attacks and murders are common in Cambodia among those involved in love triangles. Below is another incident, that happened in 2003, involving a pop star who was shot in the face twice. She later died. You can read about it here.


So they found oil in Cambodia

But it's not good news, I fear. Call me a cynic.

Update: I had originally posted the entire AP article on my blog, for the convenience of readers, but have since realised I'd better stop publishing news articles on my blog before someone tells me they want money for their copyrighted materials.
Anyway, so I did a google search to find the original article to point readers to it. Here it is, on IHT's website:


And here's an updated news article:

www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/ 02/22/asia/AS-GEN-Cambodia-Offshore-Oil.php

One more by Radio Free Asia:


Friday, February 23, 2007

Chinese New Year, and conversation between mainland and overseas Chinese

Chinese New Year fell on Sunday the 18th and I spent the new year with Pauline, who came to visit last week. I decided to follow her to Siem Reap, and find out more about the town while she went to the temples. I’d gone to the temples last July with mom and dad and had no desire to go again. I keep wondering about some guy I saw on TV who was filmed on his 11th visit to Angkor Wat. What does he see that I don’t?

We took the speedboat up the Tonle Sap. You can get tickets at USD25 one way at the ferry terminal along Sisowath Quay, just across from the Mekong Express bus company. The boat takes 6 hours, the same as the bus trip. At USD25, it’s pricey and the only reason we booked tickets for the boat was because the Mekong Express had run out of seats. I had forgotten it was peak season and did not book the bus seats in time.

It was quite an experience. The boat was packed to the brim. People filled the seats and the deck. Of course, all were tourists. Pauline and I had gone early enough to get seats at the back of the boat, but just as we were about to start the journey, a couple of Australian men came along and said we were in their seats. Like the typical trusting Singaporeans that we are, we dutifully gave up our seats, even though I checked the tickets again and failed to see any seat number.

I approached one of the crew and the guy told me “No seat number” before going into a room and shutting the door in my face. Left to our own devices, Pauline and I moved to front and found a couple of seats with a plastic bag filled with snacks on them. We were not sure what this meant. Actually, I would have removed the bag and just sat down. Earlier, I had wanted to move a sweater I saw occupying a couple of seats but Pauline thought it was better to just leave it. I really hate people like this, people who “book” seats by leaving their personal items on them. In Singapore, you’ll find idiots everywhere in the foodcourts, staking their claim on tables or chairs by leaving a packet of tissue paper, or umbrella, or whatever they can think of. It’s very selfish behaviour and so far, I have only observed Asians doing this. While we were hesitating, a Spanish woman told us, “Just take it, they cannot do like that.”

True enough, the seats “belonged” to a couple from Hong Kong, who came to reclaim them after a while. By that time, I had moved on to the deck to get away from the freezing aircon (for those planning to take the boat, sit at the back or bring a sweater). I ended up chatting to a woman from Shanghai (actually she was from Xi’an, but has lived in Shanghai for over 10 years). It was most interesting.

Shirley grew up during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and was telling me how confusing it was for her generation when they found out everything they had been taught was “upside down”. If you didn’t have principles, or a worldview, I suppose was what she meant, it would have been difficult to adapt to the changes taking place at the time in China. “Life is the best teacher,” she said.

Shirley is a university grad and now a salesperson with Hewlett Packard. At 36, she is a year older than me—the day we met was exactly the last day of the year of the Dog, the year in which she was born, while the very next day—Chinese New Year—would have been the first day of the year of the Pig, the year in which I was born.

She told me about the many online discussions now about what it means to be Chinese. The Cultural Revolution put a dent (stopped its progress for a while) in Chinese culture and questioned the value of aspects of Chinese culture. Her generation is debating these issues and trying to understand what it means to be Chinese.

I told her it’s the same for me, trying to figure out what it means when I say I’m Chinese. In Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first and Singaporean second, but when I’m overseas, I think of myself as Singaporean first, and Chinese second. I suppose one way of identifying one’s self is to distinguish from others. But I also think my government’s emphasis on race has something to do with the fact that in Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first.

Anyway, it was just fascinating listening to her describe Vietnam in 1998 when she visited the country. She said it was so interesting (“youqu”). Being in Vietnam then was like stepping back ten years in China. She believes Vietnam is a decade behind China as Vietnam, too, opens up to capitalism.

She also told me about being lucky in that she managed to buy an apartment for under USD60k in 2001, just before prices skyrocketed. The place is now worth three times as much. She and her brother bought the house for their parents at the time when the Chinese government wanted to encourage home ownership. Prices were low and buyers would get back their income tax. I was impressed with her and her brother’s filial piety.

I think it’s a fascinating time to be Chinese in China—things are changing all the time (right now the people are protesting online about changes in income tax laws). And despite the government’s efforts to control, if not stop, debate, the Chinese seem to be a very politicised lot, which I think is great.

I remember visiting Beijing for the first time in 2001. I loved it so much, I applied for a job with the English language China Daily newspaper. They offered a sub-editor’s position for USD500 a month, with a flat thrown in. It would have meant a big pay cut at the time and I wasn’t ready for it. My main concern then was not having enough money for holidays outside China. I do think about Beijing now and again and would love to visit the Chinese capital if I have the chance again. My good friend from secondary school, Khim, now works there and it'd be nice to visit her in autumn.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Donors and their donations

I had reread my post on why Bloom is not an NGO and decided I should clarify what I meant. I think for sure there are NGOs that do good work. These are very clear about their mission and very transparent about what they do with donations. An example is Riverkids (www.riverkidsproject.org). The project aims to stop child trafficking in Cambodia and you can see where all you money goes on this website (Disclosure: I am a trustee of the project, which is in the midst of being registered in Singapore as an NGO. In fact, I agreed to be a trustee because I know Jimmy and Dale, the couple who run RK, very well and know them to be extremely honest and genuine).

However, there are many, many, charities, NGOs and the like that are not what they appear to be. Singaporeans have found this out, to our disappointment and detriment, only in recent times. The National Kidney Foundation, the most successful fund-raiser amongst charities in Singapore, got into a lot of trouble and various heads are now being sued for misusing the charity’s funds. In short, Singaporeans are a very generous lot, and have donated millions to the NKF, only to find out in the last year or so that the NKF gave its CEO an annual SGD600,000 paycheck, or about USD390,000 (an amount the wife of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called “peanuts”—one wonders what world she lives in when this is “peanuts”), first class airline tickets and other excesses. We were also deceived as to the percentage that actually went to supporting kidney patients.

(As an interesting aside, the only reason we now know about the NKF is because the CEO, TT Durai was dumb enough to try to sue Singapore Press Holdings, the publisher of the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper. The suit was over a report that mentioned, among other things, gold-plated taps in an NKF bathroom. One wonders how long Durai would have got away with things if he had not sued SPH, as he had previously won lawsuits over an ex-employee and volunteer).

When in Singapore, I read in the news another charity was under scrutiny. Youth Challenge had declared its executive president’s salary to be under SGD60,000 a year but he in fact, had received over SGD20,000 a month. Vincent Lam also had a country club membership and housing loan subsidy. His salary accounted for more than half the total funds, SGD442,287 raised by the charity in 2005. Vincent Lam has since resigned.

Are you outraged? Good, do something about it then. The first thing you should do is, at the very least, please—if you are going to donate to a charity, do some research. Ask questions. Find out where your money is going. Is the charity or NGO audited? Does the charity exist for staff or for the group it is supposed to help? By that I mean, how much are staff salaries? How much, especially, is the president or CEO, or MD paid? How much are local people working at the NGO paid? How much money actually goes to the cause?

I’ve found to my horror, that some NGOs in Cambodia, are no different from MNCs back in Singapore and Hong Kong. The top guys, usually expat, get fat salaries and perks, while local staff are paid according to local salary scales. It’s more forgiveable, if you really want to be charitable, for an private company to remunerate its managers this way, but my opinion is that its complete bullshit to say NGOs and charities need to pay this kind of money to attract talent. That is exactly the argument used in defense of Durai and Lam—that they were good at their jobs, that the organisation needed to attract and keep people like them.

People who enter into the NGO or charity sector should do it because their hearts’ are in the right place, and not for the money. It’s the same argument as politics. People should enter politics, be MPs and PMs because they want to make a difference, because they want to do something for their countrymen, and not because they want to further their careers and earn a big salary and an even bigger retirement package.

(It was hard to find any recent report on Singapore ministers’ salaries on the Net, but here is Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post 2003 report: “Even after the cuts in 2001, the [Singapore] prime minister still earns a reported gross salary of about S$1,030,000 per year, and that is before the variable component is taken into account. The Singapore pay rate compares favourably with that received by United States President George W. Bush, (US$400,000 per year), and Britain's Tony Blair (US$262,000). They also leave in the shade the remuneration reportedly received by Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra (US$32,000) and Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad (US$65,000).” Meanwhile, the average Singaporean salary is about USD 27,000 annually, or SGD 3,444 per month, according to the Singapore ministry of manpower.)

Of course, as we all now know, many enter into the charity sector precisely for the money, because there are so many mugs out there—irresponsible people who just want to give away money so they themselves feel good, and not because they really care that what they do makes a difference. I say “irresponsible” because such behaviour is not without consequences: you’re propping up an organisation and the people behind it even as they exploit other people for their own end.

In the context of Cambodia, it is even more important you know what your money is doing because NGOs are prevalent and corruption is rampant. According to Human Rights Watch, foreign aid accounts for about half of Cambodia’s national budget. Last year, donors increased their annual pledge in 2006 to USD601 million, from USD504 million in 2005. Cambodia’s largest donors included the European Union, Japan, the United States, France, Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Here is the latest article I found on Cambodia and foreign aid.

EU increasingly impatient with Cambodia over anti-corruption law
dpa German Press Agency
Published: Tuesday January 23, 2007

Phnom Penh- International donors are increasingly impatient with delays in implementation of a long-awaited anti-corruption law, German Ambassador to Cambodia Pius Fischer said Tuesday. Fischer, who is the acting European Union (EU) president, called it an important issue for EU policy in Cambodia and could not be sidestepped. 

"We strongly advocate the fight against corruption and the early adoption of an anti-corruption law in Cambodia," he said after addressing a seminar on EU-Cambodian relations in Phnom Penh. "We cannot debate any longer. For 10 years the royal Cambodian government has discussed a law against corruption. Now is the time to act and implement that law." Fischer also warned that implementation was as important as the law itself, and donors would be happy with no less than a politically independent anti-corruption body which can "locate, integrate and develop cases against corruption." 

Endemic corruption has consistently been cited as a major hurdle to Cambodia's development. Last November, Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Cambodia at 151 out of 163 countries in its 2006 corruption perceptions index survey. 
The group made its ranking on a definition of corruption as "the abuse of public office for private gain." Cambodia scored just 2.1 points out of 10, earning it the second lowest position in Asia, ahead of only Myanmar.

Donors have repeatedly threatened to withhold funds from aid-dependent Cambodia if it continues to delay adopting the law. The government promised a new law by the end of last year but later announced that it needed to make changes to the penal code first. 

As well as being an important donor to Cambodia, the EU is also a powerful trading partner, ranking as Cambodia's second most-important destination for exports and its sixth leading source of imports, according to 2005 trade statistics, with Germany at the top of the list.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency

So please, don't be lazy. Make you and your money count for something.

Stealing and Conspiracy

Much has happened in the last week. It all started the weekend I returned from Singapore with my dad. Bloom’s workers had offered to go home the afternoon of the blackout and return on Saturday morning to make up for it. They had initiated this on their own accord while I was away. I was very impressed and thought it was very decent of the workers, so I offered to cook for them. I had thought pork curry was a favourite, but they communicated to Wee, our housekeeper, that they wanted a dish of fish soup with mango (it’s quite nice, but I think nicer without the mango). So we had that and mixed vegetables.

It was a nice bonding session, and part of the reason I wanted to provide everyone lunch. There were already indications there was some trouble while I was away. Wee, our housekeeper, had complained to me about Sipha, Bloom’s trainer, and mentioned that other women were also upset with Sipha. (Because my living quarters is in the same house as the workshop, my housekeeper gets too close to the workers for my comfort, a problem I am trying to sort out as well).

Anyway, after lunch, Sipha and Edany decided to finally visit Tuol Sleng (or the S21 Museum), because I live just round the corner from Tuol Sleng. Just like how I kept putting it off because I was afraid I would get depressed (I finally went, with my friend Swee and her cousin Jinyang), they too did not visit it till that day.

While they were gone, the other women all stayed back and one of them started telling me she saw Sipha stealing from me. Another one backed her up and Wee was getting all excited, putting in her two cents worth. I explained to them it’s hard for me to do anything, as I did not see the alleged act with my own eyes. I do not like to accuse people without evidence. The only thing I can do is to be more alert and try to catch the person in the act. There were a whole lot of other complaints, ranging from Sipha sleeping on the job to her asking one of the women to fetch her drinking water.

Sipha is the first person I hired, and I’ve known her for more than four months now. Because we often go to the market together (one of her skills is she is a good bargainer), I’ve had many more opportunities to interact with her. I trust her and think she’s responsible and honest. Of all the workers, I am closest to her and consider her my right hand woman.

When Sipha returned from work on Monday, I asked her whether everything was alright at work. She said, don’t worry, everything’s fine. Sometimes, I do not know if she says these things because she is so obtuse and unaware of what’s going on, or whether she just doesn’t want me to worry, or whether she’s afraid I’d sack her if things don’t go well. It’s probably a combination of factors.

I decided to just speak openly with Sipha now. After the workers had all left for the day, I told her I was aware of problems with some of the women. Then everything came tumbling out. She was told by one of the women that another of had stolen a clutch purse (I had bought this as a sample) from the workshop. Together with another two workers, she persuaded the guilty party to bring the item back to the workshop, because they were worried Sipha would get into trouble, as she’s responsible for the materials.

Sipha was shocked when I told her what some of the others had told me and asked that she be allowed to sit down with everyone to sort things out. I wasn’t sure about this because in my experience, all this talking usually does no good once the damage is done and the trust is broken between people. Anyway, the next day, I asked the other women whether they were ok about sitting down together and sorting out our issues in the open, once and for all, and in front of each other.

They agreed, so we all sat down on the floor, and with my friend Sophon as our interpreter, tried to air our differences. I thought it was a good cathartic session in one sense, and a few of the women cried, and I must confess, as did I. I told them, “Perhaps you think I am rich. Yes, I am rich, compared to all of you. But my money is limited. I don’t come from a rich family. I’ve told everyone how my parents had to struggle just like you.” (It always upsets me to think about my parents’ hardship earlier on in their lives. It also makes me feel guilty because I sometimes think my parents would be happier if I kept on at a good job and gave them a big fat allowance so they can just do what they like and not worry).

“We worked hard and saved our money. That’s why I keep asking everyone to save money, to think of the future, so your children and you, can have a better life later. It really breaks my heart (“knyom cheu jert”) when I think you would steal from me.”

I explained to them that they’re not cheating me, but cheating the business, each other, and ultimately, themselves. Because Bloom is not an NGO and we do not get donations, we need to make it work on our own and within the budget. If we fail, I can go home and get a job, no problems. But what will happen to all of them?

Later, I explained to Sipha, it’s alright if one of the women stole from me. I do understand, because she is so poor. There are rumours she had done it before at Hagar, had stolen a pair of shoes belonging to a teacher, to sell. For me, it’s alright if she had stolen, as long as she knows it is wrong, and won’t do it again (apparently she had returned the allegedly stolen item after much persuasion from the others). And I believe she won’t.

I have been told that stealing is only to be expected, because people here are just so poor. It may be expected, but it’s still not right. And that’s what I want our workers to know. Because we work as a team, one person’s actions at Bloom affect all the others. One of my good friends, an Australian who’s been working with Khmers on and off over the past 6 years, kept telling me to tell the workers that I too, am just an employee, that I report back to people in Singapore, that the money is not mine, and that I am accountable to others. The reason is to avoid the workers thinking I’m rich and taking advantage of me. I really, really appreciate the advice, but it’s hard for me to lie. It’s too hard for me to be pretending to be something I’m not. I wish I could, and I have thought seriously about it, because it may make my life easier. In the end I decided it’s just too difficult for me to pretend day in day out, for goodness knows how long. I’d much rather be honest and deal with the consequences. I also strongly believe the truth will always be known anyway (the Chinese have a saying--“zhi shi bao bu zhu huo”, or paper can never contain fire).

The meeting went ok, with everyone promising to work in solidarity, but I could tell there was still bad blood between the two main antagonists—Sipha and one of the women.

“Sorry” is the hardest word

The next day, Sipha was in tears because she felt since the meeting, another member of the team had joined forces against her and showed her disespect. It emerged that Bonthuen has been resentful of Sipha ever since she recommended I hire Saren as production manager. Bonthuen wanted that job and blamed Sipha for not giving him the chance. To cut (another) long story short, I told her to take Bonthuen out for lunch and gave her some money for this. Sipha was to explain to Bonthuen exactly why she thought he was not ready for that job. She should also remind him that it was she who brought him into Bloom and she would not have done so had she not thought he was a good worker. I also told Sipha, I would say sorry to Bonthuen, say sorry if he felt hurt, but all she was doing was thinking about what’s best for the business—which is completely true. I told Sipha saying sorry doesn’t cost her any money and makes other people feel better, like you understand how they feel. Initially she refused, she kept insisting she had done no wrong. I’ve been told it’s not in Khmer culture to say sorry and it’s true I’ve found the Khmers to be a very proud people.

The lunch worked and Sipha reported that Bonthuen apologised repeatedly to her for being difficult. As for the issues between Sipha and the other worker, I decided to call in the experts and got Chhorvy, Hagar’s reintegration manager to mediate between the two. I was very direct and brought up the alleged stealing incident when I saw the women were not going to and kept beating around the bush. I wanted it all in the open and we move on. The session was short and everyone was very civil. At the end of it, they both apologised to me for making me upset, but they refused to look at each other when they spoke. I hope we did resolve our problems on that front, but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Silk Village across the Tonle Sap

Today, Sophon took us to a village across the Japanese Friendship Bridge to show us how silk is woven. The village is similar to others all over the country [for Singaporeans and Malaysians: villages here are just like Malay kampungs, with wooden houses on stilts to avoid the floods. But I am told that “kampong”, as in “Kampong Thom”, means “port” in Khmer]. This village has a congregation of houses on stilts with looms below.

We had breakfast at one of the popular Khmer restaurants across the bridge. There are many, many guesthouses and restaurants here. The prices are not especially cheap, which makes it perplexing why Khmers would travel all the way here for a meal. Sophon says it is the fresh air, but with all the motobikes, it didn’t seem that fresh to me…Apparently, the guesthouses are there also for Khmer men who have mistresses over that side of the river...

I learned that the silk threads are loaned to the weavers by middlemen, because they’re too expensive. It’s too much for the weavers, who are given the thread by the middlemen. At the end of the month, the weavers are paid only for their labour. Each person can make two parcels of cloth (each parcel is about 1m x 3.6m) a day.

There are varying qualities of silk, and you can expect to pay between USD5 and USD9 per metre for pure silk. Most of the weavers in that village though, use a combination of polyester and silk threads, which is much cheaper.

To get to the village, you have to first get across the Tonle Sap. We took Sophal’s tuktuk across the Japanese Friendship Bridge then travelled for about 20 mins until we reached a bit of road that led to a ferry. The ferry would take us across another River, I assume it's the Mekong this time. There are no signs to the ferry "terminal", just a shack with a few men and their motos. The men were playing cards when we arrived and offered to show us around the village and then take us back to Phnom Penh for USD6 a moto. It’s pricey but cheaper than what some of my foreign friends paid (USD25 each) for an organised tour to visit the village.

The ferry we took had benches all around it with a lot of space in the centre for motos to get on. It took us just 10 mins to get across and once across the motodops took us to a few houses where we could watch the silk being woven and also buy the products. I bought a parcel of silk mixed with polyester that was 7.2m long for USD20 from one house. A parcel of pure silk was going for USD120—too much for me!

On the way back on the ferry, one of the motodops told Sophon that a Frenchman had bought a piece of land by the river and built a house there. The poor fellow's house then fell into the river during the rainy season!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why Bloom is not an NGO

I’m so happy to be back in Phnom Penh with Alan and our dogs again. Phnom Penh is so cool and dry now—the weather really reminds me of Australia. I was freezing at 8:30am in the tuktuk on the way home from the airport. Mornings have been so cold Alan says jokingly it’s just like being in Scotland! You’d never know we were in the tropics. Singapore never gets this way. It’s always humid, even when it’s windy. I’m writing this at 3am and it’s so cool it feels like there’s aircon switched on.

I got stopped at customs this trip because I had packed my lace and trimmings and stuff in boxes, thinking proper luggage would add unneccesary weight. I was asked to open the boxes and had to explain why I was bringing in so many accessories. Fortunately, the official let me off after I explained in Khmer what they were for. I did not know how to say “social enterprise” in Khmer, so I said “NGO”, even though strictly speaking Bloom is not an NGO. It got me thinking that there really are so many benefits to registering as an NGO. Cambodians, especially, really seem to respect NGOs, or at least “get” what NGOs do, i.e., ostensibly, they help Cambodians.

I had resisted registering Bloom as an NGO, despite the advice of many friends. My friends were exactly right, that life would be easier here as an NGO. You don’t have to pay all sorts of licenses and taxes for one, and of course, you get donations (free money). Plus, the label facilitates many activities (as I had just learnt at customs).

I didn’t register Bloom as an international NGO, even though it’s very easy and straightforward, having seen my friends at Riverkids do it. I didn’t because very simply, I think this country has too many NGOs. Cambodia is, to a large extent, an NGO economy, which is to say there is so much money from NGOs in this country that if they were to pull out, Cambodia’s economy would be severely affected (if the garment factories were to leave at the same time, it’s not a joke to say the economy could collapse).

One thing that bothers me is how reliant Cambodians are on foreign aid. One of the most common phrases you will hear as a foreigner is “Som, mui roi” or “Please, (give me) 100 riels.” Maybe I am making too much out of a simple beggar request, but I am convinced it’s more widespread than that—it’s almost like part of the culture here to ask foreigners for handouts.

As I always tell Bloom’s workers*, Cambodians have to learn to be self-reliant. What happens if economies turn bad, and donor nations cut aid? I wanted to demonstrate to our workers that a social enterprise is possible, that Bloom’s workers are capable of running a successful business. I wanted our workers to know they can make money even after I’m gone. It’s the old adage about teaching a person to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Of course this is just a dream at this point, since we’re not yet profitable. My aim is to hand the business over to Bloom’s workers* when we are profitable, so I can move on and hopefully, start a similar project elsewhere. Just writing this is making me stressed. I feel I really have to make Bloom work because there is so much at stake.

*I use the term “Bloom’s workers” or “our workers” and not “my workers”, because as Alan reminds me, the workers do not belong to me. I do not own them. I have also started using the term “workers” consciously, rather than “staff”, because I think there is pride in being a worker. In Singapore, we have come to associate the term “worker” as belonging to a low-class profession, so everyone says “staff”, as in “the company staff”, or even worse, “executives”. I fail to see how being someone who executes is better than being someone who works.


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