Saturday, March 29, 2008

"We are not so different, you and I"

I received an email from a customer from Australia, Russell, who pointed me to AVAAZ.ORG (did I mention how I love Bloom for putting me in touch with like-minded individuals I would otherwise have never known?). AVAAZ.ORG is an online global people's movement campaigning for the world's most pressing issues, such as global warming and peace in the Middle East. I signed up to this one on Tibet:

"Petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao:

As citizens around the world, we call on you to show restraint and respect for human rights in your response to the protests in Tibet, and to address the concerns of all Tibetans by opening meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Only dialogue and reform will bring lasting stability. China's brightest future, and its most positive relationship with the world, lies in harmonious development, dialogue and respect."

AVAAZ needs 2 million signatures by 31st March. To date, 1,270,622 have signed - 1 million target reached in just 7 days! Petition delivery in 4 days, so please if you are reading this - join the global voice for peace.

Although I am ethnic--though not wholly--Chinese (I am third-generation Chinese Singaporean, but also have Thai blood on my mom's side), I despise many of the things the Chinese government is doing, not just in Tibet, but also in Sudan and it's enough for me to boycott the Olympics and to call on friends to do the same. It should be said, though, that what the Chinese are doing in terms of promoting national self-interest is no different or morally more repugnant than what the US does for its self interest, in Nicaragua, Chile and numerous other countries (for further reading, you may want to read Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, two of my heroes). Or indeed, what Singapore does. Among the things done in the name of national self-interest, Singapore sells arms to Burma and was crucial in the military's early days of consolidating and building power.

Here is an except from a 1998 report in Jane's Intelligence Review.

"The SLORC ("State Law and Order Restoration Council", or the name adopted in 1997 by Burma's military junta), faced with the country's economic collapse and fearful of a link-up between ethnic insurgents in the countryside and urban-based dissidents, was desperate to restock its depleted armouries. China and Thailand were quick to step in with offers of support, but the first country to come to the regime's rescue was in fact Singapore.

Traces of a relationship

Details are hard to come by but, according to one regional journal, in October 1988 hundreds of boxes marked 'Allied Ordnance, Singapore' were unloaded from two vessels of Burma's Five Star Shipping Line in Rangoon's port. These shipments reportedly included mortars, ammunition and raw materials for Burma's arms factories. The consignment also contained 84 mm rockets for the Burmese army's Carl Gustav recoilless guns, which were made by Chartered Industries of Singapore under licence from Forenade Fabriksverken in Sweden. The shipment thus violated an agreement under which the original export licence had been negotiated, requiring that any re-exports only be made with the permission of the Swedish Government. No
such clearance was granted.

In August 1989 Singapore was again accused of providing arms to the SLORC when weapons and ammunition originating in Belgium and Israel were trans-shipped to Burma, apparently with the assistance of SKS Marketing, a newly formed Singapore-based joint venture with the Burmese military regime. There have been reports that these latter shipments included second-hand 40 mm RPG-2 grenade launchers and 57 mm anti-tank guns of Eastern Bloc origin. One well-informed Burma -watcher has suggested that this equipment may have come from Palestinian stocks captured in southern Lebanon by Israel in 1982 and re-sold to Burma.

It is highly unlikely that any of these arms shipments to Burma could have been made without the knowledge and support of the Singapore Government."

This 1998 article also reported "Singapore is now Burma's largest foreign investor, with over US$1 billion committed to nearly 50 different projects (mainly in hotels, property development and tourism)". For all its support, "Singapore [is] in a category reserved for Burma's special friends, a category currently shared only by the Burmese junta's main financial backer and strategic ally: China."

I am reminded of Dr Evil saying to Austin Powers, "We are not so different, you and I". Yes, but two wrongs don't make a right. Regardless of what country you are from and what your government has done, we still can, as individuals, make our opinions heard. If you had watched this week's HardTalk where Stephen Sackur talks to China's most censored writer, Liao Yiwu, you may have heard how he was locked in solitary confinement for 23 days, with his hands cuffed behind his back all through those 23 days. Liao has been arrested numerous times and imprisoned. The first time was in March 1990 while working on a movie about the government´s persecution of persons involved in the June 4th (Tiananmen) Movement. He tried to commit suicide twice.

In the show he talks about freedom to write and publish being taken for granted in the West but in China it is like opening a door, a little at a time. It was a very depressing half-hour for me, to see this human being, 50 years old, so beaten down, despite his claims that he is now in a "healthy" place and is a "healthy" person. But for me, Liao had an important message: I am among the privileged in this world who have the ability to write and publish. I should not waste this opportunity, so denied to people more talented and brave and deserving than me.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The little bag that travelled the world

These photos were sent to me by a Bloom customer. Lee works for the Clinton Foundation in Phnom Penh (the organisation helps fight the spread of AIDS) and visited the Bloom shop at the Russian Market. Later, he asked us to custom make a messenger bag for him, using a rice sack brought all the way from Tibet. The bag then travelled with Lee to San Francisco (and elsewhere I'm sure!) The rice sacks in Tibet are unique, with pictures of Yaks on them. Here in Cambodia, we only get fish and other farm animals, or pictures of the countryside. Here is an except of Lee's email:

"The Yak bags turned out great! Here's a photo! I carry mine with me everywhere now. Thank you so much for the excellent design and the quick turnaround. I was in a San Francisco club last weekend, and saw someone with a similar bag, but with a Jellyfish on it. I thought we had an instant bond! I think this design is really taking off in places like NY and SF..."

It's so cool people all over the world are using recycled products now. I really hope the idea will take off in a big way globally, which would be great news for Bloom bags!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shopping and Tipping

I had an email from someone who has taken a photo of the bus stop I mention in the previous blog entry on public transport. You can see the pic here on

It's a really good blog focusing on everything to do with traffic in Cambodia. The mystery writer also has another blog which compares prices between the different supermarkets in Phnom Penh--a very useful guide if you live, or are planning to live in Phnom Penh. Check it out here!

It's inspired me to write an entry on prices here in Siem Reap, where I now live. In Phnom Penh, we used to shop at Lucky on Sihanouk, cos we could walk there from BKK3. In Siem Reap, we go to the wet market in "Psar Jah" ("old market"), the market around Pub Street. There we can get broccoli (sometimes) for 10,000 riels (about USD2.50) a kg and Cambodian beef for USD5 a kg. The price for broccoli is similar to that back in Singapore. The only difference is that here, in Cambodia, you are paying for the stalk. In Singapore, the broccoli stalks are smaller. Here, they are really big, because I guess, Khmers eat the stalk as well. We prefer to eat (and therefore pay for) the florets because that is where the goodness is.

The other thing about buying vegetables in the market is the prices fluctuate wildly. Cauliflower can cost 3000 riels (USD0.75) a kg one day and 5000 riels the next, depending on supply. But in general, you can get good, fresh food at the market. For fancy cheeses and English back bacon (USD22 a kg!), you can go to Angkor Market along Sivatha Boulevard. It is the biggest supermarket, and even has trolleys. We usually shop at the minimarket just a bit up the road, and across the street, from Angkor Market, though, because it is cheaper. A 2 litre bottle of milk costs USD3.30 there and USD3.80 at Angkor Market. Just wait till Lucky opens! All these other minimarts that have been overcharging customers will be in for a shock. I can't wait.

The one supermarket I boycott here in Siem Reap is the one just in front of Sok San Palace, called Huy Meng. It has expanded recently because of demand, taking over the MaxMart that was previously beside it (MaxMart itself has expanded its other premises, about 200m south of Huy Meng). The reason I boycott this supermarket is because every single time I shop there, the cashiers try to shortchange me. Not by a lot, by a hundred or two or maybe five hundred riels (USD0.125), but for me, it is the principle. If I wanted to give away a freaking 100 riel (USD0.025) note, I would rather give it to the poor boy who loiters outside collecting aluminum cans or even to the beggar mother, than to be ripped off by some guy working in an air-conditioned convenience store who gets a salary for doing this job.

The way they do it is to round off the amount the charge you. So for instance, if your bill is USD3.10, they will ask you for $3 and 500 riels, when it should be 400 riels. Or USD0.15 would be 1000 riels, instead of 600. This was when the exchange rate was 4000 to the dollar, so please don't tell me that the mistake is because of the exchange rate. In fact, the first time I challenged the cashier, I asked what the exchange rate was before pointing out to him he was mathematically challenged (ok, I didn't, but I did tell him what the right amount should be).

I thought ok, it could be an honest mistake. But after the third consecutive time it happened, I lost my temper, and told the cashier (this time it was a woman) "Every time I shop here you try to cheat me of a few hundred riels. The next time this happens I will tell your boss." I had it in my mind that the owner of Huy Meng was unaware of how his staff was scamming customers. But who knows? Maybe he doesn't even mind, because it's not costing him anything (although it has cost him this customer). But I would like to believe he is in the dark about this.

The problem is obviously the staff regularly get away with this. This is one problem living in a tourist town like Siem Reap--foreigners who live here get treated like tourists. Tourists who come here think nothing of throwing riels around or losing a few hundred here and there (it is such small money, it hardly seems worth it to quibble). But as I have already written, if you have money to spare, please give a thought as to how you are spending it. Do you really want to give it to the cashier as a tip (where in the world do supermarket cashiers get tips?), or could that 100 riel note be better used elsewhere. Again, it takes effort to think, instead of saying, "keep the change" or worse, not even engaging your brain to realise you have been scammed.

Here is a thought: instead of letting people cheat you out of the small notes, why not get your right change, keep them all, and drop them in a donation box for the Bopha Angkor Children's Hospital?

Here is another thought: instead of tipping, you could do the same with your tips. Why? Because I think tipping subsidises the pub or restaurant owners. Instead of paying fair wages, they underpay and use "tipping" as a way to attract staff. I just met a 23 year old guy who works at a restaurant on Sivatha who gets USD40 a month to work as a waiter 8 hours a day, 7 days a week with no annual holidays. His meals are covered by the restaurant and of course, the owner says, "you have tips".

This country is not like Italy, where I've been told, waiters take their profession as a career, and are treated as professionals. Waiters here are just trying to make a living, and the moment they can find a better job, they'd leave. This is why restaurants and pubs here are forever looking for service staff. Even the established and huge Red Piano has had a help wanted sign since I moved here almost 4 months ago! Another posh restaurant in a small lane has been looking for a (woman, they specify) manager for three months to no avail.

Monday, March 03, 2008

No Public Transport

I've written about this before, about how the lack of public transport in Phnom Penh means poor people end up paying a large percentage of their income on private transport. The thought came up again today, that Cambodia should have a public transport system within cities, but for another reason. We were having a beer by the river here in Siem Reap. Siem Reap has far from fulfilled its potential and can be such a lovely place for tourists. Instead, it is likely to be more unpleasant. With the tourist boom attracting more people to the town, traffic for one thing, will become worse. I was just having an email conversation with someone who has lived in Phnom Penh for 8 years and has seen how the traffic has exploded there.

Why is there no public transport within towns in Cambodia? Not even in the capital Phnom Penh. There cannot be many cities the size of Phnom Penh without public transport. It seems at one point, there was a public bus plying the main road of the city, because I have seen signposts of the bus schedule in a couple of places (one along Sihanouk Boulevard). They must be a remnant of the past. But I had no luck Googling this. Why did public transport in Phnom Penh fail? Who ran it? For how long?

Of course the reason there is no public system must be that the government cannot be bothered with it. Here is the mission statement of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. It is nothing to do with the provision of transport, only with infrastructure.

And here is what the World Bank says about the problem

Urban Transport

The Cambodia urban transport infrastructure was severely damaged and/or neglected during the years of fighting. In Cambodia, all urban transport is road based and traffic volumes are growing rapidly, especially in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap. Public transport is limited to buses as there are no subways in the country.

There is no formally adopted road and road transport policy in Cambodia, and this particularly affects urban road transport. Phnom Penh has emerging congestion problems and there is a need for a strategic transport policy to set the proper framework. This needs to consider factors such as facilities for non-motorized traffic, the role of rail, and private sector involvement, especially in the area of establishing road tolls. There is also a need to ensure sufficient finance for urban road maintenance as well as paving unpaved roads in urban areas.,,contentMDK:20458706~menuPK:2066305~pagePK:34004173~piPK:34003707~theSitePK:574066,00.html

"Private sector involvement, especially in the area of establishing road tolls"? Is that the most pressing reason to get the private sector involved? How about getting the private sector to supply public transport first?

This topic has obviously been debated as I found one letter writer, Stan Khan, who wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, Issue 13/09, April 23 - May 6, 2004 arguing:

"Cambodia should look to the Philippines and its Jeepney minibus system as a model for public transit.

Jeepneys are individually owned but they operate on fixed routes without public subsidy and provide urban transportation in the range of 500 to 600 riel equivalent."

A minibus system should be very easy to set up.

The city would lay out the routes, establish basic rules and fares and sell low-cost permits to anyone who wants to provide service.

The more the city is able to replace motorbikes with multi-passenger vehicles the better off it will be in terms of congestion, accidents and serious injuries."

There are private bus companies like GST and Sorya but these only provide inter-province services. Are the companies not allowed, or do they find it financially non-viable to provide the service within the city and towns?

If prevention of accidents is not a big enough reason for the government to provide public transport, how about thinking about productivity, as less congestion means people get to work on time. Think about how much wastage there is in a place like Bangkok, where people's time is spent in traffic. Or how about thinking about pollution? Phnom Penh and Siem Reap could be such nice places to live if not for the vehicle exhaust fumes.

It's probably harder than it seems to get a public transport system right and people the world over complain about their country's public transport. But we have to start somewhere. Certainly Singapore went through its share of difficulties in establishing a nationwide transport system. You can read about its history here:


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