I have been feeling depressed since a conversation with a Cambodian I know and whom I have had financial dealings with; someone I have always regarded as honest and decent.
"T" met a Khmer woman who started a project ostensibly to help Cambodian children. She rented a 5 bedroom villa to house the children after securing funding from a Kiwi man. It didn't take long, fewer than 6 months, before the truth emerged. She was pocketing the bulk of the sponsor's money while spending a little on the children. The donor promptly cut her off. Without the money she sent the children back to their families and left the 5 bedroom house.
The Kiwi man realised what a great job running a children's centre is - if you can get it. So he asked my friend if he would like to be partners. T would be responsible for getting the children set up in a home while the Kiwi guy would bring in the money. They would share the profits. T thought it was a great opportunity. After all, he told me, "there is no limit to sponsor money".
I asked why this Kiwi guy would want to do this since he is obviously rich to sponsor the kids in the first place. T shrugged and said simply, "the rich want to be richer."
So now T has his own idea on how to make more money. Basically he would like me to set up a guesthouse with him. He said "we must cheat the customer a little". "What do you mean?" "Oh, many people do like that in Cambodia. Tell customer some of the money go to orphanage but take the money." He paused. "Maybe give orphanage a little."
He told me a Japanese man married to a Cambodian woman did something like that. He raised money for 100 wells but only built 10. I don't know how he got found out but T says "he cannot go home to Japan now."
I told T I am not surprised. I said if I did something like this I would be thrown in jail in Singapore for fraud.
T laughed and said, "in Cambodia no problem." He said we will not get caught because we can pay to get all the documentation and he can also arrange for the photos of the orphans.
I was shaking my head and saying no, no, it is wrong. I told T I myself have been cheated by my former manager Sipha and I felt hurt. I do not want to hurt other people because I know what that feels like, the betrayal, the hurt. And you know what T said? "You got cheated by Sipha because in your last life you cheated her," he grinned.
At that point I wanted to up and leave. Conversation O-V-E-R. How do you argue with someone who draws from "past lives" as his defence?
(By the way, by "argue" I mean the definitions below, and not "quarrel", which is what "argue" is often mistaken to be:
v. ar·gued, ar·gu·ing, ar·gues
1. To put forth reasons for or against; debate: "It is time to stop arguing tax-rate reductions and to enact them" (Paul Craig Roberts).
2. To attempt to prove by reasoning; maintain or contend: The speaker argued that more immigrants should be admitted to the country.
3. To give evidence of; indicate: "Similarities cannot always be used to argue descent" (Isaac Asimov).
4. To persuade or influence (another), as by presenting reasons: argued the clerk into lowering the price.
"Past lives" a lazy way of explaining things, of arguing. And it absolves people of responsibility. By this "reasoning", a Cambodian's bad actions will always be justified - because he/she was aggrieved in his/her past life(s).
This is what I find to be the most ridiculous, not just ridiculous - harmful - aspect of Buddhism. (In general I am attracted to Buddhist philosophy about mindfulness and non-attachment and knowing oneself but I have serious problems with parts of it. A Khmer friend, a former monk himself, once told me he thinks many monks are parasites. They do not contribute to society; only pray and beg. But I think there are good monks - those who teach English to other Khmers, and take in poor children in the wats (pagodas). And wasn't it the monks in Burma who tried to spark a revolution?)
"Past lives" is also the reason (story) Cambodians give (tell) themselves in order to make them feel better that so-and-so is rich and they poor - "He must have been a good man in his past life, that is why he is rewarded with riches. I must have been a bad person, that's why I am poor."
I continued arguing with T because I was curious. I asked, when does it all end? If A does harm to B and B harms A in the next life, can A harm B again in the third life? Why not? What if the harm B did to A was much greater (say kill 5 members of his family versus 2)? When will it end? How do you measure when justice has been weighed and meted out fairly?
And anyway, doesn't being a Buddhist mean you are supposed to be a good person?
To this T said, "we believe before we die, we go to wash ourselves in the Ganges River, you know in India, to wash away all the bad things." I was confused because that's what Hindus do, not Buddhists, but I suspect T himself is confused - Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism (the Chinese altars you see in all the Cambodian shops is Taoist) - everything has been merged into one for many Khmers.
How convenient. At the time when Sipha stole from me, I could not get my head around it: how she would pray religiously and give food and money to monks every bon (festival), yet ripped me off the moment she could. Then I read George Orwell's Burmese Days (George Orwell was at one time a policeman in Burma).
In the opening chapters of the book, there is a fat, disgusting, police chief, who does much evil but who thinks before he dies he will build stupas to accumulate merit. Many people I have told this story to tell me confession works the same way for Catholics - confess and your sins are forgiven and you are redeemed.
(My view of religion is best expressed by Seneca (ca. 4 BC – AD 65): "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.")
I told T there is more to life than money, otherwise I would not be here in Cambodia. He looked at me thoughtfully. Then he spoke: "You know now in Cambodia Khmer people say if you have a good heart you will never get rich; the people who have black heart are the people who are rich."
This is what seriously depresses me about Cambodia. The people are getting greedy and more corrupt by the day. A person who starts out kind and honest like T sees his rulers, neighbours, all getting rich, often by ruthless and corrupt means and thinks, "Here I am trying to do an honest day's work and for what? I will never be as rich."
I keep thinking of the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (墨子) (ca. 470 BCE–ca. 391 BCE) and what he believed: that benevolence comes to human beings "as naturally as fire turns upward or water turns downward", provided that persons in position of authority illustrate benevolence in their own lives.
It is no wonder T thinks the way he does - why should the common people just stand by while their rulers and elite get rich selling the country. You are just a fool to do that. After all, money is power.
If you think about it, money was the thing that could have saved a Khmer (or anyone) when the Khmer Rouge took control, and foreigners fled or were evacuated. If you did not have money to pay your way out of the country you were stuck and faced huge suffering and even death.
For Cambodians who grew up with the war (as T did), money must be hugely important. There is also more than a little envy when they see the Khmers who did escape the war, and who ended up in the US, France and what have you and who are now back running businesses, who have bought large tracts of land, all with their foreign-earned dollars.
I don't blame T because I have never suffered because of a lack of money (my only memory was when I could not afford a SGD$400 Motorola modem - yes, that is what they cost back then - for Internet dialup connection). I cannot understand what it feels like to lust after money - the desperation to be rich.
The knowledge that I am living among people like these does have an effect on me. It makes me want to get out, out of Cambodia, out of a place where people are willing to sacrifice their morals, their principles, for money. So many travellers have told me Vietnam is like that now - everyone is out on the make, the Vietnamese will even try to rip you off over a bottle of mineral water. Travellers tell me it is exhausting, always having to be on your guard because everyone is out to rip you off. I really hope Cambodia will not go down that road but I'm not optimistic.
I also feel like I have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Because the people's obsession with money was the reason I left Singapore.