Saturday, May 29, 2010

I am Political; not political

It was pointed out to me the other day that I am Political (with a capital "P"); not political.

I was saying to a friend how I sometimes think I should be more of an actress and play the networking game a little better so as to advance Bloom's interests. In short, perhaps I should be more political; like the politician who says whatever his audience wants to hear in order to get elected.

As an example, I had met a Singaporean MP (Member of Parliament) who came to the Bloom shop here in Siem Reap about a year ago to meet with me. The lady MP was interested in social entrepreneurship and her American assistant (a blond, female, fresh Ivy League grad from the US) had set up a meeting for us. So it has come to this - Singaporean MPs having American assistants. I was puzzled, wondering why a Singaporean was not doing the job. Perhaps it is in her private capacity that this MP had hired the American, since she is likely to be involved in other businesses, as are all other Singaporean MPs.

Ms MP is in her forties and a typical Singaporean. The first question she asked me was what I did at my former job. This is also typical of the US, I have been told. What job you do, what car you drive, where you live and in what house.

This did not annoy me as much as what I felt to be her patronising attitude. Perhaps she did not mean to come across that way, but she did. I think Singaporean MPs are used to deference from Singaporeans, who in general do not challenge but are respectful, nay, fearful, of authority. They may get such treatment on home turf. But they forget the rest of the world does not give two hoots who they are and what they do. That includes me, a Singaporean living in Cambodia.

The MP said she was here on a mission to meet with high-level Cambodian government officials to promote social entrepreneurship in Cambodia. "We think Cambodia has lots of potential in this area," she said. "We know we are not as good as you people on the ground. So we leave the grassroots project to people like you. For us, we are focused on doing things at a higher-level."

This pissed me off for two reasons. In the first place, it was no less difficult for me than it would be for her to start a grassroots project. I did not start out good at the ground level. I got good. Through four years of experience and pressing on despite the many difficulties. I went ahead and did it because I believe it makes a - not a - the difference. I want the benefits to accrue to the poorest - and not the richest, whether by intention or as a by-product (a "negative externality" as economists put it, where corruption is seen as a cost of commerce, where the benefit is greater than the cost).

Secondly, I am fed up, seriously fed up, of people like her and the organisations they represent. She told me she has been working with "organisations" for more than a decade.

"Really? Which ones?" I asked, genuinely interested.

"The World Economic Forum."

At this, I finally blurted, "So you are the enemy. Just like the World Bank and the IMF."

In saying this I share the views of the thousands of protestors and anti-globalisation activists who hold demonstrations at every WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland, since the late 1990s, to protest against the meeting of "fat cats in the snow" as U2's Bono put it. (See what some of these fat cats ate at this year's event, and what the leaders people at a G8 meeting had on the menu.)

People like me are critical of the globalisation of corporate capitalism, where multi-national corporations that seek to maximise profits get away without accountability to workers' rights, safety and environmental standards.

The current oil spill clean up caused by BP is a good example. The damage is estimated to cost US$14 billion but the maximum fine to BP is a mere US$75 million, peanuts for a company that made US$13.96 billion profits for one year, 2009, down from US$25.59 billion (! Cambodia's GDP is about US$10 billion) for 2008.

And who pays the rest of the $14 billion damage? Guess.

By signalling they will bail out the follies of these huge companies, government regulators reward companies like BP, and Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase. As Zach Carter, writing in puts it: "That scenario radically distorts the market, making massive and unnecessary risk-taking the rational choice for bigwig bankers. If their bets pay off, the bank books huge profits. If the bets backfire, the government will bail out the bank."

Also interesting is "Anatomy of the BP oil spill: A disaster waiting to happen" on When companies reward executive bonuses based on metrics, risks are ignored. "BP and other companies tend to measure safety and environmental compliance on a day-to-day, checklist basis, to the point of basing executive bonuses on those metrics. But even if worker accident rates fall to zero, that may reveal nothing about the risk of a major disaster. “These things we are talking about are risks that won’t show up this year, next year — it may be 10 years down the road before you see one of these big blowouts or refinery accidents,” Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University said. “This same thing happened in the global financial crisis. Bankers were paid big bonuses for risks taken this year or next year, but the real risks came home to roost years later.”

If you need any more proof that BP values money over the lives of its workers, check out this leaked BP memo.

But I digress. This blog post is about me, after all, a Political-with-a-capital-P-person .

I do not know why Ms MP was taken aback. If her American assistant had done her job, she would know that I am a socialist and count Noam Chomsky as one of my heroes. I make no effort to hide these facts and in fact declare them on all my sites (check out my blogger profile for instance). In fact, I did say to Ms MP that our discussions about social entrepreneurship failed to address the main problem - capitalism.

Clearly a little put off by me, Ms MP parting shot to me was, "My advice to you is to try to bring people to your side of the table." Spoken like a true politician - with a small letter "p". (By the way, the great photo of the Geisha is by Sushicam)

I did not say to her then what I thought - people like you who do things at the "high-level" rather than at the grassroots are simply parasites. For without the people at the grassroots what job would you do? Your work, your very "high-level" job is based on everything "people like us" do at the ground level. All your talking, pontificating in posh hotels over crazy expensive meals - what is that based on? A whole parasitic industry has been created on the work "people like us" do.

So, in what sense does my friend think I am Political? In Aristotle's sense, when he says "Man is by nature a political animal", a social animal, for whom the pursuit of political life is to live according to what is Good (eu zen or eudaimonia).

I think my friend is right. I do care about Politics with a capital "P", in the general, larger sense of organising society and economic and political institutions that is best for the Good of human beings. I do not care about being "political" in the smaller sense of pursuing self-interest. Nor do I care for political people and politicians.

Ultimately, not being political, not playing the game, not pretending to be interested in people, not pursuing all avenues for Bloom may be my loss, and Bloom's loss. Ms MP and my path may cross again one day, for instance, and I may regret not being more congenial to her. But I choose to live my life with honesty, and I choose not to live in fear.

(The big problem with Singaporeans is self-censorship. I knew Singaporeans who were worried they would not get their government flats if they were critical of the ruling party. The result is the people censor their thoughts and speech on their own, so government censors do not have to do the work.

As I have written in another blog post, "Yukos oil tycoon turned political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky once said, "It is the Singapore model, it is a term that people understand in Russia these days. It means that theoretically you have a free press, but in practice there is self-censorship. Theoretically you have courts; in practice the courts adopt decisions dictated from above. Theoretically there are civil rights enshrined in the constitution; in practice you are not able to exercise some of these rights.")

Besides, I could never be a politician - I am a crap actress.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Touch a Life Food Programme in Siem Reap

I took these photos on April 6, when I went with my friend Mavis on one of her many trips to feed poor people in Mondul 3 district, a very poor area in Siem Reap. Tourists are often surprised to learn that Siem Reap is one of the poorest provinces in the country. Step out of Siem Reap town, barely 30 mins away on a motorbike, and you will see the crushing poverty. (In 2008, I wrote about New Hope, an NGO operating in Mondul 3).  

Mavis (in the middle) is a Singaporean mother of two who has lived in Malacca, the former Portugese colonial town in Malaysia, for two decades. She started a food programme in Malacca and brought the programme to Siem Reap about 2 years ago, which was when we first met. 

The beauty on the back of the motorbike is Jesseca Liu, a popular Malaysian-born, Singapore-based, actress. Jesseca had come for a visit with her family but got stuck without a flight out (long story). It was funny, we took her for a massage in Siem Reap and all the massage girls insisted on taking a photo with Jesseca cos they recognised her as Ruan Mian Mian, the Vietnamese bride in a Singapore drama series called "Portrait of Home" (同心圆). The show was dubbed in Khmer and shown on TV. Everywhere we went Khmers would gawk and say she is sa'at. They especially loved her fair skin. Having met her I can confirm she really is beautiful, inside and out.

This is one of my heroes, Bel, a Cambodian man who lost his right leg when he stepped on a landmine when he was nine. Bel helps Mavis by delivering the food she cooks to the villagers. I was so touched seeing him ride his moto holding on to his crutch with the packets of food strapped to the back of the bike. 
Bel in front, Mavis and Jess on second bike. I'm behind them on another moto, balancing sitting side saddle and taking these photos. Yes, I am almost local!
The first stop. You can see why. A malnourished girl with her mom who has 3 other children. Boxes of food (vegetarian, Mavis believes it is best) for the whole family.
Food for the families identified as very poor
Here you can see Bel, on his crutch, feeding the children. I am always touched when I see these photos. Really, to the point of tears. Here is a man whose life must have been hard. He told me he remembers bleeding, bleeding all over the place and the trip to the hospital took over a day and when he arrived, he was stinking from sweat and blood and no wonder the nurses weren't kind. 
And look at Bel now. Only in his twenties and a proud man helping his fellow Khmers. I know I can be cynical and doubt the good foreigners like me are doing for this country because Khmers can be so manipulative and corrupt. But people like Bel put me to shame. He still has a hard life but despite this he tries to help other disabled people whom he takes in and feeds. I want to do more for people like Bel. They really do deserve better.
Wee happy children with wee packets of crackers.
Where the children live. Leaf roof, zinc and cardboard walls. Where is the toilet I hear you ask. There is none. They do everything in the bushes. No running water either. Water is from common wells some distance away.
Nothing is wasted. Leftover rice is dried in the sun and fed to the animals. Mavis will be back Tues and I'll post more photos of our next trip. Read more about Bel and Mavis here at If you would like to donate to help Mavis please go to Touch A Life. If you would like the money to go to Bel and his KILT (Khmer Independent Life Team), please let Mavis know. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Phillip Lim 3.1 - a Cambodian designer

I just learnt from this LA Times article that designer Phillip Lim is Cambodian. Quite sad to read about his relationship with his mother who smuggled her children out of Cambodia in 1975.
"Lim has never invited his mom -- or any of his family -- to his runway shows. Or told them how much his clothes cost. (His line falls in the contemporary category, so most pieces are less than $1,000.) His mother only recently learned that his work has been featured in magazines when a French relative phoned her after seeing his name in Jalouse.

"LIKE so many immigrant children who don't go into professional fields, Lim thinks he's disappointed his parents, for whom going into fashion was on par with becoming a small-time seamstress.


"Even now, more than 30 years later, she tears up talking about the summer of 1975 when she and her late husband Pary escaped from Cambodia in the middle of the night, huddled in a boat with their six children who were all under the age of 13. The Lims are Chinese, but their ancestors migrated to Cambodia after Japan invaded. When Pol Pot took over, "I was afraid he was going to draft my boys as children soldiers," Hannah says, as her daughter Lisa translates. They escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where a Christian organization sponsored their move to San Diego. Pary worked odd jobs while Hannah sewed simple garments at home for 5 to 10 cents apiece."


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