Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cambodia Calling

(This blog post was published in its entirety on and an edited version in Asia! magazine)

I had been looking for something interesting to do after leaving my job. Determined that my life would not be dictated or limited by my CV, I spent a year traveling, seeking adventure and curious to see where my journeys would take me. Little did I expect to be living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just two months after my first visit to the country.

Poverty can be shocking. It is hard to imagine a family of five sharing an 8 ft by 8 ft room and even harder to believe when faced with it. Yet, this family is among the luckier ones, for this tiny room has electricity and running water. Many in Cambodia’s capital live in tents or thatched huts with no amenities and few possessions—a couple of plates and a bucket for washing them. I now know the meaning of “dirt poor”.

I cannot erase the image of a pair of scruffy white high heels hanging up in one hut, a woman’s prized possession. I think of the dozens of shoes I have at home in Singapore and I think how strange this roulette that is life, and how many people end up in a bad way through little fault of their own.

Home to the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s proximity to Vietnam made it certain she would be dragged into the war its neighbour was fighting with the US. Many areas of Cambodia were carpet-bombed and/or strewn with landmines. When the Americans finally left, the Khmer Rouge took over.

1975 was declared “Year Zero”, in which money, books, television, medicine, music, traditions and festivals were eradicated as the Khmer Rouge attempted to restructure Cambodia into a self-sufficient, classless, agrarian society. The entire country was transformed into a giant rice factory fuelled by the immense suffering of its workers. Cambodia is still recovering from the effects of the genocide that left the country bereft of educated people, facilities and equipment.

For me, the decision was easy: set up a business to provide people with jobs that pay them fairly. I believe having regular income gives people hope and a sense of the future.

I decided to start a small workshop to make handbags and approached Hagar, a Swiss-based NGO (non-government organization) that provides shelter, skills and job placement for abused and disadvantaged people. It has not been easy, having to learn to speak Khmer, and living away from family and friends, but I have been very lucky in making new friends. I am constantly humbled by how generous and kind Cambodians are despite how little they have and what they have been through. It says much to me about the human spirit and its resilience.

My biggest gripe is that home Internet access is still very expensive. ADSL costs US$110 a month for 1gb download at 256kbps, and don’t even ask about cable broadband with unlimited data. The high prices have led to some imaginative ways of accessing the Internet. I have heard of people trying to live within a 50m radius of an Internet café and then paying the cafe US$30 per month to let them plug in a blue-tooth transmitter. Then there is the guy who had the Internet shop pull a Category 5 cable from their router down the street and into his home.

Still, prices are falling all the time. It would have cost you US$10 an hour to surf the Net in a café in 1998. Today, it can be as little as 1500 riels (about 40 US cents).

There are companies that see the potential in this country of 15 million with low telecommunications penetration rate. In May, Singapore’s MediaRing, together with JV partner Cambodia-based Anana Computer, launched the first and only ISP here to offer WiMAX, a wireless digital communications system, also known as IEEE 802.16.

There are also rumours that a new company will be entering the market in October, and that it will offer cable TV with 75 channels, plus a 512kbps Internet connection, all for only USD30 a month. I can’t wait.

It is now almost three months and BLOOM has taken off. I work with six local staff members who make beautiful Khmer silk bags and other products that I design. I have a savings plan for the women so they can eventually own sewing machines, allowing them to run small businesses from home.

This in turn enables other women to take their place at the workshop so I can reach out to more families. My next challenge is to find the markets for our goods. I don’t expect it to be easy, but hey, that’s part of the fun.

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