Thursday, January 25, 2007

Singapore Culture Shock

I'm writing this in Singapore. I came back for a visit last Tuesday. My friend Swee, whom I've known since college days, came specially to see me in Phnom Penh and I decided at the spur of the moment to follow her home. My friends are so sweet. Swee bought a breadmaker for my soon-to-be-opened cafe, and loads of lace and trimmings for Bloom bags from Arab Street in Singapore while Jimmy gave me an expresso machine, so I've got real coffee! Yay!

Anyway, the first day I met up with my friends at Plaza Singapura (PS) and I suffered a bit of culture shock. I've only been away in Cambodia for 7 months but I had forgotten how affluent Singapore is. My friends were updating me on all the new malls that have opened since I'd been gone, the biggest being Vivocity at Harbourfront. At PS I was quite upset seeing the teenagers with their arms full of shopping bags. I suppose I was depressed that we're a nation of excess and waste, that most Singaporeans exist just as consumers, earn money in order to spend money on things we do not need.

Who am I to judge them? I was like that too. I returned to my room filled with clothes and shoes and CDs and books and felt so disgusted with myself. How could I have lived like that? Some of the clothes and shoes even had tags on! But I know why. When I was working like a fiend in my corporate job, I had little time to myself. Free time was spent channel surfing or shopping. I had no hobbies and retail therapy became my hobby. Any free time I had, I would shop. It was the act of shopping that relaxed me, not the purchase, for oftentimes, I would not even open the package.

Since coming to Cambodia I have not bought a single thing for myself. It is amazing. I had brought about 10 tops and 5 bottoms and found they were more than enough. Actually I loved having so few clothes, because there was little clutter and I did not have to think about what to put on. Conversely, the clutter in my room makes me irritable and upset. I packed so many clothes and shoes to give to Bloom's workers.

I was asked at an interview recently what happened? How did I snap out of living like this? I don't know either. It was as if someone had removed my blinkers. I think what had happened was I had reached a point in my career where the next stage would have been to just work harder for the firm in order to earn yet more money. But I had been high up enough at the firm to realise that corporate life was just a game: it was all about forecasting budgets and beating them; creating shareholder value but often little real value. At that point, it would take a lot of money to keep me at the job. And so I asked for a lot more. The firm counter-offered but we could not come to an agreement. So I walked. Everyone was shocked because we were doing well and were destined to do even better. The other people at the firm were asking me, why? Why, when everyone wants your job? The reason is because of the sense of exploitation. I resented working so hard for the firm, and demanded what I think was fair. It wasn't like I needed the extra money--I was already very well paid. I demanded the money because I wanted to be fairly compensated for my work.

And so, that's why Bloom pays our workers well above market rate, and has profit sharing. I have been criticised by organisations in the same industry for overpaying Bloom's workers. I got into an argument with the GM of an NGO who insisted that "Cambodians are only worth USD45. Even if you pay them more, they will only do USD45 worth of work or less."

Well-meaning friends advise me to pay market rate because they are concerned for the business's viability. But many still say "USD1 a day is a lot for Cambodians! You don't have to pay them so much."

That's like saying "SGD900 a month is a lot for a Singaporean!" To me, there's some racism in comments like that. For some reason, many people think that because Cambodia is a poor country and Cambodians are poor, they don't need what we need, all they need is a little bit. It's complete bullshit.

The cheapest house you can rent in Phnom Penh (and one that I visited) is USD10 a month, and that is a wooden shack with thatched roof that is about 60sq feet. There is no door and no running water and no electricity. If you earn USD45 a month, it's almost a quarter of your salary spent on rent (so that's why the SGD900--the cheapest room you can get in Singapore is SGD200 in a government flat).

That leaves about a dollar US a day for everything--transport (taking the moto can be expensive, that is why almost all of Bloom's workers cycle to work--a bicyle costs USD30), water, food, toiletries, candles etc etc. So it is complete bullshit to say USD45 a month is enough for workers in Phnom Penh. USD45, by the way, is the minimum wage for the garment and shoe industries, according to Cambodian labour law. To get this USD45, workers have to work a 48hour week, i.e., 8 hours a day for 6 days a week. For the record, Bloom's workers are paid between USD70 and USD120 for a 40 hour week (they were paid between USD45 and USD85 at their previous jobs), plus profit sharing.

As for how I stopped my consumer lifestyle? I stopped shopping soon after quitting my job, partly because I needed to be more sensible about money now that I had no income, but mainly because I had time to do the things I really enjoy, like reading, watching movies, spending time with Alan, my family and my friends.

I also made a decision not to simply throw money whenI encountered a problem, but to try to solve it creatively first. I also finally invested my money--after years of making money for other people, I was finally thinking about making money for myself.For the first time in years, I was thinking again about what I wanted in life. I simplified my life and focused on answering the question "How should one live?". For me, the answer would take me to Cambodia.


Absoluteme said...

Really appreciate your precious thought and understand the needs for the poor Cambodian people.btw , what is the nature of the BLOOM business?

Diana Saw said...

Hi absoluteme,

Thanks for the message. BLOOM Bags makes hand-made bags and home furnishings while BLOOM Cafe is run along the lines of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen (train street kids in a kitchen).

Do hope you can visit us someday!


Arthur said...


I will be popping by Phnom Pehn with my frens in sep... Would love to pop by Bloom for a visit!

Will you be there? Is Bloom even in Phnom Pehn? =)

Diana Saw said...

Arthur - Bloom is at shop 808 russian market in Phnom Penh and next to warehouse pub in old market area in Siem Reap. Do drop by.

M Sena said...

I like singapore culture. Something that I know singapore people are very disiplin. Although the wide of singapore not so wide but singapore had has the key participated in south asia.

Sory, I tell you. Recently issue that islam is terrorist religion increasing so fast. Is islam really terrorist religion ? visit may blog :


Blog Widget by LinkWithin