Saturday, March 28, 2009

Patronise Cambodian or Expat-owned business?

A few days ago, a Kiwi couple told me about a European man who owns one of the largest corner bars here on Pub Street. The couple said they had the misfortune of having breakfast at his establishment and they almost threw up their meal because they overheard his conversation with a couple of fellow expat bar owners here in Siem Reap. The Kiwi couple was appalled at the racist conversation, which they said centred not just around Cambodians but also Africans. They told me the worst was a woman who had a French accent (not necessarily French, perhaps Belgian or another nationality that speaks French).

This group of expats, reported the couple, said Cambodia has passed its heyday, at least for them. It is now too crowded, there's too much competition so perhaps it is time for them to move to Burma and make their fortune there now.

There will always be F.I.L.T.H.y people like this in less developed countries. If they are the hotshot business people they imagine themselves to be, let's see them succeed in their home country. But no, they come specifically to an under-developed country so they can make their fortune exploiting locals who desperately need jobs and ignorant tourists who have no clue about the establishments they patronise. And where they can shine because there is little competition.

A former employee of Bloom cafe who went on to join an Australian-owned pub in Phnom Penh popular with expats told me how staff were expected to work till 4 or 5am in the mornings so long as there were guests, without overtime pay. Kosal quit this job soon after because he was exhausted. As a waiter he was on his feet all day and some days would get only 3 or 4 hours sleep--all for USD100 a month. Meanwhile he told me, the pub would bring in hundreds, even thousands a nite, especially on the nights it hosts private parties. (Kosal now rents a stall in the Old Market here in Siem Reap selling souvenirs and I am happy to see he's done well for himself).

I once had a discussion with the American owner of a cafe pub who was telling me how there was a campaign a few years ago by Cambodian restaurant and pub owners to "buy local", so to speak. This group tried to market their businesses as "Khmer-run", "Khmer-owned", "Help Khmer" etc etc.

He and I agreed there are many Khmer owners who are just as unkind, if not more, to their staff, often paying pittance and coming up with all sorts of rules to discipline staff. One large restaurant here, owned by a Cambodian, for instance, docks USD1 off the pay of staffers who turn up 3 minutes late for work. (Why bother to turn up at all, I wonder, given that most of them earn only USD2 a day).

This same company, which owns multiple businesses here in the heart of town, also keeps USD100 of each staff member's pay as a "deposit", returned only if the staff member has worked at least a year. This is illegal in Cambodia, but desperate people are not going to smash their ricebowls. Everyone I know who works there complains privately about it but dare not report this practice to the authorities. Not that the police would help anyway.

Some of the Cambodian business people are filthy rich and don't actually need your "help"; they help themselves to plenty in the country as it is. I can't even say buy local because at least the money stays in the country--you can bet that some of the money is in Swiss or Singapore bank accounts. ("Not too long ago, a friend of mine from Cambodia intimated to me a story about four women, all single, from Phnom Penh depositing SGD$80 million (USD53m) between them in Singapore banks. No questions asked. “Four single women? SGD$80 million? From Cambodia which is dirt poor?” she asked with a mixture if rhetoric and incredulity, “And no one here bothers to ask how they got the money?” source.

An interesting aside on parking money in Singapore:
Attractive Tax Framework:
One of the most attractive aspects of Singapore as an offshore jurisdiction is that it has one of the lowest taxation rates in Asia. Non-residents who park their money in Singapore pay no taxes if that money is earned outside of Singapore, and investment gains earned in Singapore (from stocks for example) are also exempt from tax. Singapore is also one of the few offshore centers which was not included in the EU Savings Tax Directive in 2005, an EU initiative to exchange information on EU citizens parking money abroad for tax reasons. In Singapore, not paying taxes owed to foreign authorities is not a crime. In 2004, Singapore amended its trust laws to allow foreigners to sidestep state interference in many European countries which dictates how inheritance is carved up.

Banking secrecy laws
Singapore has very strict banking secrecy laws: customer confidentiality can only be lifted under a court order. A sentence of $78,000 or three years in prison is given for the disclosing of information about customers and their accounts.

And of course, unlike the bunch of expats mentioned at the start of this entry, there are foreigners who believe in global business best practices, such as treating your staff well. Not all are here for purely to make money for their nest eggs; some are here to help.

So the question of whether to patronise foreign-owned or locally-owned is not an easy one to answer. There are good and bad business owners, regardless of their nationality. If you are really interested in supporting a good organisation, you just have to do research and speak with locals. One easy and good way, as a customer pointed out to me, is to see how happy the staff are.

What I can tell you are the ones I patronise: I like Angkor Famous located in the Alley, south of Pub Street. The owners are Khmer who escaped to the US after living in a refugee camp in Thailand. This couple has worked hard for their business--they worked as butchers in the US. I like them because they are kind and their staff are cheerful and lovely. And there is little staff turnover, unlike some restaurants here that are forever advertising for staff.

I used to go often to Khmer Kitchen too, and in fact, have recommended it to many customers because I think it's fairly priced and I used to like its food. I have to say it has been disappointing lately, because they are obviously trying to cut costs. That restaurant is owned by a Khmer woman whom I am told used to be a cook for Doctors without Borders before she opened her own restaurant. A Cambodian told me she was given some money by some foreigners to start the small restaurant which has now grown to two in the old market area. Khmer Kitchen is famous because Mick Jagger ate there, or so says one guide book.

The great thing about living in Siem Reap

for me, is that I get to meet interesting people all the time. Just the other day, Alan and I went to vet/pet store here in Siem Reap and met an interesting German man of Korean parentage. He is retired and bought a huge piece of land (I cannot remember how big exactly but it was in the hectares!). He is done with city life and bought a farm where says he plans to grow tapioca and similar things--but has no clue how to go about it! Just like me, a city-girl, when I moved to the countryside.

One of the funniest things when we first moved into our rented house in the Svey Dum Kum village here was discovering that there is a fruit tree that smells literally of the toilet. Before the landlord told us that it was the tree, we were convinced there was a septic tank on the land, and it was the tank that was giving off the smell (there was a concrete bit in the backyard which gave us our suspicions).

It was hilarious, trying to explain the septic tank question to our landlord (you know, a place to store poo and pee and someone comes to collect it? Maybe a truck?). He was so puzzled. Eventually he understood what we were concerned about and explained it was not the toilet--just a tree!

The good thing about the tree is that it only gives out the smell once a year, when it flowers. The fruit is small and round and is eaten when it is green and hard and not yet ripe. Cambodians eat the fruit with salt and chilli, but I've never been a fan.

I am a fan of the local Cherry tree though, and used to stuff my face with the little red fruit. The taste reminds me of barley water, which my mom used to boil for us to drink. This was until I realised that many of the red berries I was plucking directly from the tree already had worms which had spotted the fruit first! I have no idea how many wriggly white fruit worms I have consumed--I prefer not to think about it! My parents remember the Cherry tree from their childhood in Malaya (before Singapore and Malaysia split), but I have never seen a Southeast Asian Cherry tree in Singapore.

So anyway, the nice German man invited us to visit his land one day, which would be interesting.

Then today, this Korean lady literally grabbed my arm as she approached me on my way to work at the Bloom shop. She thought I was Korean and said I look Korean. I was surprised as have never been mistaken for a Korean before because I am not as fair-skinned as Northern Asians. Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay--yes (I have what is called a pan-Asian face).

I have been wanting to learn another language (Korean, Japanese, anything) so asked if she would tutor me in Korean while I teach her English (we actually communicated in Khmer!). She told me her husband teaches Korean at a high school here and invited me to her house next week.

I think this is one of the privilege of being an expat--you have the opportunity to meet all sorts of people you otherwise would not have, if you lived in your home country.

Mainly it is because people living in their home countries have their social network already established: family, friends, colleagues, schoolmates etc, so do not have to go out of their way to get to know others. I have been told by expats living in Singapore that Singaporeans are a tough bunch to get to know, because we tend to be reserved and stick to our own kind.

I think it's because we don't feel the need to get to know an expat because we have so many friends of our own. And expats tend to leave so it is hard to develop the kind of friendships that can only come about with time. Having said that I am good friends with a number of Australians from the company I used to work in, and we still keep in touch via email and I've visited them at their homes in Australia after we all left the company. I became close to these former expats in Singapore (all journalists) because we share the same values about equality and justice.

Cambodians are different from Singaporeans in this regard. Cambodians are very happy to get to know foreigners. Partly they'd like to improve their English, but mainly--and I am aware this sounds cynical, but I believe it is true--they hope a foreigner can be of some help to them. Many Cambodians hope for a foreign sponsor because for them, it is often the only way to getting an opportunity to better their lives. So who can blame them? I met a Cambodian girl on the plane back here from Singapore who has a sponsor paying for her education in Singapore. Because of this opportunity, she will have a better life than most here. The young girl said to me food in Singapore is cheap and delicious--I concur!

I like that it is easy to meet people of all nationalities here and therefore easy to pick up a new language. It is also cheap to sign up for a language course here, compared with back home. USD5 an hour will be able to get you a private tutor. I love learning languages simply because I find it interesting.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paying the electricity bill

This morning we walked to the Electricite du Cambodge, or the Cambodian Electricity Department to pay our monthly bill. The deadline was yesterday (24th of the month) but you get a couple of days grace before the department cuts you off—at least, this was the case in Phnom Penh, when it happened to us. The bill was 219,760 riels or about USD55.

The small area in front of the counter was packed with laggards like us. I was trying to figure out where the queue was until I realised there *is* no queue. “Great,” I thought. “Just like China; we just have to jostle and shove the money at the counter staff. If you wait patiently for your turn, you’d never get served.” This was the case in 2000 in Beijing and Shanghai and I remember finally losing my patience at a man who pushed his way in front of me to get a ticket at the subway. I told him to please wait his turn as I was there first. He looked genuinely stunned, like it never occurred to him that there was such a thing as fairness and “first come, first served”. He did, however, let me go first.

It happened again to me last year at the posh shopping centre in Phnom Penh called Paragon. I had to tell off a Cambodian family to wait in line for their turn, and to explain to the cashier that she should serve whoever is in line first, instead of whoever shoves his or her way in front. I find queue jumpers very offensive, because their behaviour says they think they’re more important than the other people in the queue.

But this was not the case with what was happening at the Electricity Department. The people were just milling around. It took me about 5 minutes to figure out what was going on, as at first, I was just waiting for some indication that it was my turn. When it was apparent nothing was happening I made my way to the counter. The counter staff then asked me for the bill and the money, which she folded together and stuck under a pile of other bills that were also folded together with money. Ah, so this is the system! Hand your bill and cash over where it gets stuck under all the previous bills and cash and wait until the staff gets to yours.

So there is a first come, first served system. However, the problem arises when it is time for you to collect your change and receipt: how do you know which folded bill and money is yours? While I was there, the staff did not call out names or numbers. We were just supposed to know when it was our turn to collect the receipt. Very bizarre.

A problem happened when Chhun Hy paid the bill while I was away. It was very crowded, so the counter staff did call out the name and amount on the bill, but sometimes no one would come forward while other times more than one person would come forward. I can only imagine what happened: people do not know the name of their landlords (the addressee), or multiple persons paid the same amount and so assumed it was their bill. In Chhun Hy’s case, she refused to give him the receipt until he could prove that was his change and receipt by telling her the landlord’s name. Poor Chhun Hy had to go back to our house to get the previous month’s receipt in order to get the receipt from her.

As you can see, it is madness. I do not understand why there is no queuing system like anywhere else. If there is enough space to mill about, there is enough space to queue. All you need is one of those rope stands to organize the queue. Then you pay your bill, collect your receipt and leave. Isn’t this a better, less confusing system? The current system must have been thought up when there were two or three people in the queue (and it must have worked then) but obviously the system does not work when there are 30 or 40 people in line.

Could it be that no one has suggested a new way of doing things because the people who pay the bills are usually just runners? Educated Khmers who could suggest an improved system are probably not there to see it for themselves since the job of paying bills is usually left to flunkies. While I was there this morning, nobody complained or said anything. I did try to explain to the counter staff but as usual, I get a blank stare.

The other thing worth pointing out is we got back change of 200 riels instead of 240 riels. Apparently 40 riels is so little money it is not even worth having. Indeed the smallest denomination is 50 riels (a little over a penny, or 1.2 cents US).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A woman is your friend

A sign in South Africa. source.

Why do ants never get into traffic jams?

Here's one for the Phnom Penh (and Bangkok) traffic authorities: try banning vehicles from overtaking.

You never see marching ants caught in a jam and researchers have some clues why:
#1 : the average speed of ants remains constant, regardless of the density of the traffic.
ants never overtake. Not ever. Instead they form into platoons in which all the ants move at the same speed. Increase the density of ant traffic and the platoons simply join together to form larger groups. This is how the velocity remains the same while the density increases. That makes ant traffic significantly different from other types of traffic in which congestion occurs, such as road traffic and internet packet traffic.

Sina and our house in Siem Reap

This is Sina in our house, where he stayed while he was up here. We took this photo using a camera I bought him in Singapore, a second-hand Canon Digital Ixus. Silly me, thinking he needs a camera to take photos when all this while he has a fancy Nokia camera phone!

I was wondering if I should post his photo because I am sure someone would try to poach him because it's hard to find good people in this country. In fact, Sina just told me some people who said they were from an NGO went to our Phnom Penh shop and told our shop assistant they wanted to poach the entire Bloom team over to their organisation. As a expat friend said, "You'd think as an NGO, they'd set a good example." I am less surprised, as it's not the first time other people have tried to bribe our staff. All I can say is just wait till I go to Phnom Penh and find out the details. You can bet I will not hesitate to name and shame this so-called NGO.

Anyway, I think it's ok if staff get approached as they are free agents. This was the case with me and my colleagues when I was in Singapore, and we didn't often leave because we realised that there is more to work than just money. What I do think is that the quality of Bloom bags must be pretty damn good, for people to want to poach our team. So I am quite pleased about this.

Anyway, here is Sina on our beautifully carved Cambodian sofa with one of our dogs, Nessie. The house has a lot of hardwood which is beautiful and would be very expensive where I come from. Our Khmer friends tell us that in the past, poor people stayed in wooden houses and rich people in cement or concrete ones. Now, it is the other way around because cement is cheaper than good wood.

The furniture is nice to look at but I've got to say, not very comfy. You can see a Bloom bag beside him and on the table is my favourite Bovril from Lucky Supermarket here in Siem Reap, Alan's favourite lime pickle which I got for him from Singapore's Little India and our potassium salt. All very sensible foods :)

The Analogue Blogger

Alfred Sirleaf of Liberia in West Africa writes on his blackboard every day. No need for electricity or the Internet for him to get his message out. What a great story from neatorama.

Workers' cooperative and Paternalism

I'm finally back in Siem Reap, after spending 2 months in Singapore. The weather here is scorching, but we have not yet come to the hottest month, April, when temperatures hit 40 degrees. We had some respite when it rained about a week ago, and I was just musing how Cambodia does not have the lightning storms that Singapore has. Lightning strikes very low where my parents live in the northeast of Singapore, which I find scary.

I have many new thoughts about Bloom and Cambodia after the time spent in Singapore. Primarily my thoughts are on how much potential there is for Bloom outside of Cambodia and how I need to get the workers' cooperative started asap so I can live somewhere else where I can better contribute to the business.

As followers of Bloom will know, the aim for Bloom has always been to be a workers' cooperative. (Someone in Singapore asked me, why not set it up as one then, instead of a social enterprise? Well, in a cooperative, the workers run the business democratically, sharing the means of production, the decisions and the profits as they see fit. Currently the workers are ill-equipped to do this, because they do not have the business skills and the funding, and these are the two areas where I can help. So for now, Bloom is a social enterprise, i.e., a business with social objectives; it would be a lie to call it a cooperative--not that this has stopped other sickening people in this country from claiming their privately-owned business to be a cooperative).

My biggest challenge is to get the team to want to own the business. For many of the women (and this is true of workers everywhere), they just want to turn up for work, sew their bags, get paid at the end of the month and not worry about the business. They want me to continue being the kind boss that I am, treat them well, as I shoulder the "big picture" problems. More and more often now, I have been thinking how wrong-headed I have been, to assume everyone is like me, wanting to have direct ownership of the business that you work for. Because don't you want to see the fruits of your labour accrue to you instead of someone else? Don't you think it is fair, that you, as the worker, makes the decisions that would affect your job? Apparently, not so.

Increasingly I think my idea is no different from paternalism: I am telling the Cambodian team I know what is best for them. Listen to me, I know what's best for you, even if you don't want it.

So I vacillate between wondering if Bloom should remain a social enterprise or whether the workers' cooperative idea can become a reality. But I never intended for Bloom to be my own personal company; I've only ever wanted to be able to leave the Cambodians a business that will help sustain their livelihoods and something they will be proud to call their own.

At the same time I do worry it will fall apart if I leave--I know of one case where American missionaries set up a project and left it to the Khmer team and it fell apart. In the end a Cambodian who had lived overseas bought it at a bargain price and proceeded, privately, to change its mission and structure, but kept its name. It's now a sole proprietorship despite appearances to the contrary.

Other times I am optimistic. I think the younger generation are different--more ambitious and willing to learn and take risks. Bloom made it a point to hire uneducated and poor single mothers in their late 30s and early 40s, and this generation of Cambodians which grew up during the Khmer Rouge rule has a very different worldview from the young. The middle-aged women seem happy to follow, but not lead.

I am lucky to have Sina, the young man who is managing the business in Phnom Penh. He seems genuinely interested and a friend of mine is paying for his university education so his English is improving all the time, which makes it easier for me to teach him stuff. I just got Sina to come up to Siem Reap for four days so I was able to sit with him and share my plans now for Bloom. It is still the same plan, but now we are working towards a deadline. I want to be able to live somewhere else where I can be more helpful to Bloom, where purchasing power is greater so we make more money for the same amount of effort, and where it is easy to do global business.

Expensive courier costs, bank and Internet fees-- these are just some of the obstacles to growing our business here. And let us not forget the corruption, which causes inefficiencies--what are the true costs of doing business in Cambodia, minus all the bribes? One will never know.

We'll see if I succeed in this. Life is never easy, and plans go awry all the time, but I think it's good to have a plan and an exit strategy because people, me included, like the future to be clear.


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