Monday, April 27, 2009

Pirate Bay's co-founder in Cambodia?

A talented photographer tumnei (which means "having spare time" in Khmer) left a message on my post on Pirate Bay to tell me Britain's channel 4 news reported that one of Pirate Bay's four founders is in Cambodia.

That co-founder is Gottfrid Svartholm aka Anakata and the news was probably based on this interview with Peter Sunde, another co-founder.:

TF: We’ve heard rumors that Anakata traveled to Cambodia after the trial. Is he meeting King Kong there or is there another explanation?

Peter: I’m not sure if he’s in Cambodia - he travels a bit for a customer that he’s working with. But, I think he’s in Asia at least. And yeah, he’s probably drinking cider with King Kong one of these days.
Who is this client "King Kong" and where is he? Certainly not in the "jungles of Cambodia"! (People are often surprised when I tell them Cambodia is technologically quite sophisticated -- we have our own satellite dish for broadband internet, for instance, an option not available in Singapore).

Far from the jungles, I bet it is someone in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Is he Khmer or a foreigner and what does he want Anakata to do for him (I bet it's a him, too!). If anyone knows, please tell me! I am so curious...!

Anyway, here is the quote by the defense attorney, but no doubt he was being facetious

Day 3: The day began with the presenting of the amended charges. The prosecution then explained their damages claim. They reasoned that every download was a lost sale, and that’s where some of the charges come from. However, in the case where material was made available before official release, or in cases where there was no official release, they charged up to 10x as much. The defense argued that The Pirate Bay only offers a service, and some users use the service to break copyright. However, it’s perfectly legal (as per specific European Union law) to still provide that service. Per Samuelsson, one of the defense attorneys, spoke at length that the IFPI should be trying to find the users that made the copyright material available – users with such names as King Kong. He suggested searching the jungle of Cambodia for such a user.
From, the student paper of Illinois Institute of Technology, since 1897.

Letter from Mu Sochua

The nation's Aung San Suu Kyi. Let's hope the international community sits up and listens, and acts.

Letter from Mu Sochua:

As I Walk to Prison

Between 1975-79, over 1.7 million Cambodian women, men and children were killed by the Khmer Rouge, among them my parents. The world community knew about it but watched from afar. Cambodia has come out of genocide and on the road to reconstruction but this stage of reconstruction is stuck and in many ways quickly falling back to point zero. 30 years after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has made some progress but too small. Over 2,000 innocent Cambodian women die every year of childbirth, at least one million Cambodian children go to bed hungry every night, hundreds of thousands Cambodian children and female youth are ruined in brothels, over 200,000 families have been brutally forced of their land and homes, and over 75% of Cambodia's forests have now been destroyed. Innocent lives of my people could be saved if justice were served, if top leaders of my broken nation were less greedy, if development were meant for all.

I left Cambodia as an innocent young adolescent because the Vietnam war was approaching and hundreds and thousands of sick, wounded and hungry families were already telling us that Cambodia was lost. I returned home 18 years later with two young children, to a nation in ruins. A new beginning gave us hope when the UN came to help Cambodia organize its first democratic election in 1993. It cost the world community 2 billion dollars. I became a leader in the women's movement, moving communities and walking the peace walk in city streets and dirt roads to pray for non-violence. I joined politics and became the first woman to lead the women's ministry that was lead by a man, campaigned nationwide to put an end to human trafficking, authored the draft law on domestic violence, signed treaties with neighboring countries to protect our women and children from being prosecuted as illegal migrants but to receive proper treatment as victims of sex slavery.

I witness violence not as a victim but I listen to hundreds and thousands of women and children speak of the shame, the violation, the soul that is taken away when violence is afflicted on their bodies and on their minds. As a politician I always try to take action, to walk to the villages where life seems to have stopped for centuries, I challenge the top leadership of the government - I question international aid.

Today, I am faced with the real possibility of going to jail because as self-defense I dare to sue the prime minister of Cambodia , a man who has ruled this nation for 30 years. Having been assaulted to the point where I stood half exposed in front of men, by a general I caught using a state car to campaign for the party of the prime minister, I found myself assaulted again, this time verbally by the prime minister who compares me to a woman hustler who grabbed men for attention.

Within days my parliamentary immunity will be lifted so the court can "investigate" my case. This is normal procedure for politicians from the opposition party or human rights activists or the poor who cannot bribe court officials. I will be detained in the notorious prison of "Prey Sar" for as long as the courts wish to take.

Many of my colleagues in the opposition, including my party leader have faced this fate for speaking out.

Cambodia receives close to a billion dollars in 2009 from the international community, the USA contributing close to 60 million. Is the world still watching in silence while Cambodia is now ruled by one man? Is the world afraid to say that its aid is actually taking Cambodia backwards?

Let no Cambodian children go to bed hungry anymore. Let no Cambodian woman be sold anymore.

We must walk tall despite being people bent from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge, which is still a part of us. Let us not let our leaders and the world-community use this trauma to give us justice by the teaspoon.

Let there be real justice.

Mu Sochua
Elected Member of Parliament
Sam Rainsy Party

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ms Mu Sochua vs Mr Hun Sen

The dispute between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) MP is cranking up:
Regarding this dispute, during his travel to Kampot on 04 April, Hun Sen attacked "a woman" whom he declined to name her name: "In this province, there is a woman known to be a provocateur. She tripped on someone, but she accused him of unbuttoning her blouse," Hun Sen claimed. Mu Sochua declared that she was indignant of Hun Sen's speech. She said that Hun Sen was referring to her dispute with a CPP activist which dated to July 2008. During the general election campaign in Kampot, the SRP candidate tried to stop a car bearing the army license plate which took part in the CPP procession. Her goal was to take a picture of it to use as a proof to her complaint to the National Election Committee (NEC). During the altercation, Mu Sochua said that she sustained violence from the CPP activists. A button of her blouse popped out also.
According to Article 63 of the current penal code, defamation in Cambodia may include a fine of 1 to 10 million riels (US$250 to US$2,500).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

18 year age difference on average between Khmer brides and Korean men in Yeongnam

In today's JoongAng Daily of Korea is an article called "Harry Potter and the Trophy Wife". I found this bit interesting:

It is hard to find such an example [of leaders and their trophy wives] in Korea, but social leaders who marry trophy wives are not rare in other Asian countries such as China and Japan.

This is probably because of the social atmosphere that demands moral dignity together with material success.

However, it is a different story when it comes to wives from Southeast Asia. According to a report on current international marriages in the agricultural region of Yeongnam at the end of 2007, the average age difference between brides and grooms was 12 years.

It was 18 years when the bride was from Vietnam or Cambodia.
This is within the "20" policy Taiwan has for foreign brides: The age difference between spouses should be less than 20 years and brides also must be at least 20 years old.

In Phnom Penh, I met two Cambodian women at a shop selling used rice sacks who were both married to Taiwanese men. One left the man because of gambling problems, she said, taking her daughter with her. The other one was here on a visit to see her family and she enjoys living in Taiwan. They both spoke fluent Mandarin which was how we communicated. It seems on average, Taiwanese men spend USD $10,000 on these marriages, but only USD $500 to USD $1,000 goes to the bride's family. Brokers keep the bulk of it. This information from Wikipedia's Mail-Order Bride , which also has some curious statistics published by the Swiss:

In 1999, the divorce rate for domestic marriages (Swiss married to Swiss) in Switzerland were at a record high of 50%. In the same year (1999):

- Divorce rate between Swiss and German or Italian women: 40% .
- Divorce rate between Swiss and Brazilian or Thai women: 30%
- Divorce rate between Swiss and Columbian women: 20%
- Divorce rate between Swiss and women from the Dominican Republic: 60%
- Divorce rate between Swiss and Philippine women: 45%.
"It can thus be concluded that the chance of survival of marriages to mail-order-brides does depend heavily on the bride's country of origin. Also, income and age difference play an important role. It could be statistically shown that the probability of a divorce declines 20% if the husband earned an income of more than 50,000 USD per year, and that the probability of a divorce increases if the age difference between groom and bride exceeds 15 years."
A young Cambodian woman I know who just returned from visiting her grandmother in Australia and wants to live there is considering paying USD50,000 to an Australian man for a fake marriage. I asked her what if the Australian government finds out? "Oh, they will make me leave the country."

The financial crisis is hitting Asian brides and some, though not all, brokers are slashing prices:
"However, unlike his rivals at Vietnam Brides International, Janson said he has no plans to lower his fees. "I'm providing true virgins checked by Singapore doctors, so I can't cut my price," he explained. (Apparently, this is important because the more unscrupulous agencies get fake ‘virginity' certificates from dodgy Vietnamese doctors)

A quick look at his website does appear to show that Janson's services (he specialises in "beautiful virgin Vietnamese brides") are a lot cheaper than his rivals. He is currently offering an all-inclusive ‘bride selection tour' to Vietnam from just S$388 (USD260.5)."
The writer, from London's The Telegraph, had an amusing conclusion:
"But as countries such as Vietnam get richer, the number of women willing to be sold into marriages will decline. So, if the UK does slide into an extended Japan-style slump and economic power continues to shift to Asia, I wonder if 10 or 20 years down the line, it will be British women coming to Singapore, Beijing or even Hanoi to find a rich Asian husband."

Playing social enterprise tour guide

Tomorrow I will be in Phnom Penh where I will meet a group of students and their professor from INSEAD, the business school. INSEAD has a campus in Singapore and the MBA students will be visiting Cambodia for a field trip on social entrepreneurship. Which is why their lecturer contacted me. We will be spending a few days in Phnom Penh and a couple in SIem Reap and it is a packed schedule, so I don't expect I will be updating the blog for a week.

The group comprises Dutch, Austrian, Irish, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Philippines and even a Mongolian lady. Very interesting. We've got a good programme going: the UNDP, Hagar, Acleda Bank, Friends, Shinta Mani, Artisans D'Angkor, the Temple Garden Foundation, the charity arm of Nagathom, an agricultural produce company, and of course, Bloom. I've always wanted to find out more about how these big NGOs work so it'll be a good opportunity. Bloom is tiny compared to these organisations and it will be interesting to learn how they grew to be so dominant.

There is a research paper by Oxford's Said Business School Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained which purports to "Address the critical gaps in risk-taking capital for social enterprises":
"What we are talking about is the need for large chunks of capital that play the role of equity capital (or “equity-like” capital, in the case of nonprofits) that may then be used by social enterprises to aggressively grow and replicate their operations, penetrate new markets, build intellectual property, brand presence and so forth. In the following chapters we will explore why this capital gap exists and why this type of capital is so critical, explain what forms of capital are available, and put forward some ideas regarding capital innovations."
This is what I have been thinking about, because after two and a half years, Bloom is at the stage where we should be enjoying good growth. But we are not, simply because we are limited by my personal funds.

I've been very bloody minded about not getting large scale cash infusions for Bloom - whether through donations or through "equity-like" capital, because (a) I disagree with the aid model and (b) I would like Bloom to be a cooperative, owned by the workers and not the VCs who throw us money but don't do any work and yet get equity in return.

So the only option is to grow slowly, just like any privately-owned SME (small to medium enterprise), which isn't such a bad thing - isn't patience a virtue?

I say "large scale" because two of my friends, Khim, from secondary school and Leon, from junior college, so people I have known for more than 20 years each, have given Bloom money. Khim's donation is going towards Sina's university education while I don't even know how much Leon gave! He is such a super guy he did not even tell me how much he deposited into my Singapore bank account when he did it. When I asked him how much, he simply replied, "not enough." I am so lucky to have friends like this. (I have very few friends - forget Facebook, where I have some 300! - but they are all people I trust with my life). There is also a couple living in Malaysia, Ian and Gene, who gave Bloom USD200 some time ago.

So anyway, I am looking forward to meeting with Cambodia's famous NGOs to see how they operate. I will let readers know what I find out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pirate Bay - get 22 million users to pay your legal fees!

Cambodia, like much of Asia, is a playground for pirates. Of the cyberspace kind, not the deep sea kind. Not only can you get pirated DVDs and software for less than USD2 each, Cambodia even has its own national pirated TV channel.

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh in 2006, I was amazed at the TV channel that would play the latest Hollywood flick, complete with bobbing heads in a cinema, laughter from the movie audience and poor sound quality. Even more amazing: mangled English subtitles, Cambodian-style, which means someone took the time to sub the movie before playing it to Cambodian audiences. Perhaps it is Cambodia's version of public (i.e., government-sponsored) TV to teach Khmers English!

In between movies you would see "Sony DVD Player" as someone would change movie discs.

I grew to love that channel, my companion in insomnia. I remember re-watching "Fight Club" at 3am one morning and how happy I was. Alas, there is no such TV channel in Siem Reap. We also get different TV channels (no Star World, for instance) in Siem Reap, although we do get more than 80 channels. All for USD5 a month. How can cable TV be dirt cheap and Internet so expensive? It must be that all the cable TV channels we get are pirated too...

Today I read in The Local, Sweden's news in English, that the judge who sentenced the four guys behind Pirate Bay to one year in jail and US$3.6 million in damages is a member of the same copyright protection organisations as several of the main entertainment industry representatives.

I love the message the founders left on the Pirate Bay Web site after last Friday's sentence:
“Don’t worry - we’re from the internets. It’s going to be alright. :-)”
One writer, on, observed there is a fine line between Pirate Bay and search engines like Google. Pirate Bay, like Google, does not host any of the files they are accused of sharing. It is just a search engine, like Google, except that Pirate Bay looks for torrent sites that contain both legal and illegal content.
"While using torrents actually is more difficult until you get use to downloading them both Google and Microsoft through their respective search engines provide direct links to easily downloadable files. so what is the difference here? Why is it okay for Microsoft or Google to use the exact same excuse that the guys running Pirate Bay used and yet while they go to jail, Google and Microsoft get a free pass."
So why go after Pirate Bay and not Google or Microsoft?

If the issue is Pirate Bay is small fry compared with the deep pockets of Google, well, they do have 22 million users . If each user were to stump up USD1, Pirate Bay will be able to hire the best lawyers money can buy.

I think the issue revolves around this: Google and MSN and what not can claim their searches are primarily not used for piracy. Only a fraction of Google searches are for pirated MP3 downloads; the bulk, they will claim, is legitimate searches. Whereas, I believe, most of Pirate Bay's searches are for illegal downloads.

To me, the case is like this: There's a hole in a bookshop and someone (Pirate Bay) found the hole and pointed people (Pirate Bay users) to it, whereupon they help themselves to the books. Can the person who pointed out the hole be held legally and financially responsible for the crime of the actual thieves? It's like the law cannot catch the 22 million thieves, so they are making a scapegoat of the four young men who found the hole.

No longer ad-free!

Well, my survey results are in! 88% of voters (albeit only 9) say to go for it and have ads on this blog, so I just signed up for Google's Adsense. We'll see what happens and how much or little I make. WIll keep readers posted in case you're thinking of monetizing *your* blog...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mental illness in Cambodia

Dr Andrew Grimes who in 1999, founded Tokyo Counselling Services left me an interesting comment on my post Suicide in Asia .

Dr Grimes pointed readers to this site, which notes in a 2002 newsletter:
During the Pol Pot period from 1975 to 1979 it is estimated that 1.7 million people were killed or died in captivity.

The two psychiatrists practicing in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 were sent to do farm labour disappeared without trace. The only Mental Health Hospital, built in 1960's, was closed. Psychiatric patients were killed or sent to work in the fields.

Now in 2002 in Cambodia serving a population of about 12 million people there are approximately only 350 mental health care providers including 20 psychiatrists, 20 psychiatric nurses and 215 psychiatric clinical psychologists. Through the incredible efforts of people like these individual psychiatric practice and individual and group counseling programs have been established in Phnom Pen and some of the provinces of Cambodia.
I did a bit of research and found this report Developing Psychiatric Training and Services in Cambodia, which notes, "In 1979 none of 43 surviving medical doctors in Cambodia were psychiatrists."

It was only in 1993, under the first Cambodian National Health Plan that psychiatry was made a priority. At that time, there must have been many traumatised and depressed people among the 10 million Cambodians.

In the beginning, 10 Cambodian physicians were trained under the Norwegian-funded Cambodian Mental Health Development Program, which was jointly implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the University of Oslo, and the Cambodian Ministry of Health. They also spent two months learning inpatient psychiatry in Thailand.

In the fall of 1998, about 2,000 consultations were performed each month. "Depression and mixed anxiety-depression were clearly the most common primary diagnoses, followed by schizophrenia and panic disorder."

Things did not seem to be much different 6 years later, in 2004. Household survey of psychiatric morbidity in Cambodia in Kampong Cham province found this:
- 42.4% reported symptoms that met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition criteria for depression

- 53% displayed high anxiety symptoms and 7.3% met post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) criteria.

- Post-traumatic symptoms of intrusion and avoidance were present in 47.8% and 45.4% respectively.

- When reviewing co-morbidities [which is the presence of one or more disorders (or diseases) in addition to a primary disease or disorder], 29.2% had depression and anxiety symptoms, 16.5% anxiety symptoms, 6.1% depression and 7.1% had triple comorbidity (PTSD, depression and anxiety).

- Regarding social functioning, 25.3% reported being socially impaired. Respondents with comorbid symptoms for depression, anxiety and PTSD were associated with an increased risk for social impairment compared with others.

- Being over 65 years and having experienced violent events were other factors associated with social impairment.

Conclusion: Five years after the return of a more stable context in Cambodia, the prevalence of psychiatric symptoms in the community remains high. In addition, these symptoms are strongly associated with social impairment. This suggests that beyond psychosocial programs, the implementation of adapted clinical psychiatric care should be considered as a priority.
There has been progress in psychiatric training here in Cambodia. In 2006 alone, 13 years on from the project, the IOM reports that 26 psychiatrists were trained to international standards. Others trained include 40 psychiatric nurses and 254 general practitioners and 269 non-specialized nurses (three months’ basic training in psychiatry) .

Last year, I had written about Superstitions and mental illness among Khmers, and I found this, from the first report mentioned, really interesting:
"Cambodian psychiatrists must be conversant with the beliefs of their countrymen. Most patients presenting with severe mental illness first consult traditional Cambodian healers, either monks or kru khmer. They may be told that their illness results from having angered the spirits of their ancestors. Possible traditional remedies include herbs and ceremonies conducted to appease the spirits of the ancestors. While these treatments may be helpful with certain nonpsychotic difficulties, they are generally regarded as less effective in the treatment of psychosis.
It is something Westerners and other foreigners like me have to keep in mind. I sometimes lose patience with superstitious people, but it is not easy to change traditional beliefs. Just recently, Sina had an operation for tonsillitis and was told by the Khmer doctor to eat only fish and pork, no other meat and no eggs or cold drinks. He met a friend of mine, Simone, a Swiss nurse who was volunteering here who told him it's ok to eat all of the above and that ice-cream in particular can soothe his throat. Sina's eyes widened as he looked in disbelief. He genuinely believes that both prescriptions are correct; it's just that one works for foreigners and one for Cambodians.

Monday, April 20, 2009

10 highest paid politicians in the world

This Times of London blog listed "The 10 highest paid politicians in the world" and number one is Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which led Singapore Rebel and others to note the Times has got it all wrong--the best paid politicians in the world are all from Singapore! Just check out the second list below....

The Times' List:
1. Lee Hsien Loong - Singapore
Salary in dollars - $2.47 million
Salary in local currency - S$3.76 million

2. Donald Tsang Yum-Kuen - Hong Kong
Salary in dollars - $516,000
Salary in local currency - HK$4 million

3. Barack Obama - United States
Salary in dollars - $400,000

4. Brian Cowen - Ireland
Salary in dollars - $341,000
Salary in local currency - €257,000

5. Nicolas Sarkozy - France
Salary in dollars - $318,000
Salary in local currency - €240,000

6. Angela Merkel - Germany
Salary in dollars - $303,000
Salary in local currency - €228,000

7. Gordon Brown - UK
Salary in dollars - $279,000
Salary in local currency - £194,250

8. Stephen Harper - Canada
Salary in dollars - $246,000
Salary in local currency - C$311,000

9. Taro Aso - Japan
Salary in dollars - $243,000
Salary in local currency - Y24 million

10. Kevin Rudd - Australia
Salary in dollars - $229,000
Salary in local currency - A$330,000
And here are Singapurakini's estimates :

The TOP 30 highest paid politicians in the world are all from Singapore (all in Singapore dollars):
1. Elected President SR Nathan - S$3.9 million.
2. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - S$3.8 million.
3. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew - S$3.5 million.
4. Senior Minister Goh Chok Thong - S$3.5 million.
5. Senior Minister Prof Jayakumar - S$3.2 million.
6. DPM & Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng - S$2.9 million.
7. DPM & Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean - $2.9 million
8. Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo - S$2.8 million.
9. National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan - S$2.7 million.
10. PMO Miniser Lim Boon Heng - S$2.7 million.
11. Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang - S$2.7 million.
12. PMO Minister Lim Swee Say - S$2.6 million.
13. Environment Minister & Muslim Affairs Minister Dr Yaccob Ibrahim - S$2.6 million.
14. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan - S$2.6 million.
15. Finance Minister S Tharman - S$2.6 million.
16. Education Minister & 2nd Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen - S$2.6 million.
17. Community Development Youth and Sports Minister - Dr Vivian Balakrishnan - S$2.5 million.
18. Transport Minister & 2nd Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim Siang Kiat - S$2.5 million.
19. Law Minister & 2nd Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam - S$2.4 million.
20. Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong - S$2.2 million.
21. PMO Minister Lim Hwee Hwa - S$2.2 million
22. Acting ICA Minister - Lui Tuck Yew - S$2.0 million.
23 to 30 = Senior Ministers of State and Ministers of State - each getting between S$1.8 million to S$1.5 million.
No wonder young Singaporeans have a sense of entitlement. How can you not when your leaders believe they are worth the millions they pay themselves?

A Singaporean businessman and friend of mine complained that Singaporeans make less attractive employees, compared with Malaysian, Chinese or Indian workers. These foreign workers, he said, understand that they have to contribute more to the company in order to earn a higher salary. In contrast, Singaporeans want more and more pay, without actually doing more. A young Singaporean actually told my friend at a job appraisal: "What you pay a foreign worker is a lot for them, but it's not a lot for a Singaporean. So why should we work so hard?" He wasn't being facetious, just matter-of-fact.

I remember when I worked in Singapore, people would get annual pay increments, regardless of performance. This happened because the labour market was tight. Every year, every one in the company would get a pay rise. It became an expected practice, just like getting a 13th month bonus (for every 12 months you worked).

I've always thought that Singapore's curse is mediocrity. The nation is so small and with little unemployment (back then anyway), there is hardly any competition. You don't have to be very smart to get ahead in Singapore. I've met so many MDs, VPs, GMs and other people with big job titles who were absolutely mediocre. Of course, some of these people end up becoming MPs.

Jews in Singapore and Cambodia

I just discovered this about the playwright Tom Stoppard:

Born Tomáš Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, Stoppard fled to Singapore with other Jews on 15 March 1939, the day that the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. In 1941, the family was evacuated to Darjeeling, India, to escape the Japanese invasion of Singapore. His father, Eugene Straussler, remained behind as a British army volunteer, and died in a Japanese prison camp after capture. From wikipedia.

I wondered how many Jews fled to Singapore during the Second World War and found this on

"The first Jews to settle there were of Baghdadi origin, mainly from India, who migrated to Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post in Singapore in 1819, to find new opportunities."

"An interesting and influential figure at the turn of the century was Sir Manasseh Meyer. A rich Jew (who was then probably the wealthiest in the Far East), he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his part in raising the cultural level of the Singapore territory." [Meyer Road is still one of the priciest streets in Singapore].

"Today, there are just over 300 hundred local Jews left, together with the many expatriates and foreign workers, the Singapore Jewish community holds steady at approximately 1000. Both synagogues are active. Despite the small numbers, our community has much to offer her members; a good Jewish education for the youth, weekly discussions, up to the minute gossip and Sabbath luncheons and dinners, which will help to keep the spark burning for generations to come."

As well, Singapore's first Chief Minister, David Marshall was a Jew.

I could not find anything about the first Jews who arrived in Cambodia. There must have been as I am sure the Jewish diaspora, like the Chinese, went all over the world. There must have been Jews who came to Cambodia during French rule. In fact, wikipedia notes "the first Jews to visit Vietnam likely arrived following the French colonization of the country in the latter half of the 19th century." History of Jews in Vietnam.

I did come across this blog, whose writer had met Adollah, former name Hanh Nen, who says that 20-plus years ago, "God told him that he had to choose between Judaism and evil. He chose Judaism, and was told that he would found a Jewish community in Cambodia....Adollah lives in Phnom Penh, maybe ten minutes away from the city center. He does not leave his house very often; God has instructed him only to eat kosher foods, and kosher food is hard to find in Cambodia. I met his son Moses ("My dad calls me Moses, but at school I am Somnang")". There are photos of Adollah on the blog.

And in 2007: "At the behest of The Cambodia Daily publisher Bernard Krisher and at their own expenses-three Lubavitchers landed in Phnom Penh for Cambodia's first-ever organized service for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the holiest of all Jewish holidays."

“We have a responsibility to educate our brothers. How are we supposed to rectify the world if we stay within the confines of a synagogue?” Saadya Notik, a 25 year old rabbi from Brooklyn, NY, asked. The report Rabbis Do Work of 'Repairing World' in Cambodia also notes:

"One curious Cambodian sat in the back row for Friday's service, with a makeshift yarmulke, or head covering, fashioned from a handkerchief. Sok Sidon, 23, works as a peace trainer for the Khmer Youth Association and said he came, simply, for the exposure to new culture. He said he thought it would be a learning experience that could help him figure out “how to keep ourselves at peace.” Sok Sidon said he is looking forward to traveling to Svay Rieng province come October to celebrate Pchum Ben, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead.

Click this link for more updated news on the [expatriate]Jews of Cambodia : " I met a greater number of my people, perhaps forty of them, at a Hanukkah party in early December. Menorahs were lit, latkes were eaten, and dreidels were spun. Fortunately, no Mainschewitz was to be found anywhere. There were Americans, Belgians, Poles, Frenchmen (and women), and even a Kiwi!"

There was also this story I found: "There are many Jews in the kingdom of China: they are the ones who built, in Cambodia, the city of Angkor which, as I said, was discovered in 1570. They abandoned it when they emigrated to China, according to what the Jews from the East Indies told me when, passing through there, I conversed with them about that matter." Hahahahaha! From "Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog".

This reminds me of the Chinese who claim they invented golf.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cosmetic surgery in Cambodia

When we first moved to Cambodia, one of our Khmer friends working with a local NGO told us of the importance of having "White face, sharp nose", especially when it comes to securing funding. Westerners trust a fellow Westerner over a Khmer (or any other Asian apparently), he said.

I was reminded of this "White face, sharp nose" comment when I read this AFP story"Cambodia cosmetic surgery booms amid dubious quality":

"I'm very afraid, but ready for it," said Phorn Lisa, a 25-year-old at a prominent cosmetic surgery clinic in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. "I want to have a beautiful sharp nose because I'm not satisfied with my Cambodian big nose."

Meanwhile, Veasna, 40, profoundly regrets the face lift she had at a cheap clinic. Her face is swollen and red, especially around the eyes. "I've been in terrible pain," she said, visibly upset and awaiting corrective surgery. "But I want to look young and beautiful. Otherwise, my husband will run away with other girls."

Incredibly, the owner of a clinic in Phnom Penh claims Cambodia is a place for medical tourism, serving clients from the US, France and Australia. "They mostly come for nose jobs, silicon implants, breast enlargements and scar revisions," the owner of one clinic, Davy Ariya said. The cost is between 280 to 600 USD for a nose job and 1500 to 1700 for a boob job. I say incredible because the prices may be lower than elsewhere but so are medical regulatory standards. There's hardly any recourse if the beautician does a botched job. What medical tourist would risk that?

It seems Cambodian women aim for "what they perceive as the more delicate looks of popular Korean and Chinese film stars."

Most evil companies in the world

Contribute your own nomination ofthe most evil companies in the world here. The list so far (not in order of evilness):

1. De Beers, whose founder Cecil Rhodes believed:

“We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.” [So not much has changed in a century].

Mark Twain's summation of Rhodes: "I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake." From Chapter LXIX of Following the Equator.

2. Bechtel
3. Blackwater
4. Rio Tinto
5. Siemens
6. Custer Battles
7. Congo Free State
8. DynCorp
9. James Hardie
10. Chiquita/United Fruit

11. Ford Motors - Adolf Hitler kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration," Hitler told a Detroit News reporter two years before becoming the Chancellor of Germany in 1933. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, Ford was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal awarded by Nazi Germany to foreigners.

12. Walmart - From AP:
JACKSON, Mo. -- A collision with a semi-trailer truck seven years ago left 52-year-old Deborah Shank permanently brain-damaged and in a wheelchair. Her husband, Jim, and three sons found a small source of solace: a $700,000 accident settlement from the trucking company involved. After legal fees and other expenses, the remaining $417,000 was put in a special trust. It was to be used for Mrs. Shank's care.

Instead, all of it is now slated to go to Mrs. Shank's former employer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Two years ago, the retail giant's health plan sued the Shanks for the $470,000 it had spent on her medical care. A federal judge ruled last year in Wal-Mart's favor, backed by an appeals-court decision in August. Now, her family has to rely on Medicaid and Mrs. Shank's social-security payments to keep up her round-the-clock care.

Since then, her son was killed in Iraq.

[Updated Info from a reader, Sheri, who informs me Walmart did eventually give the money back to Deborah Shank, after much public outcry. I noted a good company would not have taken the money in the first place, especially one for whom USD470,000 is pocket change. Walmart is the world's largest public corporation by revenue, according to the 2008 Fortune Global 500. Four of the Walmart heirs (although only 2 are involved in the running of the company) are living off more than USD23 BILLION EACH.

13. Whole Foods
14. ExxonMobil
15. Nestle
16. Smithfield Farms
17. Union Carbide

The amazing Mu Sochua

For people who have not heard of this incredible Cambodian woman:

Left Cambodia in the early 1970s, won a scholarship to Berkeley and worked as a counselor and translator for Cambodian refugees; became a US citizen. Then organised schooling for Cambodian children and social services for women in the refugee camps set up by the UN on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

Finally able to enter Cambodia in 1989. Founded the first women’s organization in Cambodia, Khemara. In 1998 ran for election and won a seat in parliament. She was the first woman ever to run the Women's Affairs Ministry.

In 2002, mobilised 25,000 women candidates to run for commune elections in 2002, and more than 900 women were elected. Also negotiated an agreement with Thailand allowing Cambodian women trafficked as sex workers to return to their home country instead of being jailed.

Stepped down in 2004 to join the opposition. In 2005 she was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women.

Read more about Mu Sochua here and here.

Update: click here for Mu Sochua's letter.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Suicides in Asia rising in recession

Today I read in UK's The Independent newspaper: "Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure." Falling water levels, no doubt contributed by global warming, has resulted in fewer crops for the farmers.

I tried to find out how many Cambodians commit suicide but unsurprisingly, there are no available statistics. When I lived in Phnom Penh, I knew of two suicides in the neighbourhood. Both were due to domestic disputes: an elderly man killed himself after drinking and quarreling with his wife. The other one was a woman. (Just on domestic violence: there is the infamous case of a woman killing her husband because of his gambling losses. The couple owned one of the most popular Chinese restaurants on Monivorng Boulevard which subsequently shut down).

A 2008 report on Singapore's suicide rates found that the number of suicides dropped from 419 in 2006 to 374 in 2007 (about 2% of total deaths). This was the first decrease in four years and the reduction was attributed to the 2007's strong economy. “Unemployment figures are known to have cause and effect on suicide figures,” Ms Christine Wong, executive director of suicide prevention group Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) was quoted as saying.

"Rise in suicides across Asia feared amid recession" is an April 2, 2009 story:
"Suicide Prevention Services, a non-governmental group in Hong Kong, said it had seen a 45 percent increase in calls for help in the past three months, compared with the same period last year."


"During a recession, there's definitely bound to be a jump in cases of suicide, mainly because of unemployment," said Chia Boon Hock, who runs a private psychiatric practice in Singapore.

Chia, who has studied suicide trends in Singapore, added that the three main peaks occurred during the Great Depression, before and during World War Two and in 1985, the first year the Singapore economy had fallen into recession since independence 20 years earlier.
A spokesperson for SOS says official figures show there are 7 attempts for every successful suicide in Singapore, but the figure is likely to be higher, as not every attempted suicide is reported. It is illegal to attempt suicide in Singapore and anyone who survive faces a jail term of up to a year, a fine or both. It is funny that some believe the corpses of suicide victims in Singapore are caned because they still need to be punished for the crime. I'm sure it's not true simply because it is a waste of resources in efficient Singapore.

South Korea is the Asian country with the highest suicide rate, ranking #8 on a international list. Japan is #11, Hong Kong #18, the PRC #26, India #46, Singapore #48, Thailand #57, the Philippines #86. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Burma do not figure.

I did find this bizarre news item about suicide in Cambodia. Roger Graham, a strange Californian who lived in Kampot, ran a website which stated: "In Cambodia anything is possible. For those of you who prefer to take charge of your own destiny, come to Cambodia! Live your life the way you want and end it when you are ready."

In 2005, a British woman found the site and sent emails. She arrived in Kampot where a few days later, she wrote a five-page suicide note and overdosed on medicines and alcohol in a £5-a-night guesthouse.

Graham was then 57 years old and owned the Blue Mountain Coffee and Internet Cafe in Kampot. He was eventually deported by the Cambodian government. "Cambodia is not the place for foreigners to kill themselves," National Deputy Police chief Gen. Sok Phal was quoted as saying.

One last point on suicide: in the US, reports The New York Times , there has been an usually large increases in suicides among the middle-aged, which is puzzling researchers. The suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. For women 45 to 54, the rate leapt 31 percent. “That is certainly a break from trends of the past,” said Ann Haas, the research director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Computer shops in Cambodia

Well, we finally had the chance to test out Future World, the authorised reseller of Apple products here in Siem Reap. I had bought an internal hard drive for Alan's old iBook from Singapore, a Samsung 160GB with a USB case for a total of SGD95 (about USD63). We brought it to Future World to get it installed into the iBook.

We left the laptop there and my handphone number and the shop called me when it was ready. It took about an hour and a half, as they said it would and cost us USD15 (including getting the old hard drive put into the new case). The guys also cleaned the iBook so it looked shiny and new. We were happy it worked fine when we brought it home.

I found out Future World is actually owned by Singapore-listed Thakral Corp. In 2008, Forbes listed Mr Kartar Singh Thakral 30 out of 40 of Singapore's richest.

Thakral also owns IT solutions provider Neeka Limited, with offices in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Its office is also on Sivutha, and we checked out prices, which were of course higher than those in Singapore, since the stuff is sent from Singapore.

It is interesting many of the well-known IT companies here are Singapore-owned or co-owned. Deam Computer on Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Boulevard is another Singapore-based one. It was founded in Cambodia in 1996 and the management team listed on its site all have Singaporean Chinese names. It is probably owned by the Kweks, since the MD is Michael Kwek and Executive Director, Derek Kwek.

I was told that iOne, another shop that sells Apple products is co-owned by a Singaporean. In fact one of the Singaporean managers contacted me a while back about a possible partnership with Bloom. I tried Googling iOne and was surprised to find that iOne does not have its own website, so I cannot tell much about the company.

I guess it is unsurprising, since Singapore understands well the importance of IT. I used to work in IT publishing and used to know the region's CIOs (Chief Information Officers), IT directors and the like. Sometimes I think I should help promote understanding of IT in Cambodia by inviting this group of people to share case studies on how they've used IT to improve their business. But I feel too tired to take on another project. (Another one of my crazy ideas is to be a concert promoter, bringing in bands who already have gigs elsewhere in the region, haha).

Anyway, back to Future World. While we were there, there were 2 groups of Khmers who were looking to buy a Mac. I was told by one of the managers there that 70% of Siem Reap's residents use the Mac and of this group, 30% are expats. I have no idea how he measured this, but 70% sounds high to me, especially when you consider all the Internet shops and phone music download shops and printing shops that use second-hand PCs that can be bought for USD200 each.

I tried to find information on the size of Cambodia's IT market but all I could find was this outdated, 2005 report by Springboard Research, a--surprise, surprise--Singapore-based company. The nine-page report is still being sold online for a ridiculous USD1750.

Anyway, the point is that there is a growing group of Cambodians who are taking up the Mac. And it's a wise thing too, in this country where PC viruses are rampant. Sina told me just last week that his friend's PC completely crashed because of a virus. Every time I take my flash drive to an Internet shop here in Cambodia, I always end up with some .EXE file. There are few viruses written for the Mac so I've never had any problems with my MacBook.

Khmer Rouge Trial: The Economist

I have never written about the Khmer Rouge trial because I don't know much about it. But here is an update of what's going on: Click here to read the Economist story.

Happy Khmer New Year!

It is the happiest time of the year for Cambodians and I cannot help but smile when I see our neighbours singing and putting up decorations. On New Year's eve, one of the young women who live near our house caught me smiling at her happiness and shouted to me: "Sousaday Joul Chnam Thmei!" (Happy Khmer New Year! but literally "Enter the New Year!")

The young woman's joy reminds me of children at Christmas, or myself at Chinese New Year when I was little. My cousins and I would meet in Taiping in Perak, Malaysia, when my maternal grandma was alive. My mom is the third of 9 sisters. Ah-ma also had 2 sons, so 11 in total! Yes, incredible. Contrast this with the three my mom has and the zero I have. How things have changed in just 2 generations.

Anyway, with such a big clan, you can imagine the noise when we got together at Chinese New Year. Some 5 years ago, I brought Alan, a Scot, to Kuala Lumpur where most of our relatives now live and he was bewildered at the constant visiting, drinking and eating. There was also plenty of gambling, mostly Blackjack. This goes on non-stop for 15 days.

Khmer New Year is officially for three days only and I write here why Khmer New Year is when it is , at a different time from Chinese New Year, even though they both use the lunar calendar.

During Khmer New Year, my Cambodian friends will go to the pagoda to pray and give offerings. Some people go to the pagoda every day for the three days. Some will also donate food to poor people.

In Siem Reap's Old Market, many Cambodian-owned shops were open yesterday, the first day of New Year, but many are shut today, on the second day, which is interesting. In Singapore, Chinese New Year's Eve (when families gather to eat the Reunion Dinner) and the first day of New Year are the most important days to celebrate, so shops will shut then.

Last year, after visiting Kampong Cham to be with his family, Chhun Hy brought back Khmer New Year cakes, special food that his mother makes. One is called kralan, which is glutinous rice containing bean paste and sometimes fatty pork which is stuffed into a bamboo stick and roasted. It is very yummy. There is another powdery cake made also from bean and wrapped in paper but I forget the name.

During this time you will also see this large, hard, dark brown seed, called "angkunhs". It's not for eating, but for playing a game:"Bos Angkunh":
A game played by two groups of boys and girls. Each group throws their own "angkunh" to hit the master "angkunhs," which belong to the other group and are placed on the ground. The winners must knock the knee of the losers with the "angkunh."


Cambodians will put up large stars made from bamboo frames and multi-coloured plastic paper above the main door. They also put up fairy lights. I took some photos of the stars and will upload later. The Chinese version is red cloth and other red hangings.

Last Khmer New Year I went with a French friend who wanted to see a Khmer fortune teller. We took a tuktuk to this house in the countryside to see this man who was obviously a fake. It's worth an entry in itself.

Lunar Calendar: Cambodian New Year in April; Chinese in Jan/Feb

Khmer New Year began yesterday, the 14th April and the holidays are for three days. It usually falls around the 13th or 14th April according to the lunar calendar. In case you are wondering why it is in April, it is because April is the end of the harvesting season, when farmers can eat the fruits of their labour. New year for the Thais, Burmese and Laotians are also at this time. Unlike these three countries, though, Cambodians do not throw water at passersby on the streets during New Year. (I wish they would! April is also the hottest month in Cambodia...) You can, however, get watered at the temples - last year a French friend of mine was told to remove her clothes and given a sarong to wear before 2 buckets of cold, cold water were emptied on her!

Wikipedia says of Songkran, the Thai New Year (Moha Songkran is the Cambodian name of the first day of the new year celebration) : "The date of the festival was originally set by astrological calculation, but it is now fixed."

Contrast this with Chinese New Year and Vietnamese Tet, which also follows the lunar calendar. Why does Chinese New Year and Tet fall in January or February and not April? According to wikipedia: "The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month (Chinese: 正月; pinyin: zhēng yuè) in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th; this day is called Lantern Festival."

If you understood that, great. I don't--why is the first day of the first month in Jan/Feb and not any other month? I am sure there is some logic to it but it is too complicated for me to understand. You can have a go here:
"The zodiac sign which the sun enters during the month and the ecliptic longitude of that entry point usually determine the number of a regular month. Month 1 (正月 zhēngyuè), literally means principal month. All other months are literally numbered, second month, third month, etc."
Wikipedia also explains Chinese New Year should always be on the second new moon after the winter solstice:
"An exception will occur in 2033-2034, when the winter solstice is the second solar term in the eleventh month. The next month is a no-entry month and so is intercalary, and a twelfth month follows which contains both the Aquarius and Pisces solar terms (deep cold and rain water). The Year of the Tiger thus begins on the third new moon following the Winter Solstice, and also occurs after the Pisces (rain water) jieqi, on February 19.

"Another occurrence was in 1984-85, after the sun had entered both Capricorn at 270° and Aquarius at 300° in month 11, and then entered Pisces at 330° during the next month, which should have caused it to be month 1. The sun did not enter any sign during the next month. In order to keep the winter solstice in month 11, the month which should have been month 1 became month 12, and the month thereafter became month 1, causing Chinese New Year to occur on 20 February 1985 after the sun had already passed into Pisces at 330° during the previous month, rather than during the month beginning on that day."
Okaaaay. After a while, like most traditions and customs, people forget or fail to understand how they came to be, and just accept them, whether sensible or not, simply because things were done that way for as long as people can remember.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Blog advertisements

I received this email over 6 months ago. It's a funny one:
Dear Sir/Madam,

After visiting "Fake US dollars and what you can do with it", our company, would be interested in an advertisement on your site. We provide consumers a safe and easy way to apply for payday loans online. Our advertisement format is generally 15 words long and it will contain two to three text links, which we provide. Please let us know how much your site would charge for an ad of this size.

We look forward to your reply and the opportunity to work with you.
Thank you, [Name and Company name withheld]
At that time I was not interested in having adverts on this blog. I am ambivalent about it now. A friend of mine tells me he makes a little bit of money from Google ads. Personally I hate reading online adverts, banners and the like, so I've kept this blog ad free. But I *am* curious to see if one can make a living from blogging. That would be the perfect job for a hermit-wannabe like me. Just write from behind my computer screen and exist virtually in blogosphere. Don't have to talk to anyone!

Corrupt airport officials: luggage scam

I just received this email from a Bloom customer:

Dear Diana,

We went to the Russian market and picked up the bags and packed them into two suitcases. We went to the airport too early, were the first people to check-in, and got our boarding passes and headed upstairs. After going through customs we were stopped where they scan your hand luggage and told to go back to the counter, that something was wrong with our luggage. I stayed and Larry went to find out (I already knew what they were going to say).

They asked Larry why he had all of the bags. He said they are gifts for teachers at our school, we are a big school, the bags are great for teachers, etc., etc. He opened a bag and showed them how great it is and showed them the pockets. They said we can't let you take this many bags because it has "Made in Cambodia" on them. You have to go this office and fill out paperwork to take them out of Cambodia. Of course, the office is closed today, so you have to give us some money. They took US$40 ($20 for each of them) and told Larry that they knew he did not understand and Larry said he would never do it again. We did nothing to try and disguise the bags. We should have mixed them up with our clothes and carried some on . . .

It seemed funny to me that they would not want to buy things made in Cambodia and take them home for gifts? It wasn't an antique Buddha or anything. I thinking that perhaps we might get stopped in Singapore, but I didn't think they would care in Cambodia.

The bags look really nice and I think they will sell.
You can imagine how angry I am that these damn customs officials. They not only cheated my customers, but intimidated them. I have sold our bags to many, many customers who hand-carry the bags on the plane with them. I myself lug our bags to Singapore when I go home. This has never, ever happened to me or to any of my other customers, because there is obviously no such rule about buying and bringing Cambodian-made things out of the country, barring stolen historic artifacts, of course.

The only fee you have to pay if you are bringing things from Cambodia is at the other end, when you've arrived at your destination. There, you may have to pay GST or VAT, according to each individual country's rules. For many countries, you won't need to pay VAT or GST if the value of the items is less than USD500.

The Cambodian officials did this now because of Khmer New Year (which starts today and the holidays last for three days). Robberies and cheating always increase during Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben because people need money when they visit their families in the provinces; you can't go home empty handed, Chhun Hy told me. In fact, last Pchum Ben, Chhun Hy would not go back to Kampong Cham because he did not want to spend a lot of money on his family. I myself was cheated two Pchum Bens ago by a Cambodian woman who handed me a fake USD100 note.

I feel sorry for the country and its people when something like this happens. Do you think tourists will want to buy Cambodian products if word of this gets out? How many people would want to put up with this nonsense? You can imagine many would rather avoid similar scenes with Cambodian customs.

Anyway, just so readers know about another scam that happens in Scambodia.

More electricity woes

Someone posted a comment on my blog post Cambodia's expensive electricity:

We just received an electric bill for USD300 for last month. We are charged .28 per kwh. We believe we're being ripped off by someone in the building because we are foreigners and many friends here have told us that often times foreigners will unknowingly be paying for many people's electricity in their residence. We hate to be that suspicious, but we were away a lot of last month and left everything turned off. I'm not sure what we can do to dispute it without causing problems with management.

I've posted a reply but essentially this person is not paranoid. If you go around Phnom Penh, you will see little food stalls that have a single naked bulb lighting up their stall. The wire of that bulb is sometimes connected to a large electrical cable overhead. So somehow they have managed to tap into someone else's electricity by connecting a smaller wire to the larger cable.

It is not just Cambodians who do this extremely dangerous thing. In March, USA Today reported that more and more Americans have resorted to stealing electricity as the economic downturn continues.
"As the dismal economy spawns desperate measures, some Americans are resorting to a hazardous practice: stealing electricity.

Many utilities say energy theft has risen sharply during the economic downturn. Culprits include residential customers whose power is turned off when they fall behind on their bills and small businesses struggling to keep their doors open.

They're using a wide array of tactics. Some run wires from utility lines directly into a circuit-breaker panel, bypassing the electric meter. Others attach cables on either side of a meter, swipe meters from vacant houses when theirs are removed or tamper with meters to lower their electric bills.

"We're finding more and more people are … stealing electricity because of the poor economy," says John Hammerberg, investigations supervisor for Tampa Electric in Florida....

The practice is dangerous. Touching a power line can burn or even kill an untrained person. In Philadelphia this month, an illegal electricity hookup in a row house sparked a fire that killed a 30-year-old woman and her 8-year-old daughter."

When we first moved to our house in Siem Reap, we too had our suspicions, because our bills were for USD65 a month for the two of us compared with USD80 in Phnom Penh, where we had a cafe with 2 large fridges and the Bloom workshop with half a dozen motorised sewing machines. So I made the landlord check if someone was tapping into our electrical supply.

The best advice I can give is to anyone with this problem is to ask your landlord to install a meter or counter so you can see exactly how much you use. Not that this is full-proof: since installing a new meter after the old one broke in the Bloom shop at the Russian market, the counter jumps twice as fast. Of course this means I have to pay twice as much. We I have tried disputing with the electricity company staff who come to collect the money but it hasn't got us anywhere. It's so annoying when you know what is going on yet are not in position to do anything about it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nationalism, Protectionism

On my recent trip home to Singapore, I got into a discussion about "buying local". Protectionism always raises its head in tough economic times; it is natural for people to want to protect their jobs and their families. Today's New York Times had a good article Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules on the very topic.

Anyway, this was the email I received from a fellow Singaporean:

"Should we buy local, as much as we can? It seems like the ethical thing to do. Governments are certainly constrained by free trade agreements and whatnot, but certainly the effect that Obama has created by putting it out there in the first place has made it more of a possibility for the average citizen to pursue, even if his administration naturally is unable to. So: should we buy local? Would like to hear your thoughts on this."

I found this question relevant to one I get asked all the time, especially by the Singapore media: why do I help Khmers and not Singaporeans? Here for example is the question from the reporter (I suspect at the behest of her editor) who did the story on Bloom for the national daily, The Straits Times:

"And also was one of the reasons you decided to be based overseas was because you felt Cambodians need more help? There are Singaporean women here who are also single mothers and have no work. Did you feel that Singaporeans don't need help or didn't need as much as Cambodians do?"

Here is my response:

"Let's put it this way: the children of single mothers in Singapore are not likely to be sold as domestic or sex slaves.

But more importantly, I disagree with nationalism if it is divisive. I much prefer to think of people, of whatever nationality, as human beings. You have to understand that national boundaries are accidents of history, arbitrary--witness India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, which were divided by the British. It is not like national boundaries come drawn into the earth."

I find the question strange, and I have only ever been asked this by Singaporeans. I wonder if this is because other nationalities are more used to their citizens contributing overseas. [Not true: An aussie friend tells me she gets the same question by fellow Aussies--nationalistic people are everywhere!] Or is it because only Singaporeans feel they have a right to ask me this? I have to say this: although I was born in Singapore, I don't feel strongly "rah-rah Singapore". And I don't feel "rah-rah the Chinese" just because I was born ethnic Chinese either.

I don't know if it is just my generation (educated in Western thinking, exposed to Sesami Street as a kid, the Cosby Show, 'Allo, Allo etc etc) or the way I developed as a person (I am sometimes called a "banana", i.e., yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was told by some white South Africans that Africans like me are called coconuts: brown on the outside, white inside). I find it hard to understand people who say we have to do this and that just so we will preserve our heritage and culture. I mean seriously, why would you want to preserve a culture just because you were born into it?

What if your culture is rubbish? Like the practice of burning widows on her dead husband's pyre, a custom so abhorrent, Chhun Hy, one of our Cambodian workers, won't even believe it. Or praying to numerous altars and gods in order to get rich? It is more rational to pick and choose things that make sense to you. So for me, I reject Chinese religion, but I find it hard to disassociate myself from thoughts of filial piety because they makes sense to me.

I'm now thinking of the mainland Chinese tourists I meet. What puzzles me is how patriotic and nationalistic the Chinese are. How proud they are to be Chinese, how proud they are of China. The younger Chinese have a confidence I recognise in young Americans when I was backpacking in Europe over a decade ago. That confidence comes from being told "You come from the greatest country in the world."

More on nationalism, from wikipedia, if you are interested:
Nationalism refers to an ideology, a sentiment, a form of culture, or a social movement that focuses on the nation. While there is significant debate over the historical origins of nations, nearly all specialists accept that nationalism, at least as an ideology and social movement, is a modern phenomenon originating in Europe. Precisely where and when it emerged is difficult to determine, but its development is closely related to that of the modern state and the push for popular sovereignty that came to a head with the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Since that time, nationalism has become one of the most significant political and social forces in history, perhaps most notably as a major influence or cause of World War I and especially World War II due to the rise of fascism, a radical and authoritarian nationalist ideology.

As an ideology, nationalism holds that 'the people' in the doctrine of popular sovereignty is the nation, and that as a result only nation-states founded on the principle of national self-determination are legitimate. Since most states are multinational, or at least home to more than one group claiming national status. In many cases nationalist pursuit of self-determination has caused conflict between people and states including war (both external and domestic), secession; and in extreme cases, genocide.

The last sentence should strike home in Cambodia. Nationalism was behind the Khmer Rouge's plan to turn the country into a self-sufficient economy and behind its mistrust of foreigners and even of Cambodians themselves, those "New People" (i.e., those from urban areas). One of the Khmer Rouge mottoes, in reference to the New People, was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Nationalism is not going to go away, simply because it is necessary in governing a people in the modern state. Nationalistic feelings engender a feeling of togetherness, of community, which makes government easier (I am reminded of Seneca's comment on religion: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful"). Problems arise with nationalism (as with religion) when one people think they are better than another.

As for protectionism, if all the countries in the world were really to become protectionist, only a few countries would survive: the US, and possibly France. These are countries that are self-sufficient. Singapore would be among the first to fall, since we are a nation that survives on trade, having nothing of our own.

I do, however, like to patronise mom-and-pop shops over large chain stores because I want to support independence which ultimately benefits consumers. And also because there's probably less carbon footprint involved. In Singapore, beef, broccoli, cherries, strawberries are all airflown. Much better to buy locally grown products.


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