Thursday, June 10, 2010

Me and Mavis on NewsRadio 93.8 today

I just got an email from Shaffiq, a super nice reporter from MediaCorp who visited Siem Reap last week and contacted me about an interview. I was so surprised to see him sitting on the floor of the Bloom shop when I went to meet him. How atypical of a Singaporean! (Usually the Singaporeans I meet in Cambodia are a little haughty, and obsessed about cleanliness - no way would they sit on a shop floor in Cambodia!) Straightaway I knew I would like this guy. :)

We had a great time, having dinner and drinks almost every day he was here. Shaffiq fell in love with Siem Reap and says he will be back.

Anyway, I introduced Shaffiq to Mavis whom I've written about before. She runs Touch A Life, a food programme here in Siem Reap. Mavis just rented a house this month in order to start some sort of a soup kitchen for the rubbish collectors and other poor and needy people.

Shaffiq interviewed us on tape and edited it for the radio programme - it wasn't 'live', thank goodness! I learnt it was broadcast on radio in Singapore this morning and Shaffiq emailed me the transcript. Here it is:

10/06/10 Helping the needy in Cambodia FTR
Siem Reap, a major gateway to Cambodia, is only about two hours away by plane from Singapore.
It still has the feel of a charming sleepy little town.
However, this may change - thanks to a rise in tourist traffic as the majestic Angkor Wat lies only a stone's throw away.
Despite this development, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Many of its people are still picking up the pieces after enduring years of hardship - from a war with Vietnam that only ended in 1989 to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime that left some 1.7 million people dead.
Even though most Singaporeans are content to just join the droves of tourists over the ruins of Angkor, some have decided to reach out to needy Cambodians and help them get on with their lives.
Shaffiq Alkhatib caught up with two Singaporean women who are doing just that - and are calling Siem Reap home.
IN: Tucked away...
DUR: 5min 21s
TITLE: 10/06 Cambodia FTR
Tucked away along a little street in downtown Siem Reap lies a shop that's only slightly bigger than a bedroom in a typical HDB flat.
But unlike the many stores in the area that mainly offer trinkets to tourists, Bloom sells colourful, handmade bags made from recycled materials such as rice sacks and animal-feed bags.
Its owner is 38-year-old Singaporean, Diana Saw.
She used to draw a six-figure annual salary when she was the regional General Manager for an Australia-based multi-national publishing company.
But a trip to Siem Reap in April 2006 with a friend from a non-government organisation or NGO against child trafficking changed everything.
The NGO, called Riverkids, is run by a Singaporean couple.
"During that four-day holiday, I encountered a mother who sold her newborn baby boy for a hundred US dollars. How can you know about things that go in your own backyard and go on with your lives? And so I decided because I don't have children and I don't have a mortgage, I could easily just move. So I convinced my partner that this is the right thing to do. Now I don't earn anything because I started Bloom with my own savings and I wanted the money to go to the Khmers. But as a business, I've learnt you can't run business that way. So at some point, I have to pay myself a salary."
Ms Saw returned to Cambodia a month later to rent a house.
Another month later, she settled there.
She stresses that Bloom is not an NGO but a social enterprise.
She has hired 15 local Cambodians to make the bags in Phnom Penh and two to take care of the shop in Siem Reap.
" To me, I feel the NGOs here, a lot of them have not left a legacy. If they did their jobs well, they could up and leave and the country will still be able to operate without them. But I don't think that's the case in Cambodia. If the NGOs were to up and leave, a lot of people will lose their jobs and it's still one of the poorest countries in the world. So for me, I want the benefits to accrue to the poorest...And the other thing I noticed is when people get donations, they have this welfare mentality. And I think if people need jobs, you give them jobs. Teach a man to fish rather than throw him a fish."
Ms Saw pays her employees a minimum of 70 US dollars for a 40-hour work week.
In Cambodia, similar workers usually get 20 US dollars less and they slog for 48 hours a week.
"I follow Singapore law. They have 14 days sick leave a year, plus 14 days public holidays. So they've got 28 days paid annual holidays. And that's why nobody resigns from Bloom basically."
Business may be "blooming" now.
But Ms Saw still encounters cultural differences that sometimes hinder her noble intentions.
"For me, it's always the culture. You adapt or you'll die! If people are interested in doing business in Cambodia, you really need a very good local partner or friend. I was very lucky. Even my landlords have been very helpful to me. People have been very generous. I've got many good Cambodian friends - from my landlords to my staff to even former staff. They've come back to help me whenever I have a problem."
Another Singaporean, 55-year old Mavis Ching, prepares free meals for the needy in Siem Reap.
She usually finds it difficult to communicate effectively with the Cambodians as they speak Khmer, and she isn't fluent in the language.
"But there are enough people who I know speak enough English to help me by. Otherwise, when you reach out from the heart, it's easy to get things done."
The former piano teacher is the founder of an NGO, called Touch A Life.
Ms Ching, who arrived in Cambodia in June 2008, now whips up about 2,500 meals a month.
She would then hop on a motorcycle to distribute them to the residents of nearby villages.
"In Cambodia, I cook meals which I offer to poor people. I think they deserve to have a free meal once in a while. They're vegetarian-based meals, vegetables with proteins coming from eggs and tofu. I had two different kitchens to cook in. One was in the kitchen of a hospitality school - the Shinta Mani Hotel and another one was in the kitchen of a disabled group of people. I decided to help them by having them cook for me so it was a means of income for them. But now the hotel is being renovated for expansion, so that one is out and the disabled people have moved to the village."
Because of these changes, Ms Ching has decided to use her own kitchen.
She wants to operate a meal centre from her own home this month to serve about 100 needy people a day.
Ms Ching will open her doors to them three times a week.
Two days will be set aside to distribute food to the villagers.
"I can tell you the total expenses, including transport, it's about 1,500 US dollars a month. (And where do you get your income from?) It's from well-wishers, friends, family, people who feel moved to help."
Some of her Cambodian friends pitched in - they transformed the verandah of her rented bungalow into an eating area for the needy.
They also built four wooden tables and eight benches, and transformed her backyard into a kitchen area spacious enough to prepare large amounts of food.
It also comes with a sturdy new shelter with a thatched roof so that Ms Ching and her volunteers can cook in comfort.
Ms Ching and Ms Saw are glowing examples of individuals who have left the comfort of home to do their part to help the needy.
I'm Shaffiq Alkhatib for 938LIVE.

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