Lessons from Cambodia

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For me, it was the second time I visited this country. The last time I had been into here was back in 2012 – when Cambodia took the helms of ASEAN chairmanship, organizing a regional general-knowledge quiz competition. This time, it was an entirely different mission: now working for SIGHT (abbreviation of Student Innovation for Global Health Technology), the first global-health initiative in HKUST pioneered and led by Prof. Ying Chau, our aim now is to introduce two products that have undergone through rigorous brainstorming, prototyping, and development in the last one year. For the software team (the one I’m assigned into), our task is to build a user-friendly electronic medical record system (EMRS) to be used by One-2-One, a New Zealand NGO based largely in Cambodia. The other one, developed by hardware team, is drug dispensary box (DDX), a medical box that enables flexible, and more arranged, drug storage system. The whole 9 days that we all spent, from June 8 to 16, were undeniably exhausting, but at the same time also life-changing and thoughtfully enlightening. We all had daily debriefings up to 11 pm or almost 12 am everyday, and had to visit the One-2-One main office on nearly a daily basis, but the efforts paid off with the staff, as we observed, very willing to learn the new technologies, while simultaneously providing active feedback to us about feature improvements that can be done in the near future.

 

       

DDX (top) and EMRS (below) in action

 

I took a lot of notes, as we have to prepare portfolios to summarize our trip, point out any suggestions made by the staff, and also make way for considerations towards future projects, but other than SIGHT-related memos, I also learn numerous things about Cambodia, and the people living within. Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough time to take a look outside the capital, Phnom Penh, but say the least, from the city, there are so many new things worth observing that I can talk about here. On the sections below, I will talk more about my personal observations about the country, but if you want to know more details about our trip, the information on the SIGHT website will be updated as soon as possible (sight.ust.hk). The first thing I want to talk about here is the stereotype of ‘disorder’. Hailing from a fellow Third-World country (in this case, Indonesia), I should be honest that nostalgic feelings always come to me whenever I step my feet in this beautiful city. When it comes to describing ‘beautiful’, I would rather not invoke any comparison between Phnom Penh and any place on Earth that you would believe as highly developed. The city, in and by itself, is still largely reminiscent of any major metropolis from developing world, whose economy seemingly ‘grows out of control’. Emerging skyline is one particular feature, as tower cranes are scattered randomly across corners of the city. Cars, motorcycles, and tuk-tuk do seemingly ‘overlook’ each other on intersections, but surprisingly, few collisions occur, even though they come in an extremely close direction. It is as though the whole scenery were a self-regulating chaos. It appears like ‘disorder’, but paradoxically, it is within this disorder that I can discover vague patterns of ‘order’. The city continues to grow, the country goes on its current progression. While for some people Cambodia reminds them of orphans, Khmer Rouge, and the stigmatization of ‘the poor that desperately needs outsiders’ hands’, this is largely false. Orphans are still there (and the exploitation still happens to some degree), but the whole scenery is not as bad as it seems to be. The whole country has an extremely young population, is in the ongoing process of learning, and certainly, it will not take a single swipe to create major changes here. People will continue to do mistakes, intentionally or not, but to say for now, Cambodia has had tremendous progress. The slums that we visited to conduct field testing are also not as deplorable as I personally could imagine. At least on the capital, even though many of the people live in squatter areas, they are at least well-fed. Non-governmental organizations actively provide free education and perform basic healthcare services for the communities, to fill up the absence of a comprehensive system in the city, and the country, in general. But, on average, there is a high sense of curiosity among the people, especially in regard to their desire to know more about what is happening outside the world. One of the One-2-One staff told me that the slum dwellers, when introduced to our EMRS system, were completely surprised to realize that such technology had actually existed before. They are mesmerized by the software features as well as the fingerprint scanners (even though there is concern about privacy by us, but not the Cambodians in general). The staff even said that the slum dwellers could not cease asking questions about the software.

 

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One of the slums where we conducted a field test for the software.

 

Anywhere in the world, there are always inspiring figures. The outliers who, with their talents and passions, seek to empower their communities and direct them into a better future. We have met many doctors, locally educated, trained, and very well-experienced, dedicating their time to provide free medical service for slum dwellers. We have also interacted with the nurses, either Cambodians or foreigners, who unswervingly put their efforts to assist the doctors and also the communities, by either performing blood tests, treating their wounds, or providing free, nutritious meals to the children.   Most extraordinarily, we also met one aspiring programmer, and a full-time medical staff in One-2-One, named Channat. Hailing from an impoverished rural area in a poor family background, he has set out his mind to look for a better life in Phnom Penh before the age of 10. Overcoming hardships in life, he toiled hard in pagoda by cleaning the dishes, at the same time earning some sums of money to go to school and study. There, he managed to become among the best students in his high school, goes to university, and becomes one of the most outstanding students in his class, again. He works in the organization from Monday to Friday, 8 am to 5 pm, before he continues his study in the university, 5.30-8.30 pm, does his homework for an hour, approximately, and reviews his lessons. In the spare time, Channat focuses on developing his passion: making computer programs. Despite the occupied schedule, he remains a down-to-earth, friendly, and soft-spoken communicator. Channat told him that back in his village, having heard his life story, people’s prior perception of education as a ‘privilege’ was suddenly altered. Their children started to go to schools, in the belief that someday, there would be more people like Channat, One-2-One medical staff, or all aspiring people they want to be in the future.

 

 

Channat (left) and fellow SIGHT members, Lance and Samson

 

But, most importantly, Cambodia is a country that wants to move forward, despite its devastating historical tragedy. As Dr. Annie Chen-Green, founder of One-2-One, eloquently summed up: “This country, back in 1960s, was once referred to as ‘Jewel of Southeast Asia’, even better than Singapore. When the Khmer Rouge came, almost the entire generation was wiped off. All the smart people, intellects, and promising thinkers all but languished and disappeared. It is only in the young people that Cambodia still has tremendous hopes to succeed, and make this place a jewel it once was, again.” Sometimes, to look forward the future, one has to see the trajectories from the past. And that is where our tour guides, while providing ‘history lectures’ throughout the trip, brought us into The Killing Fields and S-21 prison (formerly a high school). It was definitely a somber trip, and we couldn’t deny that reality. These were the places where some of the most atrocious mass crimes in human history took place. The Killing Field, or now known as Choeung Ek Genocide Museum, was only one of hundreds of mass-killing fields when Khmer Rouge was in power (1975-1979). Nobody knows for sure how many people died, but as a fixed fact, every family in Cambodia was deeply affected by this tragedy. Between 1.7 million and 3 million people were killed, starved to death, and infected by diseases throughout the ‘Dark Age’, before the Vietnamese occupied the country and deposed Khmer Rouge. Fact, for certain, is stranger than fiction. Totalitarian, brainwashing ideologies make it even worse and more absurd. But it is, ironically, the pressure of submission to authority that often results in a massive tragedy. When people lacked opportunities to education, the access to enlightenment, this was where ideologies, if not controlled, could spark into extremely dangerous minds. At least this is what we concurred after lengthy discussions with each other, back from the trip into these two places. I will not comment too much in this regard, but it is deeply sad for me to see when people are easily tricked into believing into something, while it is not necessarily in parallel to their original moral beliefs. It is not in the absence of morality that the worst atrocities happen; instead, it is when human beings’ moral values are, in coercion, bent to be adjusted to what the authority demands, no matter how strange they are. It is here, in The Killing Field and S-21, that we were told the worst atrocities that human beings can do beyond their limits. The atmosphere is particularly gloomy when we are inside S-21, now part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. Formerly a high school and gymnastic, it became Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison as 21,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed inside this school for over 4 years. Very few people survived this prison; the last 7 prisoners, out of the last 21, were freed by Vietnamese soldiers during the raids to Phnom Penh in early 1979. It is also here that we met one of the last living survivors of S-21, Mr. Chum Mey, now aged at 85. Once a mechanic, he is currently an author and painter, now selling his books and artworks – all the while describing the savagery taking place in the prison, paradoxically again, in a place he was once tortured and imprisoned.

 

DSC_1157   DSC_1158   DSC_1164     Buddhist monks pay respect to a pagoda housing thousands of skulls from the victims of Khmer Rouge in Choeung Ek killing field (top); former S-21 prison, once a high school (middle); posing with Mr. Chum Mey, one of the last survivors of the notorious prison (below)

 

No words from me can describe the tumults Mr. Chum Mey, and countless others, had endured in the dark years of Khmer Rouge. Still, I deeply appreciate him in recounting all the stories, as authored in his books, not only as a living historical lesson, but also as a testament to the younger generations, of what once happened, and what should not happen again in the future. Four tumultuous decades afterwards, Cambodia has eventually made strides again.

While still in need of long-term improvements, the country, for all its existing flaws, deserves some credits that it can make some progresses. Life has been largely restored in the country, and echoing what Dr. Annie says, hope is now placed in the younger generation, in the lifetime journey to make this country a better, and more dignified, place in the world. Having interacted with all the great persons within 9 days, all with big visions towards this country, I believe it is the time that Cambodia deserves a big spirit of optimism.

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The age of moving out

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Source: rogerebert.com

 

People are moving out everywhere – in an unprecedentedly rapid pace, at least in my opinion. At least that’s what I have observed among my classmates; more than one-third of them, as far as I know, are studying overseas, be it Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong (I am) or at least, ending up either in the capital, Jakarta, or in Bandung. Ten years ago we hadn’t heard so much of people studying outside the country, with the exception of children from upper-middle-class families whose parents have enough financial incentives to do so. 2005 and 2015 are already two different worlds since then. With increasingly affordable scholarships, air tickets becoming much cheaper (thanks to low-cost flights), and global economy increasingly integrated, mobility of products, ideas, people, and capital has become more a necessity than it is an option. Indeed, in some places, mobility is a pressure, not a privilege. I can’t predict much how much different 2015 and 2025, or 10 years from now, will be, but one thing that I can assure, for a certainty, is that people, looking out for opportunities elsewhere, will not stop migrating outside their home countries.

Data from UN validates my opinion, at least. In 2005, almost 185 million people lived outside their home countries. Almost a decade later, by 2013, the number has swarmed to almost 250 million (including refugees), an increase of more than 30% alone. But, one must also caution with the data: it only includes figures of those officially submitted by each country’s respective immigration department into the global organization. We have no idea how many ‘illegal immigrants’ are there precisely, but if we include them altogether, the figure, suffice it to say, is more gargantuan than we can expect.

Indeed, this is an inevitable sign of our society’s global transition: globalization has changed much of the face of the world in a short time. Political borders do still exist (and will continue to exist far in the future), but economically, culturally, and socially, these borders have become more blurred, and much more fluid as an accommodation of inevitable changes. Referring again to Michio Kaku, one of the world’s most renown physicists, the world right now has achieved a Type 0.7 civilization (we will have to wait until next century to achieve a perfect Kardashev’s Type 1 civilization). These 250 million people live outside their home countries, are more likely to speak English to each other (a global language), and in fact, they build resilient economies. Developed world needs a continuous inflow of foreign talent and skills to sustain their economies while their population is rapidly aging, and developing world needs their remittances to ensure children can go to school and live healthily, families deserve better housing, and social status can improve.

Nonetheless, one challenging question appears: how much does migration change our perception towards our own identities?

There are a lot of implications. I only return to my hometown, Medan, once a year, but whenever I go back, I will stay in the place I have been born and raised in for almost 20 years of my life for 30-40 days. Huge gaps exist between me and the people of the city that I know. Before I studied overseas, I only embodied, in theory, about what the outside world will look like. Yes, there will be people across dozens of countries (some of which almost nobody knows about), and you have no idea about their cultures, their values, and everything about them considered ‘unknown unknowns’. Having studied here for two years, and another two sojourns back into my city, sometimes there is a feeling in me this is not really the city that I used to know. I can’t explain them vividly, but on the least, I can feel the discrepancies. Sometimes I even feel a difference of values between me and my parents – this is an inevitable consequence when you go out, and be exposed to new perspectives, and everything just changes.

As time goes by, nonetheless, one by one, my close friends are moving out as well. One of my close friends, Edward, has permanently settled down in the capital, Jakarta. I used to hang out with him very often during holidays, but sometimes, nobody can resist the force of change. It’s just not Edward himself; many of my high school friends, indeed, have also moved outside together with their families, and they no longer have any intention to resettle down in this city. As far as I can recall, it was of a big surprise when the city government, as quoted in a local newspaper, presented reports that our city’s population is actually declining – not increasing. Their main rationale was that many people had duplicates of ID cards, but I surmise migration could be one possible reason (though we must scientifically prove it through extensive research). Some of my close friends also obtain scholarships from Japanese government, and I have very little confidence that they will return to this hometown.

Moving out, as something we can’t deny, is an inherent trait in human beings. There wouldn’t be us had the first hominids not walked upon what was now Kenya 2 million years ago, exploring outside the continent, settling down, and acquiring new identities. Migration is not something new that only recently happens; it constantly takes place, whether willingly or by force, as political, economic, and social configurations continued to be altered by the forces of change, the self-organized criticalities. Globalization and technological revolutions, in and by themselves, are simply accelerating the entire process. But what about the question of identity? If we look at a bigger picture of the history of humankind, and into the social construction of our communities, isn’t identity itself a fluid concept? Don’t we actually realize that identity is shaped by forces, adjustable as the time goes by? Our ancestors are not originally from the same country as we used to stay. Science ‘confirmed’ that the first ancestors of human race originated from Africa, and there appeared a massive confluence of ethno-linguistic groups and races, separated across different continents over thousands of generations, only to re-encounter each other as human civilization began to enter the first historical age. Even most Australians and Americans today have only ‘recently’ settled down in the two countries in the last three to four centuries, while the indigenous Aborigines and Native Americans came from African shores and Siberian plains 300 or 400 centuries earlier.

When a person no longer feels connected to his or her society, though, there is no option but to leave, and seek a place elsewhere, sometimes for pursuing passions and opportunities largely unattainable back in the home countries, or simply the raison d’etre of ‘acceptance’. This is why identity is highly fluid; not everyone in the world always experiences the same connection to where they belong. It is not even, oftentimes, where they belong to, but over ‘what’ they belong to. This is the same question you can ask of currently one-quarter billion people living outside the contemporary sovereign states in this planet. And so might our parents, grandparents, or even our far ancestors when they first settled down in what they used to call as ‘lands of the unknown’.

Some people indeed migrate not because they really want to; they are, sadly speaking, ‘forced’ to, for the means of survival. How does it feel like abandoning a place that you have been tied with the most? Whenever you tune on to the news actively, there will always be numerous news about immigrants dying on their way to destination countries. Thousands of people, every day, coming from war-torn or desperately poor countries in Middle East and Africa, stake their lives at seas to reach Europe’s Mediterranean shores – to the point that they have only one goal in mind: Europe or die. Other thousands of people from Bangladesh and Myanmar are also staking their lives as well to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, or even as far away as Australia, and dozens have died at seas and mass graves operated by human smugglers. Or what about millions of laborers in Gulf countries, toiling hard to earn enough living for their families back in their homelands? Or other millions of housemaids, hired from countries as varying as Philippines to Indonesia to Bangladesh to Nigeria? Where do we all really belong to? In a situation of Hobson’s choice, there is no other option but to either maintain our own cultures, or embrace the new identities bit by bit. Remolding an identity is itself a social engineering challenge.

Some Hong Kong friends that I know once told me that they never ‘considered to live permanently in this city’. Life pressure, as most frequently cited, is one reason to leave. This was what I observe when I had a lunch with a fellow friend, named Tony, in an Indonesian restaurant in Causeway Bay.

“I love this city, I have a strong connection with this city, but with all the pressures and challenges that are becoming increasingly harsher in Hong Kong, sometimes I question myself if this is actually my home.”

Indeed, this is not only the voice of one person. Many of them that I know are considering to leave as well. I have no precise idea how high it is, but surveys conducted by several universities here found out that 20-25% of Hong Kong’s population, if given enough opportunities, would eventually ‘choose to emigrate somewhere else’.

Tony majors in chemical engineering, with a specialization in biochemistry. I admire him for being a hardworking and diligent person, as we were once in a group project together. At the same time, he’s also unflinchingly honest, very greatly outspoken, and is very well-informed with recent affairs across the city.

He points out one reason why he has this consideration in mind of leaving Hong Kong.

“People are too obsessed with the values of money. Some close friends of mine, I know them really well, are so talented in science. They have these deep passions in research, in inventing something new, and I believe if they were admitted in any great place outside here, they would be scientists that could change the world. But you know what? They ended up majoring in business or in finance, something that is definitely not their passions. I’m so upset why they chose something that is not definitely their callings. It’s just sad.”

He’s thinking of Germany, but Japan sticks much closer to his mind.

Tony is not alone. Many of them that I know will either think of working in Britain, Australia, Canada, US, or new favored places such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or to an even lesser extent, Southeast Asia (aside of Singapore). And it is even more interesting when you look at their backgrounds. Some have ancestors coming from India, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, or even places as far away as Israel and Mauritius. Time and again, this is an obvious proof that identity is not strictly a form by itself; it is malleable, and it can be shaped depending on the subjects.

Even though I am a full-blooded ethnic Chinese, I would be more comfortable calling myself an Indonesian. As the prior three generations preceding me have settled down in this country before, I am more used to Indonesian customs (or I should say ‘Chinese-Indonesian culture’) than I am towards the native Chinese culture. Despite decades of political and historical tumults on Chinese communities a few decades ago, which inevitably also impacted my family, there’s no option but to choose one. I can’t go back to China as I don’t speak the same language with them. While not necessarily Chinese, the language I mean here is one of commonalities. My family has been here for four generations, and what else can be similar other than the physical presence? I don’t know if I will ever return and settle again in Indonesia, but most likely, in the long term, I will choose to move somewhere else, look for more opportunities to suit my passions, and explore any possible futures for myself.

I still love my country, but for my own sake, I would rather be more pragmatic. It’s both a big, and small, world, after all.