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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