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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A SOULLESS NATION: In Need of Principles of First Things

A SOULLESS NATION: In Need of Principles of First Things

The Lesser-Among-Evils Mentality
We are a soul-less nation. We have lost

our moral bearings. We have reduced our choices to scraps and tattered


Among the countless legacies left by the Khmer Rouge - the 2

million deaths - there is one that is particularly damaging and darkening to the

soul, the prevailing mentality (and I believe, an existing reality) that

everything Khmer and in Cambodia is relegated to a choice of "the lesser among

evils": of all the bad choices before us, this is the less bad; this election is

free, fair and peaceful as it counted only 5 political deaths in comparison to

the 25 of the last one; one-third percent abject poverty rate is nothing in

comparison to the cannibalism under the Khmer Rouge; so what if there are

charges of corruption, the judiciary is not independent, and standards are

sub-international - the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will move ahead.

For a long

time to come, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge is and will be the yardstick that Khmers and

foreigners alike use for anything happening in Cambodia; everything Khmer will

be judged in light of the blackness of the Khmer Rouge years, leading to a

pervasive mentality of using the darkest anything as the point of


Is it any wonder then, that we Khmers, are so easily pleased,

to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, to making mud pies in the slum because we cannot

imagine one day by the sea?

To contrast, in a healthy society, people

freely debate and ponder whether in a particular situation "the best is the

enemy of the good"; their choices are among the excellent and the good, whereas

we Khmers are satisfied to choose among the crumbs, the crumbling and the

seriously flawed.

This current Royal Government of Cambodia is very keen

to distance itself and to whitewash its history from the Khmer Rouge. This RGC

is very keen and quick to make cheap, superficial pronouncements for morality -

e.g., banning phones and miniskirts, shutting down karaoke parlors, adopting an

anti-adultery law, implementing detention rules in contravention to juvenile

rights in response to the Bong Thom gang problems etc. - acknowledgements that

we are unwell as a society.

These acts have the appearance of cures and

taking the high road of morality, but they are meaningless quick-fixes that do

nothing to heal the nation and mend the shredded moral fabric. They ring hollow

because we have lost our soul; we are crushed in spirit. We, as a nation, are in

need of finding our soul and renewing our spirit.


To do so, we must instill in ourselves and in our children fundamental

ideas universally accepted which form the principles of first things. We,

Khmers, are more than ever in need of fresh reminders of what those principles


Principles of First Things

Stephen R. Covey writes

persuasively of habits and principles that lead to effective and successful

individuals. But those concepts are also the necessary cornerstones for the

health of a society, particularly our Khmer society. "Principles are like

lighthouses", he writes. "They are natural laws that cannot be broken." This

idea is echoed by Cecil B. deMille in his movie The Ten Commandments, "It is

impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the


What are some of these prerequisite principles for individual and

interdependent existence?

  • Fairness: out of which our whole concept of equity and justice is developed.

    We, Khmers, have much work to do in this area and we must begin with the

    independence of the judiciary, the primary organ to exact fairness.

  • Integrity and honesty: they create the foundation of trust which is

    essential to cooperation and long-term growth. We, Khmers, are immensely

    distrustful of each other; we have the potential to build upon the integrity and

    honesty within ourselves and in our relationship to others.

  • Human dignity: we have inherent value and worth; therefore they must be

    protected at all costs. We are a society that prizes "elitism" and demeans the

    vulnerable and the poor; look at the way that we drive our vehicles: it has been

    commented to me whether a Khmer driving a Lexus genuinely cares if s/he runs

    over a child begging on the street.

  • Service: the idea of making a contribution. We, Khmers, are more concerned

    about how to line our own pockets at all costs than for the collective welfare

    of society. We need not look any further than the greediness of the haves in

    oppressing the have-nots into further poverty through feverish


  • Excellence (quality): Aristotle best sums up this idea: "We are what we

    repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." We, Khmers, are of

    the mentality of doing just enough, of showing form without emphasis on

    substance. We teach our children how to "get around the system". Rather than

    building an ethics of character, we praise the "personality ethic", that there

    is "some quick and easy way to achieve quality of life without going through the

    natural process of work and growth that makes it possible... It's symbol without

    substance. It's the 'get-rich quick' scheme promising 'wealth without work'. And

    it might even appear to succeed - but the schemer remains" (Stephen R. Covey).

    Of those driving a Lexus around town, how many can genuinely say they earn that

    Lexus through honorable, honest work?

  • Potential: the idea that we are embryonic and can grow and develop and

    release more and more potential, develop more and more talents. I am daily

    appalled by the loss of human potential of the young in this society because of

    the lack of opportunities before them; to me, this loss of potential ranks as

    one of the crimes against humanity.

  • Responsibility: the idea that at the end of the day, we are held personally

    answerable for our conduct; it is the idea of the "ability" to "respond" or to

    choose between right and wrong. This lack of responsibility is reflected in the

    poor governance of national resources and the prevalence of corruption pervading

    all systems of Cambodia.

  • Compassion and love: Webster defines "compassion" as sympathetic

    consciousness of other's distress with a desire to alleviate it; this is part

    and parcel of "love" which is the strong affection and devotion for another. In

    Khmer society, rather, in the words of Erich Fromm, "Today we come across an

    individual who behaves like an automaton... whose meaningless chatter has

    replaced communicative speech, whose synthetic smile has replaced genuine

    laughter, and whose sense of dull despair has taken the place of genuine pain."

    Again, the leaders, the elites and the rest of us can act more out of compassion

    and love toward one another, especially toward the most vulnerable, impoverished

    and oppressed - the majority - of our nation.

I agree with author Covey that these principles are not esoteric,

mysterious or only "religious" ideas. These principles of first things are not

specific to any one faith or religion. They are instead a part of all major

enduring religions, social philosophies and ethical systems.

We, Khmers,

are very quick to claim a cultural distinction, that these ideas are Western and

do not apply to us, our history, our culture. We cannot claim the Khmer

exception from them without doing damage to ourselves and our culture. To claim

an exception of these principles as non-Khmer would be to claim their opposites

to be Khmer; this would be absurd. The nature of these principles is

self-evident. Put it another way, consider attempting to build a healthy Khmer

society based on their opposites: unfairness, deceit, baseness, uselessness,

mediocrity or degeneration, irresponsibility, hate as a solid foundation for

personal and social development?

Let's Begin with


Individuals compose a family. Families compose a society.

Societies compose a nation. These principles must first begin with each one of

us individually, which naturally affects the interaction within a family, within

society and ultimately within the nation. We are crushed; we are soulless. To

reclaim our national soul and revive our national spirit, we must take to heart

these principles of first things. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, "In a sort of

ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men

without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and

are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be

fruitful." Should we decide to ignore these principles, do not then be surprised

at the happenings of our current society and the unveiling of a hopeless,

despondent, restless future.

Theary C. SENG

Executive Director



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