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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A SOULLESS NATION: In Need of Principles of First Things The Lesser-Among-Evils Mentality

A SOULLESS NATION: In Need of Principles of First Things The Lesser-Among-Evils Mentality

We are a soulless nation. We have lost our moral bearings. We have reduced our

choices to scraps and tattered spoils.

Among the countless legacies left

by the Khmer Rouge - the two 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 least

bad; this election is free, fair and peaceful as it counted only five political

deaths in comparison to the 25 of the last one; 33 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 and concepts

universally accepted throughout the ages and across cultures which form the

principles of first things. We, Khmers, are more than ever in need of fresh

reminders of what those principles are.

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 law."

What are some of these

prerequisite principles for individual and interdependent


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


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 land-grabbing.

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.


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


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


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





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