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
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
- 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.
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