My dear friend Scott Leiper passed away on March 28 after a nine-month struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 61.
For his family and his countless friends in Cambodia and around the world, he left us too soon, and we are all now forced to wrestle with the pain of what Scott himself wrote to me in one of his last emails from the States: “life is not fair”.
Scott spent the past 34 years working to improve the welfare of the Cambodian people. Initially, on the Thai border starting in 1982 when he ended up there as a near-penniless backpacker looking for a mission, he worked with Cambodian refugees in the camps. Later, in 1989 with the World Food Programme, he moved to Phnom Penh to set up WFP’s operations here.
After UNTAC he helped establish Carere, which over time morphed into SEILA, and then eventually became the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development (NCDD), a Cambodian government initiative that has sought to strengthen the role and capabilities of the Kingdom’s Commune Councils.
In everything Scott did he was decent, caring, thoughtful, determined, pragmatic, patient and prescient. He knew there were no quick-fix miracles in the development world.
He knew that the process of Cambodia’s recovery from decades of conflict and mass murder was an arduous process where every small step forward was an equally small victory.
He knew how to weave his way through a cultural construct that was laden with multiple bureaucratic landmines.
He knew that biting one’s tongue publicly on a regular basis was a prerequisite for having even the slightest chance to make headway on critical issues.
And he knew that in spite of the often times hard to digest, so-called “big picture” it was still worth the effort to avoid wallowing in cynicism and keep at it. He did that every day for the last three-plus decades.
The impact of Scott’s efforts with Carere/SEILA/NCDD will have to be left for someone else to write, because he was also a master of disguise.
I pushed him numerous times, telling him that his work sounded like a great story that I wanted to write about in the Phnom Penh Post.
Like Obi Wan Kenobi, he would gently wave his hand, using his own quiet force, and say with a smile, “No, there is no story here. We can move on.”
I knew what he meant. He didn’t want to be in the press; he didn’t want to be quoted; and, most importantly, he didn’t want to muck up his relationships with his Cambodian colleagues in the Ministry of Interior nor the activist agenda of his lovely and determined wife, Mu Sochua.
Scott walked a very delicate tightrope, and his own version of “soft diplomacy” enabled him to thread an equally delicate needle year after year after year.
Scott was the quintessential Renaissance man, a voracious reader who devoured massive tomes regularly.
We had our own informal book club and would spend hours savouring a well-written work, regardless of whether it was a bio about Alexander Hamilton, The Last Empress by Hannah Pakula, or one of William Dalrymple’s masterpieces on Indian history.
Great book readers are becoming a rare species on this twitterised planet, and we are the worse for it. Scott knew and appreciated that all too well.
For about the past decade, he’d call me once or twice a week, and we’d meet up at a quiet bar after work to shoot the breeze.
He was the only person in town that I could never say no to – not because he repeatedly insisted that I was a key component of his “sanity matrix” but much more so because he was an absolutely essential part of mine.
Scott was an anchor of reason, dignity, compassion, and laser-like critical and thoughtful analysis in a very troubled part of the world.
The courage and openness with which he dealt with his cancer over the past nine months was just one small reminder of what a special person he was – and who will remain so in the minds of all of us who knew and loved him.
I know I am joined by hundreds, if not thousands of people around the globe in sharing my deepest condolences with Sochua, Devi, Thida and Malika on the loss of your beloved husband/father.
I have no doubt that the thought you were so blessed by having such a wonderful human being in your life does nothing to lessen your terrible grief in losing him. Nor does it do so for us as well.
Truly, we are all reminded once again that life is not fair. But Scott’s own fortitude and grace obliges us to recall that it is not necessarily the length of one’s life that matters, but rather the quality one brings to it every day, especially when recognising the humanity and respect Scott always offered so religiously to one and all.
For those of us who have the profound honour to say that we were one of your friends, we are obliged to say thank you bong.
Be well my dearest brother Scott. You touched in countless, important ways the lives of so many people, including my own. Would that even a few others took a page or two from your inspired playbook, the world would be so much better for it.
Michael Hayes was the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post from 1992 to 2008.