A fence-sitter can be seen as someone who stays neutral until they decide which side to take, with their choice not based on their own perception or value system but that of the majority.
Simply put, the fence-sitter will wait to see which side is more beneficial for them, be it right or wrong, because they do not want to alienate themselves from others.
The term is unflattering and often frowned upon in a society that values people’s opinions.
However, in Cambodia in particular, this type of person is instead praised and considered a pragmatist by following the majority, and a “flexible man” or “lucky fellow”.
Another word that can be used to describe these people is “neutral”.
During the Cold War, one could claim to be neutral and non-aligned. It meant not taking a side until deciding which one was more likely to win.
Rather than value and righteousness, the choice was made based on self-interest.
Such a person can never hope to hold a strong stance based on conscience and stay committed to it.
Such neutralism appears everywhere in today’s society. People try to justify the middle ground as not being extreme to any side, especially in politics, and they are mostly like to claim they are neutral.
Some on the pro-government side sometimes show their support to try and gain favour from the government and stay in its good books.
But the pro-opposition rarely show their stance because they are concerned of being marked on the government’s blacklist.
They prefer to stay quietly in the middle as “fence-sitters”, simply because they do not want to spark public controversy that could reflect negatively upon the government.
Some followers often mask themselves as neutral or in the middle by saying they are following Buddha’s concept of the middle path. However, does such a declaration excuse them from making decisions?
In practice, staying in the middle often means one needs the synthesis of differing concepts to facilitate both in order to avoid confrontation with any side, while pretending to be neutral, non-extremist or independent.
Meanwhile, it is also not difficult to find those who claim they are impartial and can distinguish between right and wrong.
Even so, it does not mean they are consistent – but of course, they are staying on the righteous side. Isn’t that the right thing to do?
The referee and the judge also declare themselves neutral. They closely examine the results of a competition or a case. To them, neutrality means to judge with discretion. They must always declare the truth and not be biased or prejudiced for or against any side.
‘Middle of the road’
Who would dare to claim that the amount of good people is equivalent to that of bad people? If you claim to be in the middle, you must be willing to overlook the negative situations that occur every day.
This is staying, as in Khmer slang, in the “middle of the railroad”.
Most people often refer to the concept of neutralism, especially in regard to political affiliation, to conceal their real leanings.
It does not mean they are righteous, independent or impartial, but it shows they lack the capacity to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, or they are a loser to self-interest.
If you judge only based on righteousness, does it mean you are biased towards the righteous side? Shouldn’t you dare to declare your stance even if the righteous side is not the popular one?
Surely one needs to be neutral and impartial to be just. However, after judging, one must take a stance – this side or that. To be righteous is to stay committed after making a decision.
The righteous man stands on the righteous side. Consequently, when you say you are neutral, you have already decided what is right and wrong, but you say the right must adjust a little bit with the wrong. It means that you are not righteous. You have been defeated by self-interest.
There are challenges, too, with being extreme.
Extreme is like wearing black glasses and being blinded to the truth. Everything looks black under the glasses. Such a stance is biased to the wrong.
In contrast, is it wrong that one tries to protect good deeds? Shouldn’t one be ready to know how to distinguish between right and wrong? Shouldn’t one always stand on the righteous side? Does attempting a righteous stance equate to the notion of “too good”?
Good is good; never too good. Labelling such a position “too good” is unnecessary. The unjust and dishonest laugh at the righteous man that “you are too good”.
He mockingly says this to the righteous so because he is unable to be so. Does a firm stance for good equate to an extreme of “too good” and thus be something to be avoided? If so, one might be afraid to be righteous.
Cambodians have long practised the concept of compromise, right or wrong does not matter. We fail to understand the wrong before we lean one way or another.
Meanwhile, some who declare they are among the righteous are willing to compromise and negotiate to reach an agreement.
After they declare concessions with each other, they then start to embrace and act as if they love each other with all their hearts.
Their legs kick
However, it is just a simulacrum of them embracing – it has lost the meaning of a true embrace. Such embracing lacks the purity of mind to unite.
This faking of the support we have for one another is why Cambodian people are so isolated and remain in a prolonged dispute.
It is hardly surprising Cambodians have used such coordinated neutrality. With such a practice, we can see their arms embracing while their legs kick at each other.
It is not long until they break apart again and point fingers at one another due to dishonesty.
Although knowing it is an act, most people prefer to watch and play along and proudly name it “politics”.
The culture of dialogue was cultivated without being rooted in honesty.
It was a culture that neglected to prepare the soil and choose the right seeds.
Although with blooms in the morning that wither soon after, most Cambodians still don’t care because they have already shown up for the morning growth.
That is an example of dishonest unions, of doing something because it appeared the thing to do.
In this line of reasoning, if one could distinguish between the rights and wrongs of the government and the opposition, that person is not standing on a neutral or impartial stance, but on the righteous path.
However, when he doesn’t dare to declare the truth and claims he is neutral, he is a loser to self-interest.
The quality of the righteous is to know what is right and wrong; do good deeds all the time; support the good deeds of others; expand on the good deeds; and protect good deeds.
As such, the righteous stand on the righteous side without fear of being wrongly judged.
Vanthown Pang is a Phnom Penh-based opinion piece writer. She regularly contributes to The Post’s Khmer edition.