Home > Random > Third-world corruption, traffic, and an Overseas Singaporean

Third-world corruption, traffic, and an Overseas Singaporean

I recently changed jobs, and cleared several days of leave out and about in Cambodia visiting my dad, who is an expatriate there. He’s been there for about 10 years by now. I had visited Indochina a long time ago just before I graduated from university, in a whirlwind tour starting in Siem Reap, going through Phnom Penh and Ho Chin Minh, before it ended abruptly thanks to a tropical storm along the Vietnamese coast.

This time it was going to be just Phnom Penh, and the objective would be to catch up with my dad rather than sightseeing. After all, Phnom Penh itself did not have too many tourist attractions which you could revisit again and again. To me there’s nothing new about the usual temples, the infamous S-21 prison for Pol Pot political detainees, the Russian market, and so on. This was a trip to understand expat life in Cambodia better.


Reading the only main English newspaper published in Cambodia, you catch a glimpse of the typical challenges of a developing country. There are regular reports of forced evictions of people off village land and tussles over logging, usually with the involvement of government officials like the military, police and forestry officials. There was also a recent case where a local journalist, who had been publishing stories about government officials involved in illegal logging, was murdered with an axe. Such stories from developing countries, as well as the occasional altercations with Malaysian traffic police, remind me that being a government servant can sometimes be a form of tax farming.

This real need to stem corruption struck me the most when I left my job in a startup to join a government ministry. In my work in the startup, I had quite a few Filipino colleagues. When I told one of them that I had joined the government service after leaving the company, he was momentarily cold and distant. He later explained to me that he had encountered lots of problems with government officials in the course of conducting his own business in the Philippines, and it was not about incompetence, but of corruption. Stories from Malaysians whom I know from other workplaces have painted a picture of how government was not always about public service, where even the slightest things we take for granted, like applying for a driving license, or reporting a crime, can be riddled with expectations of “kopi money” or to intentionally misreport the physical description of the criminals.

You can understand why our elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew says that you have to pay politicians enough to prevent them from being corrupted. The more powerful, the more easily corrupted, the more you must pay them. It is a very realistic and pragmatic view of human nature. But is it the way to run a country? What kind of messages are being sent out to the rank and file public servants? What happens when there isn’t enough money to go around? I believe with the recent high profile arrests, the government is trying to use both the hard and soft approaches, but I think most of the Singaporean population is still reeling from surprise that such things have been happening in the first place (naively too, if I may add).

Where there is no law, live out the spirit of the law

Not more than 10 years ago Cambodia was filled with both left- and right-hand drive cars imported mostly second-hand from the more developed countries, until the government finally enforced left-hand drive as the standard kind of car to be imported. Nevertheless, a few minutes in Cambodian traffic and you wonder why they bother. Motorcycles, cars and trucks coming in and out of side lanes, turning off into the other side of the road, will go in any direction that is expedient. And the government is only just planning to make it mandatory for motorcycle pillions to wear helmets.

Of course, all traffic rules are there for the purpose of allowing the police to collect money from you if you happen to pass the most ‘popular’ junctions. After all, motorists there seem to operate quite fine without them, given the speed at which traffic goes along, with people, motorcycles, and SUVs moving around in a chaotic mix. You don’t even need to raise your hand to hold up traffic as you’re making a right turn across the main street into a side lane – just edge across bit by bit unto the oncoming traffic and go through. Such a system of traffic is interesting, because the onus is on motorists to interact and look out for others, rather than rely on traffic lights. The downside is that you can’t go very fast like that (not that you can go very fast with traffic lights every 1-2km anyway, as the now-notorious Ma Chi found out in his red Ferrari).

In Singapore we have the other problem, which is over-dependence on traffic lights, such that people have forgotten about looking out for one another on the road. You’ll be reminded of this the next time you drive through merging lanes. To me, that is just part of the larger problem with our own country, we are so beaten into obeying rules and deferring everything to the authorities that we forget how to regulate ourselves. We forget how to be human.

We need signs to tell us to give up our seat on public transportation. The slightest offence is reported to the police. People quarrel over parking spaces. (By the way, here it’s USD0.50 per ‘entry’ which is paid to the chaps who direct your car into the parking space. No ‘evil landlord’ involved. Reverse sensors are unpopular here.)

Some people will say that being rules-obsessed is a small price to pay for the peace, stability and prosperity we have. And you are surprised why American children say their country stands for freedom of speech, religion, etc, and Singaporean children say their country stands for clean water, clean streets and air-conditioning. “What is freedom, can eat one meh?”

But the real question is this: Is economic progress necessarily tied to tight controls and a rigidly-defined public space? In the creative industry, and advanced sciences, and even business management, stifled thinking is a hindrance. (But we already know that, hence we try to teach creativity.)

A wide income gap’s cool as long as cost of living is low

Back in Cambodia, the roads are filled with Lexus SUVs. They’re mostly imported second-hand from the US, with many owned by the wealthy class and expatriates. The roads are a marked improvement from several years ago, with actual paved roads on most main streets in the capital replacing dirt roads. Income disparity is obvious, but the cost of living there is still very low, so the majority of the population can still get by. Owning property is quite affordable for expats, but ambiguity in the ownership laws applicable to foreigners makes investing a rather risky proposition, so a trusted local partner is essential.

The unwitting Overseas Singaporean

Life as an expat in a third-world country is not much fun. Basically you hang out with the expats all the time, or absorb yourself entirely in your work (which was what the big boss intended anyway). It’s further complicated by the different lifestyles of asian and caucasian expats. You spend a lot of time on the Internet reading news about the world, and about your home country.

But you also slowly begin to become part of the stories unique to the community, that only expats will know. Like the one about how people who were victims of serious crime had to resort to going to the radio station before the police chief intervened and demanded an investigation. Or of successful expats who ruined their lives at the one and only casino in town. The tussles between the Japanese and the Chinese in developing ports and railways. The doctor from Singapore who had been there for over ten years and suddenly left.

Nagaworld, now the only casino in town. There used to be jackpot machines in every other building in the city before the Prime Minister closed them all down. Of course, he has a share in the only one left standing now.

My dad is one of those people of a particular generation. The ones who wanted, or had, to move overseas because they slipped up at that vulnerable point in their career when everything was about cheaper, faster, better, and they were not. The working world is sometimes an unforgiving place, with employees feeling the pressure to continually ‘upgrade’ and ‘prove themselves’. But you’ve already read too many stories about our PMETs who got booted out the corporate world.

At least here, he can be a “rich man” in a poor country. Although that, in itself becomes meaningless after a while. That’s why I got him started on going to church in Phnom Penh on Sundays again.

And thank God that we now have emails and MSN for keeping in touch – although he’s the kind of ‘old man’ who will make a long-distance call to tell you to “check the email I just sent” 🙂

Did you try mousing over the pictures for the captions?

Categories: Random
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  1. 20 September at 12:28 pm

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