“ Now is the time when you give me some money.”
Those words, spoken to me by a Cambodian policeman who was helping me deal with replacing my lost passport, seem to symbolize something about my Southeast Asian experience up until now. I wouldn’t say that it’s representative of the people of Cambodia or the culture of Cambodia or anything beyond my own, individual encounters with those institutions that are -- on paper, anyways -- supposed to be bastions of diplomacy and fair-play.
Before living in Cambodia, I never gave much thought to government structures, both physical and symbolical. Roads were roads. Schools were schools. The idea that government itself had something to with these commonplace institutions was surely somewhere in the back of my mind, but I’m not exactly sure where; perhaps locked away in those portions of the brain that scientists claim we so rarely use.
Ah, but to lose a passport, and to lose it in a place like Cambodia, forces you into manuoevers and machinations that are not sufficiently dealt with in the Ontario school system. I was never taught about the protocol for bribing a police officer; I must have missed that particular Social Studies class.
Cambodians themselves didn’t miss that class, because they don’t NEED that class. They know that you can’t trust the police, and that the people in power are not there to serve the people. This is not necessarily a hypothesis; in desperately poor countries like Cambodia, it serves as a fact, and it is a fact that you learn quite young here.
Let’s start with the schools: woefully underfunded, criminally underdeveloped, with a pay for teachers that starts at a whopping twenty bucks a month. A few times I visited a few of the high schools here in Phnom Penh, along with the marketing head of our university and his assistant (the same chap, Veasna, who was killed by a drunk driver a month or so ago), hoping to drum up interest in our school. Let me tell you. Can I tell you? Let me tell you. It was like something out of a Van Damme movie set inside one of Thailand’s premier kickboxing arenas. I shit you not. Video games down in the dusty, darkened entrance, food being cooked, chickens running around, cramped classrooms with fifty students and a teacher standing on a box clutching a squawking microphone that whined in and out of sonic audibility. And this was one of the good schools. Gotta love that Ministry of Education. No money for books or renovations, no, but boy, their cars sure are spiffy.
When you have to bribe a teacher to go to school, something’s fucked up within the system. When the politicians drive Mercedes Benz around town while most people can barely afford a moto, there is, most certainly, a ‘cancer on the presidency’, to use an old Watergate quote. (Okay, okay – Cambodia doesn’t have a president, only a prime minister, but ‘cancer on the prime ministership’ doesn’t sound boss…)
Sometimes I’m left reeling here. Not only by what I know about Cambodia, firsthand, but what I read about the rest of Asia, secondhand. The latest issue of THE ECONOMIST features a headline that reads: “How To Save Myanmar”, another corrupt military regime that does jackshit for its people and has no intention of altering that present state of stasis. The newest news out of the Philippines details yet another corruption scandal involving their leader, Gloria Arroyo, and protesters yet again demanding a better, stronger, fairer government. A recent article I read regarding the situation in the Philippines made an interesting point: Fillipinos have to learn to trust their institutions, and not their leaders. By investing so much energy into a savior who will lead them to the economic promised land, they are inevitably setting themselves up for failure, because that’s what people do – fail. It’s only the system itself that can endure. (But at least they’re protesting, one could argue. I view, from a distance, the recent corruption scandals in Canada, and I realize: The reason why there aren’t mass protests is simply because, by and large, more often than not, people are doing all right. Even look at some of the recent news coming from Sony; they paid off radio stations and their employees, offering them cash and vacations, in order to play their artists. Nobody on the streets is rioting. Why? Because they are surviving. The politicians may or may not be corrupt, and the corporations may or may not be on the take, constantly, consistently, and the businessmen and governors and premiers may or may not be lying through their teeth, and hockey may have been missed for a year, but, in the end, life is good. Ah. Inertia. You wonder why most of the world seen on your nightly news seems so, well, chaotic? Why the people seem so angry? Because the leaders are corrupt and the system itself is fucked and it’s the people that pay. Almost everywhere. Throughout the world. I feel like I’ve seen it, lived it, felt it. That’s the only conclusion I can come to.)
It reminded me of what Al Pacino says in The Godfather III – as a young man, he thought that the higher up he climbed, the more moral and humane the system would become, only to discover otherwise. How much do we trust our institutions? How much do we trust the people running them? At a certain point, no matter how high you get, will it always come down to a man in a back room with faulty air conditioning saying: “Now is the time when you give me some money”?
I don’t know.
Growing up, I trusted the people at the front of the room. The ones wearing glasses, with the ties and the nifty pens. They seemed to know the deal.
The scary thing is, I’ve now become one of those dudes – wearing glasses, standing in front of a whiteboard, saying this and saying that and trying to look, if not credible, at least intelligible. (And sometimes even succeeding.) I had the good fortune of being an ‘individual consultant’ with a UN agency for an extended period of time, and I gradually realized that, despite an institution’s size or gravity, people are people are people are people. You can be flattered by the logo on the shirt, awed by the mural on the wall, but there are people inside, and they are often noble and scared, passionate and exhausted, and they are sometimes confused, and they are trying to do their best, the only way that they know how. (Kind of like the Duke boys in Hazzard county, though that’s just a little bit more than the law will allow…)
Sometimes that is a recipe for progress, development, innovation and growth; often, it is a recipe for incompetence, stall-tactics, justifications.
So, yes. I think that’s what happens. As complex and convoluted as the world and its many corridors are, there is a similar process that opens the lock each and every time. You are taken into a back room, and money exchanges hands. Perhaps not literally, no, because we in the west are more subtle than that, more careful than that. But at a certain point, somebody in power has something that you want, and you have to do what you have to do to get it. That could mean cash, or cheque, or a slow and steady compromise of your principals – the tie you don’t want to wear at work, or the little white lie you have to tell your client every now and then. It may be more gritty and blunt over here in Cambodia, and you may feel the sweat of the palm you’re greasing a little more easily, but that’s just a matter of degrees. Plain and simple, isn’t it?
But sometimes I just wish it wasn’t so complicated.