Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Balancing on a Perch Amid Great Change

A five way intersection:  pagoda, LED display board,
large face on a billboard  and two construction sites. 

For the second time in a week, I saw very young boys working on a job site  of one of the many "western-style" condo complexes going up around the city. They were loading the rubbish trucks, wearing flip flops and long shorts as they hauled broken bricks, sheet metal strips and chunks of cement. On the next morning ride on the sometimes precarious perch on back of Mr. Pichada's motorbike, I counted 20 construction projects, both buildings and roads, within my view.

The most monstrous and, in some ways telling of Phnom Penh’s tsunami of change, is “Olympia City: the miracle of Phnom Penh”. The Chinese construction firm has orchestrated six cranes, at least three elevators and kilometers of green netting over the  towering 11 floors of cement to become retail and condominium complexes. Many of the units are pre-sold, primarily to Chinese, Malaysian and Singapore buyers. The expats look to each other with incredulity, “Who will live in these places?” The private sector replies, “ASEAN is coming. And Cambodia will become a LMIC (low to middle income country.)”

ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, uniting was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to promote political and economic cooperation and regional stability. It now includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Brunei Darsallam and Myanmar. If it achieves the goal for economic integration in the region slated for the end of 2015, the number of workers and shoppers from those countries will increase as goods, services, labor and investment capital is facilitated. Apparently tariffs will be reduced and administrative procedures streamlined. It could be all talk, but there is definitely movement afoot.

Last week, I was waiting in traffic while a parade celebrating ASEAN unity and road safety went by. Mud-splattered trucks emblazoned with ASEANUNITYTOUR stickers and festive with Malaysian flags fluttering whizzed through red lights and the large men at the wheel waved and honked as the police held everyone back for the dignitaries ( a common occurrence here.)

When I was in Malaysia a few months ago, I heard a lot of public service announcements cautioning parents not to let their children stand up on the seats so that they could stick their heads out of the sunroof. Just last week, I saw the same thing happening with one of the many gold Lexuses that frequent the roads here.

Rolls Royce just opened a dealership here in June 2014.. The Minister of Industry and Handicraft said at the opening press conference that “I believe there is room to sell Rolls-Royce in Cambodia. There are many Oknhas now who can afford them,” he said, referring to people granted the honorific by the King in return for assisting Cambodia’s development.

The ranks of the Oknha-- once a highly esteemed designation slating back to the early days of the Kingdom- have grown considerably in the past ten years, going from only 20 in 1994 to now over 700 as reported by the Phnom Penh Post a couple weeks ago. The designation comes from the Royal Palace, with the payment of $100,000 and a commitment to building or supporting charitable projects. However, the increase in numbers generates suspicion that the title is not used to support the poor, but instead to gain favor from the government. Son Chhay, opposition party leader simply said, "it is now a badge of wealth, corruption, of deforestation and of land-grabbing,”


I have heard the NGO and government sector leaders caution that Cambodia will move from a low income country (LIC) to a low middle income country (LMIC), probably within the next 10 years. Naturally, the behavior of the Oknha and the other overseas investors are driving these advances. The implications of this shift for government are clear- estimates are that 30-40% of the central government's budgets are funded by donor aid, and this will dry up when the transition is official. In the past few months, I've noticed the tax department is rigorously collecting, work permits (with back payments required) are being enforced and the price of a tourist visa increased to $30.

The rich are pursuing the quick profits of resource extraction and demonstrating their wealth with prestigious cars, yet the poor largely still wait patiently on the margins and silently acknowledge their perceptions of their destiny. The middle class squirms to define themselves, seeking the trappings of private schools and a decent vehicle while living within modest budgets.

The shift to prosperity has now fully manifested in the Aeon Mall a tribute to all of the trappings of the rich and upwardly mobile. The mall comes with its own lending division, that now sees 3500 people a month (with an average monthly income of $500) come in for loans for TVs, refrigerators and other appliances.

I understand the hunger for discretionary items. I replaced my notoriously incompetent discount phone a couple of weeks ago.  The damage was just over $300, a little less than her monthly take home salary. She noticed it and commented, "We usually buy secondhand."  My heart sagged a little, recognizing the disparity of our respective ages and incomes, and social/cultural backgrounds. This little sag happens to me nearly every day in various contexts, recognizing the myriad of struggles I see every day.

Over and over,I see both the very poor (the people we serve)  and young, emerging middle class families (our staff) hanging on for this wild and terrifying battle between the cost of living and the adequate wages. The people who come in from the rural provinces try to eke out a rice harvest amid the vagaries of a changing climate. They urban poor find themselves evicted to make way for high-rise shopping malls or speculative schemes, then often relocated to places far from education, a job or medical care.

The White Building: one of Phnom Penh's examples from Vann Molyvann.

News released earlier this week states plans for eviction and demolition,

with reports of an insider deal on new construction in the works. 

On the daily morning rides to work I sit, trusting and balanced, as Mr. Pichada weaves among cars, past the construction sites and among all the people having a start to their day.  Some days he stops a little abruptly and occasionally we breeze through green lights with a near miss against the errant crazyboy.   
There is a constant attention to the maintaining the internal reserve to keep my balance in this mad, chaotic, rapidly changing environment.   It is for this reason- while waiting in traffic-- I often find myself looking skyward to the terrace gardens that are prolific on my commute.   I remember the dragonfruit tree that I noted on the side of the White Building in one of my early accounts of Phnom Penh living-- the brilliant pink of the fruit heralding growth and stability among a decrepit looking building.

The residents of the White Building- deemed iconic and housing a community of civil servants, many who have been there since it was built in 1963-- are not going without a fight. I know all these young families- now focused on providing fair opportunity to their children and disgruntled with the patterns of greed and corruption-- will have a chance to rise up too.  But in the meantime, life in Phnom Penh is a wild ride.