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Cambodian future seems bleak

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth

I
had begun writing on a different topic for today’s column. On Jan. 21,
the U.S.-based International Republican Institute released the results
of a survey that said 76 percent of Cambodians are satisfied with the
direction of the country, citing infrastructure improvements such as
roads, bridges, buildings and schools, and 23 percent say it is headed
in the wrong direction, citing corruption, unemployment, poverty and
inflation.

Statistics are awesome. They can be made to say many
things. They are numbers with no feeling. Only real people laugh and
cry. Elite kids spend $2,000 drinking at a nightclub, others scavenge
city dumps for food. Functionaries write checks for $50,000 like it’s
nothing while some citizens, evicted from their only homes, are beaten
by police.

During a coffee break, I read the March 28 New York
Times “Tools for Thinking” by David Brooks. A day after, Brooks’ “More
Tools for Thinking” appeared.

Then, an email arrived from Phnom
Penh. The writer read my column, “Young Khmers key to the future,” and
said I hit the nail on the head. He described the country’s “visible
hardware” — buildings — everywhere, bemoaned its lack of the much
needed “software” — informed critical thinkers. A strong culture of
suspicion and mistrust will “cripple society even deeper into a passive
coma,” he said.

“Even many of the young are now in this unfortunate trend,” he wrote.

His
hypothesis about Cambodia’s future parallels my own. Cambodia is a
nation of youth. More than half of the populace is under the age of 21.
The median age is 22.9 years, but Cambodia spends only 1.6 percent of
itsGDP on education.

An uneducated populace is consigned to
low-skill, low-wage jobs — 4 million live below the poverty line. As
significant is the reality that those who lack education also lack the
tangible and intangible resources that catalyze change, a likely
calculation of a regime that breeds fear and corruption and disdains
its people’s rights.

I scrapped my column on the survey. That email redirected me.

Symposium

As regular readers may have surmised, I don’t write this column to
win popularity. I am trying, in my way, to spark some action from
Cambodians, many of whom seem to have their heads in the sand, so to
speak. Cambodia’s future depends on how its people think. In
furtherance of my mission, I came across Brooks’ columns referencing a
symposium on the mind and society sponsored by the Edge World Question
Center.

Columbia University’s John McWhorter’s “path dependence”
got me under way. “Somethingthat seems normal or inevitable today began
with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but
survived despite the eclipse of the justification of that choice,” he
wrote.

Creatures of habit, men do what they have always done.
When typewriters jammed as people typed too fast, manufacturers
designed a keyboard to slow typists down. We don’t use typewriters
anymore, but with our state-of-the-art computers, Brooks noted we still
use “the letter arrangements of the qwerty keyboard.”

Evgeny
Morozov’s “The Net Delusion” says man often tries to solve problems by
using solutions that worked in the past, rather than looking at each
situation on its own terms. New conflicts are still seen through the
prism of Vietnam, the Cold War or Iraq.

Brooks, who noted that
many contributors to the Edge symposium discussed the concept of
“emergence,” wrote that “public life would be vastly improved” if we
relied more on this concept.

“Emergent systems,” he explained,
“are ones in which many different elements interact. The pattern of
interaction then produces a new element that is greater than the sum of
the parts, which then exercises a top-down influence on the constituent
elements.”

Culture is an emergent system, Brooks wrote. “A group
of people establishes a pattern of interaction. And once that culture
exists, it influences how individuals in it behave.”

Emergent
systems must be studied differently, “as wholes and as nested networks
of relationships,” Brooks said. He suggested we think “emergently”
rather than try to address a problem like poverty through teasing out
individual causes.

Fast facts

I have written about the impact of Cambodia’s traditional
hierarchical culture. Brooks’ comments align with my long-held view
that culture influences how people behave. What is supported by the
theory of emergent systems is the idea that culture is susceptible to
change.

Unfortunately for Cambodians, education and the
intellectual capacity that is its outcome, are essential elements to
cultural change.

A reminder about how a high-quality education is
essential to a meaningful life is found in some fast facts on the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation’s website. The Foundation notes that a
college degree or professional certificate is critical for most young
people to achieve success and security in today’s labor market. By
2018, 63 percent of U.S. job openings will require college education,
and employers will need some 22 million new workers with college
degrees, but colleges will fall short by 3 million graduates. U.S.
adults ages 55 to 64 are tied for first in the industrialized world in
college degree attainment, but young Americans ages 25 to 34 are tied
for 10th.

Cambodia’s future seems bleak. The generations of
Cambodians, my generation, that profited from at least a basic
education, will fade away. The young who are left to carry on must
grasp the importance of education and find a way to pursue learning.
What they think and do now will determine their nation’s future

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.

Source: Guampdn

Categories: Opinion
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