Looking at a normal street scene one cannot help but notice the overwhelming majority of young people. They can be a pesky lot when they ride their motorcycles with abandon and without regard for their own, or other people’s lives. Traffic would run a lot more smoothly and with fewer accidents if it were not for those obnoxious young people (not to mention those motodups and tuk-tuks).
With all these young people, Cambodia is headed down a path that should be cause for concern. The people as such seem to be quite unable to raise, educate, train, or otherwise guide their young people so that they may become productive members of society. More than 50% of the population is under 25 years old (CIA World Factbook). As the World Factbook states, it will be the government’s daunting task to fashion a policy that helps create jobs. These jobs have to be generated in the civil sector, as the country certainly doesn’t need any more civil servants who while away their days pestering the people they are supposed to serve. In one of those leaked cables, the U. S. Embassy also notes that the PM and his government are faced with this great problem and may fear the consequences of this imbalance as those young people, after getting at least a minimal school education, all of sudden find that the world out there doesn’t have the jobs that would afford them a life that is portrayed in all those TV commercials. These commercials invariably show people driving shiny cars, having the latest cell phones, and all live in well-appointed houses or apartments. An especially stark contrast between reality and the TV dream world are the kitchens shown on TV. Even in more affluent houses in Phnom Penh you will hardly find any of those nice and shiny kitchens with the most modern appliances. (The fact is that an estimated 70% still cook their meals on wood-fires.)
It appears as if TV sets are turned on 24 hours a day. And since the young people have nothing to do but watch TV most of the time (excepting the better-off kids who own a computer and spend their time in front of that), they eventually find out that their expectations of what they can achieve are way overblown. This indeed does pose a grave risk for Cambodian society as a whole. High un- or underemployment among the young creates social problems. Dissatisfaction generates unrest, crime, and higher drug use.
A ghastly reminder of that happened just a few days ago when three young thugs robbed and shot dead a moneychanger in broad daylight in plain view of many people in front of a curbside market near the airport. Their take: $30,000. Especially horrifying was the calmness and magnanimity with which one gangster shot that woman, took his time arranging the box with the money to sit right when getting on the pinion seat of the motorcycle and then rode off into traffic. Dismayingly, nobody moved to help that woman on the ground. (The media report that the son-in-law tipped those people off.)
As Americans know very well, their country is among the ones with the highest crime rates in the world. Explanations often quoted are the disparity between rich and poor, the dwindling middle class, and the economic problems that led to an unemployment rate of about 10%. There are distinctive similarities between these two otherwise so different countries. In Cambodia the unemployment rate is around 20%, the disparity between rich and poor is even more drastic, petty crime is ever-present, serious, and violent crime an almost daily occurrence. Add to that the general lack of individual discipline, the disregard for rules, regulations, and the law, and you have all the ingredients for future social upheavals.
There is virtually no middle class in Cambodia. In fact, it probably is rather difficult to define social classes to begin with. We know there are rich people as evidenced by their flaunting their wealth with grandiose villas, multiple luxury SUVs, and spending habits that rival those of African chieftains and Arab princes. But where are the people that hold down clerical jobs in private companies and government? People that make, say, around $500 to $1,000 a month. The jobs paying that kind of money are far and few between, as anybody who is somewhat familiar with the local economy knows. Then, of course, we have the vast lower class; the people that just survive on the bare minimum. To be honest, after so many years I am still amazed how they do it. Everybody seems to own at least a motorbike, cars clog the streets of Phnom Penh, and even in villages many people are proud owners of a car.
But what are the prospects of all these people that enter the job market, where they cannot find jobs; sometimes for lack of knowledge, sometimes because they studied the wrong subject, mostly though, for lack of a broader economic base – there simply aren’t enough jobs. What they do know, however, to put it somewhat crassly, is how to make babies. All these young people seemingly get married before they are 22, at least that goes for the women, and the young men are not much older. Parents are afraid their daughters will become old spinsters if they are not married by that age. These parents are maybe not even 40 themselves, or barely over 40. And in most cases, within a year of their wedding the young people are proud parents of a baby boy or girl. A second one will be on the way shortly thereafter, and so on, and so on. In other words, that population growth will go on unabated exacerbating the serious situation in the job market exponentially. People in Cambodia as a rule have more than two children, the number that would sustain a population. Of course, part of the problem lies with the good old Asian tradition to have as many children as possible so these would support their parents in old age. But if those children have no jobs, no prospects in life, that tradition is going to blow up in their parents’ face. The children along with their parents will be destitute. The children can’t afford to support their parents any more. It may eventually lead to the children abandoning their old parents and who then have no way of supporting themselves. This dire picture is especially true for Phnom Penh and its surrounding districts that grow ever closer together on account of that resurgent building boom. It is an established fact that the urban poor’s plight is far worse than their fellow fellow citizens’ in rural areas are. The break-up of the traditional Asian family takes place first in the cities, and that is definitely noticeable in Phnom Penh. Sometimes, however, this is not restricted to just the young people.
Two cases in point:
A nearly 70-year-old couple gave up their son to a Canadian couple for adoption when he was 12 years old. They believed the son would have a better life there, and naturally thought, that he would support them later; which he did, being the good Cambodia son that he was.
That first happened in 1972 or so. Subsequently, wanting another child they brought up an adopted daughter who then unfortunately got married to a drunkard. The drunken husband fell off his bike and was killed in the accident. He didn’t provide for his family to begin with but now he left her with a baby girl and no prospects of supporting herself. She got married to another man, but obviously had a disposition to live with an alcoholic because that second husband was a drunkard too. They produced four children. Anybody can guess what will become of those children.
The in the meantime adult son in Canada fell on hard times with his business after the financial crisis in 2008 and was unable to support his natural parents further. Their adopted daughter was also unable to take care of them. In the end, these foolish (one cannot say otherwise) people borrowed money using their house, the only asset they had left, as collateral and used it in a small-time loan-sharking business. Loan-sharking because they charge outrageous interest rates, e. g. from 5% to 10% per month. Of course, it’s unsecured loans, as small as the loans may be, so a premium interest rate may be acceptable, but 120% per year? The reasoning goes like this: you have $5,000, you get $500 a month, which is enough for them live on. We all know the catch, of course. And that promptly happened after a while. Somebody couldn’t pay and they were out of their money, owing the bank, which threatened to take their house. To their great relief they found somebody who loaned them the money.
These old folks have an even older mother, around 98. Now this bleak situation meant they couldn’t look after her any more either, not that they had done that a lot before. They simply ignored the fact that the mother was still alive. Thankfully, the youngest son of that old lady and his daughter at least give the mother and grandmother shelter and a little food. Guess what? The situation isn’t much better in that part of the family. The granddaughter’s husband sired four children with his wife and two with his mistress - on a policeman’s salary.
And then there is this old lady, over 70, she doesn’t really know how old she is, who also adopted a daughter as her husband died before they had children together. She brought her up, but that daughter was in the habit of spending money she didn’t have. She always borrowed from neighbors and so-called friends. In the end, the situation had become so bad she had to leave the little village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where they lived. She left the son she had with her mother. Needless to say, that the husband had left a long time ago. The grandson seemed to be a decent guy. He stayed with his grandmother and took care of her. But this only lasted until age 19. He got a job as a driver at a garment factory, met girl, promptly impregnated her, and under her threat of suicide married her. Here he was with hardly a place to live, no job (which he lost during the downturn after 2008), but with a wife and a baby. Eventually, he took off too to find a job elsewhere, forgetting about his destitute grandmother who doesn’t know where the next meal comes from. (She did find somebody who is helping her out though.)
These two examples show how poverty will eventually break up a family; and these are not singular cases. When push comes to shove, not much seems to be left of the moral fiber that normally makes up the core of family values in Cambodia. They also show that no matter how precarious their situation, people will produce babies regardless. In another post I had mentioned that in rural areas these values still seem be very much intact. Children take care of their old folks. But here too more and more young people migrate to the urban centers to find ‘better’ jobs in a garment factory or in the construction business.
Nonetheless, traditional values still play a determining role in starting a family both in urban and rural areas. These traditions and values only confound the population problem.
Another case in point:
A young man, by now 28, went to college and got a bachelor’s degree in tourism, which isn’t much worth in the grand scheme of things, but nevertheless, he got a better education than most. Best of all, nobody helped him. He paid his way through college by working in the mornings and at night. In the afternoon, he went to class. Now one would expect that he would go about planning his future a little better, and that always includes some sort of family planning. First of all, he got married before he graduated because his parents and the prospective wife’s parents put a lot of pressure on him. They threatened she might go with another suitor. After all, she was a ripe 22 years old and might miss the boat. His manly pride couldn’t take that. So he did the deed. In my typical Western concept I had advised him, first, not to get married before he had landed a proper job after graduation, and, second, don’t have kids until he was somewhat settled financially. He agreed wholeheartedly, but his in-laws had a different plan for them. Just four months into his marriage, his mother-in-law consulted with a fortuneteller who predicted that this year was very auspicious for the birth of a grandson. As things go, she ruled that her daughter was to have that baby this year and they promptly set to work. Not too long afterwards, we learned they were going to be parents. In the beginning, it didn’t seem all that bad, as he had indeed landed a job as a hotel manager and made $500 a month. Three weeks into that job the owners let him go as they found out that a rookie couldn’t really help them fill the hotel. Well, he found out the hard way that life ain’t that easy after all. Now he and his wife live in his in-laws' house, without a job, and a baby on the way.
At the bottom rung of society you have the absolutely ignorant, one is tempted to say dumb, people who have no idea that there is such a thing as birth control. Of course, these people are poor to begin with, they are absolutely uneducated, just scrape by, but their natural drives are well defined. They don’t know how to support the family of six to begin with, always complain about the poor hand they were dealt in life, but then before they know it, there is a fifth child on the way. The mother says, “I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I was 5 months along.” Suuure! There is an office of the The Reproductive and Child Health Alliance (RACHA) in Phnom Penh. They provide birth control devices for people free of charge. But one needs to know about these things first, right?
All these factors relative to the population and its growth come together in Cambodia, a country that is trying mightily to overcome its third-world status. There are no easy answers or quick-fix solutions available for this overwhelming problem. One answer surely is education both sexual and general, but that will take generations before any tangible results would be seen. China’s policy of a one-child family was cruel and drastic, led to infanticide, and was counter-productive. Surely, this is one thing the government here doesn’t want to even begin to consider.
Certain segments of the opposition conjure up social unrest as the one means to unseat the hated government. There is an email campaign underway called ‘The Lotus Revolution’. I have no idea who is behind it; I just somehow got on their mailing list and this is how I learned about it. This is a pipe dream at best in my opinion. The Cambodian people are submissive in character and won’t go to these extremes, not by a long shot. Nevertheless, a program needs to be put in place that stems the population growth. The government has so much influence on the mass media, especially TV. A PR campaign driving home the need for birth control over and over again would be a first step. Most assuredly, the statement on TV by a highly placed person in Cambodia that the country needs more people is not pointing the people in the right direction and I am just puzzled what that person was thinking. The government and NGOs helped bring down the number new HIV infections. Surely, this problem deserves just as much attention.