Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Lucifer Effect

Cambodia has a lot of fertile farm land, hot weather, and plenty of fresh water in its rivers, lakes, and rain.  The land produces rice, vegetables, fruits, fish and farm animals easily.  So why is it so poor these days?  Much of the misery is, of course, man-made.  The Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s were exceptionally brutal, said to have killed 2 million out of the then 8 million population.  The country is still suffering from the madness and its corrupting influences decades later.  How can people be so cruel to each other, even their own people? 

Philip Zimbardo, in his book “The Lucifer Effect - How good people turn evil”, argues that the sadistic jail guards and butchers of the killing fields were not necessarily evil by nature.  But “normal” people, even good people, can turn evil when they are put into situations in which they are given unchecked power over dehumanized “enemies”.  Further, they will almost certainly turn evil if they are pressured to conform to an evil “in” group.

In 1971, Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment - the “Stanford Prison Experiment” - with a group of “normal” students from Stanford University.  He assigned them randomly into the roles of “prisoners” and “prison guards” in a simulated prison.  In just a few days, the prisoners turned submissive and passive.  The guards turned sadistic, performing many abusive, sexual, humiliating, torturous acts towards the “prisoners” that are disturbingly prescient of those subsequently reported in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq exposed in 2004.

Zimbardo’s conclusion was that these sadistic “guards” in the simulated prison turned evil not because of some inherent faults in their character, but because of the influence of the “situation” that they were put under - as guards in the simulated prison.  He argued that almost all of us, when put under such situations, will conform to the assigned role and turn evil. 

I agree with Zimbardo that practically all of us will turn evil when we are put under such pressurizing situations.  But I disagree partially with his explanations.  We will turn evil, not because we are inherently good, who are only pressured to turn evil.   We will turn evil because we have the potential, in fact, tendencies to be evil, in us inherently.  These evil tendencies will rear it head when they are given a chance, as in “the situation”.  We can only prevent it by being vigilant - recognizing and staying away from such situations as much as possible.  And when we cannot avoid being put under such situations, draw on the courage and power of God to overcome the evil. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

People movers in Cambodia

Here are some of the ways people move around in Cambodia. 

I heard that one can take those “stand-up only” buses from the countryside into Phnom Penh every day for a month for $5 US dollars. 

In contrast, a short tuk-tuk ride costs $2 US dollars.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

HKPolyU - Cambodian Service-Learning Team

We had a BIG team this time.  There were 2 professors, 6 teaching assistants, 34 students doing the project for credit, 10 not for credit, 2 staff volunteers and 2 staff observer, for a total of 56 from our university.  In Cambodia, we were joined by 29 students from Human Resource Development Institute, 8 volunteers from New Life Fellowship, and 4 volunteers from Young Men’s Christian Association, for a total of 41 Cambodians.  Hence we had a grand total of 97 in the team.

And we could not have done all the projects without the Cambodian volunteers and students, particularly the survey of the slum.  Our Hong Kong team did not speak Khmer, and the locals mostly did not speak English or Chinese.  Without these young Cambodian translators, we could not possibly have conducted such a large scale survey, covering more than 100 families in 4 afternoons.  The same would be true with all the workshops on stop motion animation, animation with Scratch, robotics, etc. 

Somewhat surprisingly, most of the Cambodian youth volunteers have never been to the slums, and have never seen that side of Cambodia, until we took them there.  Many of them came from the country side, and were not rich.  They were aware of the garbage dump and the slums.  But they have not seen how bad it really was, with their own eyes.  Many of them also have not participated in service learning projects in the intensive manner that we conducted them.  So it was a challenging, rewarding experience for them as well. 

As I explained to the HRDI students in the 2 day training in preparation for the service, there is a digital divide between them and the young people in more developed places such as Hong Kong and the USA.  But there is another digital divide between themselves and those even less privileged in their own country.  While they learn from us, they also have much to offer to some of their own countrymen.  You do what you can, given the situation that you are in.  In the meantime, many of the Cambodian students have made good friends with many of our Hong Kong students.  It is wonderful to see that happening.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Children - worlds apart

Just 4 days after coming back from Cambodia, I found myself watching the musical “Annie” at the Academy of Performing Arts.  It is a musical based on a comic strip about an orphan Annie who was adopted by one of the wealthiest man in the USA in the 1930s.  There were lots of children in the audience.  During the intermission the children were running and rolling around happily on the carpet.  They were healthy, well-fed, and well-dressed.  The parents were lining up to buy snacks for the children.  A can of coca-cola sold for 2 US dollars. 

Intuitively, I did the mental conversion into the Cambodian context.   2 US dollars is roughly the amount that a primary school teacher in Cambodia can afford to spend each day - on food, housing, education for the children, and everything else.  I could not help but mentally compare the situation of the Cambodian children in the slums to the situation of the children watching “Annie” in Hong Kong.  What a difference!  But also, why such a difference?

There are lots of possible political, historical, cultural, and economical explanations for the disparity.  But fundamentally, they are all children, created by God.  Why should one live in the filthy slums in Cambodia, while the other gets to roll around on the carpet at the APA?

More immediately important, perhaps, is the question: what are we going to do about it, now that we know about it?  Can we pretend that it is not happening?  Can we take the position that it does not concern us, that it is not our responsibility?   I do believe we are responsible for our brothers - fellow human beings, particularly the children, who cannot fend for themselves. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Children of the Garbage Dump

Here are some of the children who live at the slum next to the Steang Meanchay garbage dump. 

They may smile at you.  That does not mean they live happy lives and have no worries.

Most walk and run bare feet through the mud, sludge, garbage and worse.

Most eat food covered by flies.

Some pick lice out of each other’s hair.

Some play half-naked or completely naked in the rain.

Some bath in the open from the communal water pot.

Some are covered with sores.

Most make their living by picking recyclables from the garbage.  ... 

Many do not go to, or stay in school.  What is in the future for them?

Monday, June 11, 2012

March for Li Wang Yang (李旺陽)

My wife and I went to the march late, and caught up with a group of artists near the tail end of the march in Sheung Wan.  We were soaking wet, having almost ran all the way from Wan Chai to Sheung Wan.

When we moved through the crowd and reached the front, we found that the march was halted by a police cordon on Western Street (西邊街) just before reaching Des Voeux Rd. West (德輔道西), right in front of the Western District Headquarters and Police Station, the so called Police Station No. 7 (七號差館). 

We saw intense negotiations between the leaders of the marchers, with much gesticulations on both sides.

Suddenly, some of the marchers broke through.  Was it the result of successful negotiation?  I could not tell.  But the marchers were soon stopped by a second cordon on Des Voeux Rd. West, and prevented from marching to their destination - the Liaison Office of the Central Government (中聯辦).

A scuffle broke out on the north side of Des Voeux Rd., apparently triggered by a man shouting at the marchers.

On the south side of Des Voeux Rd., there was a break through the cordon while the police’s attention was drawn to the scuffle on the north side. 

Suddenly a team of police rushed out of the police station to give chase.

Quickly, a third cordon was set up right in front of the (back door) of the Liaison Office.  For a while, there was a stalemate.   Soon however, someone told the crowd to move to the front of the Liaison Office.  They encouraged the marchers to gradually press forward, with hands held high to signal peaceful, non-violent intentions. 

It worked, after much pushing and pulling.  The police cordon broke.   They retreated to the last line of defense at the front of the Liaison Office.

A large crowd gathered in front of the front door of the Liaison Office on Connaught Rd. West (干諾道西).  People shouted slogans, demanding justice for Li Wang Yang.  The police was doing a lot of filming of the crowd.  So did several people from inside the Liaison Office.   That reminded me of what happened 23 years ago, in 1989, at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, Canada where my wife went to protest the Chinese government’s treatment of the protest and subsequent massacre at Tiananmen Square.  23 years have passed, but progress has not been made.

In the end, the crowd dispersed peacefully.  We Hong Kong people have demonstrated time and again we are courageous but non-violent in making a stand for justice - precisely the quality required of a mature civic society.  Who can accuse Hong Kong people of not being ready for true democracy?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Survey of Slum at Steang Meanchay garbage dump

One of our teams carried out a survey for the Happy Tree organization at one of the slums at Phnom Penh’s garbage dump at Steang Meanchay.  Happy Tree asked us to help them find out who live there, how many people are in each of the houses, how they are related, whether the children are going to school, what health issues they have, and other relevant information, so they can serve the people better. 

The people who live there make their living by picking recyclable trash from the dump.  They have to collect the trash, sort them, wash them, dry them, and then pack them in bags to take to the collection centers.

They live in filthy conditions surrounded by trash.  The children often have little or now clothing, and walk on the trash (containing metal, needles and other sharp objects) without shoes or even slippers.  They eat with their bare hands while standing in garbage, right next to drying rice covered with flies - meant for chicken or pigs.  They are often covered with sores.  One boy had a sore on his bare buttock which attracted numerous flies - many of us cringed and cried inside when we saw that. 

Our original plan was to use GPS (Global Positioning System) to map out the location of the 100+ houses in the slum, and then use an application (program) designed to collect data for such surveys on iPADs and iPhones to collect the data.  I soon realized that the GPS data was too error-prone to be the single source of location data. Hence I walked through the whole slum to draw a map manually, to supplement the GPS data.  Our students also found out that using the application to enter data directly was too slow, and decided to jot down the data by hand, to be entered later into the computer in the evening.  So we adapted - successfully. 

The slum is evolving, along with the city itself.  The city decided to stop dumping the trash at Steang Meanchay 3 years ago, and started a new one further south of Phnom Penh at Cheung Ek, near the killing fields.  Some owners of the land, on which the slum sits, had torn down some of the sheds to build new houses.  Some slum dwellers tried to move to the new dump, but were driven back by the government.  It could be a cat and mouse game if the consequences are not so dire. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Service-Learning at Cambodia YMCA

Our students taught at two centers of the CYMCA.  One is in the slum at Toul Sanker, at the north end of Boeng Kak Lake (which has been completely filled in).  The other is at San Sok, 11 kilometers to the north west of Phnom Penh.  Many of the residents at San Sok were actually living in the slums in Phnom Penh.  They were driven out of the city’s alums and moved to San Sok by the government.  But then they found that there were no jobs in San Sok, and many moved moving back to the city center to make a living - often by picking recyclable materials from the garbage dumps. 

Many of the houses at Toul Sanker were built directly above piles of rubbish.  Practically all of the houses on the western shore of Boeng Kak, i.e., on the east side of the old railway track, have been cleared.  Many have been presumably moved to San Sok.

The children at both Toul Sanker and San Sok were taught digital story telling using stop motion animation.  Most of them have never used a compute before.  Yet they learnt to make figures with PlayDough, photograph the scenes, and then used the photographs to create animated stories.

We, and the CYMCA, are hoping that we can help to arouse their interests in computers in specific, and learning in general, to that they can be re-integrated into the government school system, and perhaps to  take a more active approach to their own education.