Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

April 29, 2016

Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

“Real education enhances the dignity of a human being and increases his or her self-respect. If only the real sense of education could be realized by each individual and carried forward in every field of human activity, the world will be so much a better place to live in.”– A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

A recurring theme in this column is the importance of institutions in building the nation: in particular those preserved and established by the Federal Constitution and other laws.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz and Associates

But nation-building can also rest in institutions that are not established by statesmen, constitutionalists or hacks seeking a narrow political objective: in particular, those created by educators.

Over the past week, I have been reminded of this in powerful terms visiting schools and universities in the United Kingdom that — despite their academic accolades, graduate employment statistics or state-of-the-art facilities — still speak proudly and passionately about their histories and traditions. On their students they impart not only knowledge, but an institutional heritage too.

At the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where my father was last week conferred an Honorary Fellowship, it was clear how proud they are of their founding in 1505, and their central role in the development on the profession itself. A story to which they have devoted a large (and sometimes macabre) museum.

At Aberystwyth University, where my father was an undergraduate and was made an Honorary Fellow in 2014, they spoke beamingly of how the university pioneered certain disciplines and enthusiastically shared their plans to renovate their Old College building.

At the University of South Wales, where my father received an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 2013, a connection was made between the latest facilities in the aerospace engineering faculty and the origins of the two establishments that merged to form the current university — a mechanics institute founded in 1841, and a school serving the coal mining industry founded in 1913.

These visits were short, but still their peculiarities shone through. When talking to Malaysian students at the three universities, their focus was no doubt on how the knowledge and skills acquired will contribute to their goals in support of their families, employers or country (there were many government scholars), but still they were aware that they have become ambassadors for their universities and not just ambassadors for Malaysia while there.

More so than universities, in terms of instilling a unique identity and character building, are secondary schools, especially boarding schools. At my old school, Marlborough College, on the way back to London, a brief walk around campus reminded me of the hours I spent reading history books, imagining glacial formation, getting my head round quadratic equations and practising Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, and also an entire vocabulary of school-specific terms that I haven’t had to use since 2000.

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name. — Picture by  Malay Mail

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name.

The Penang Free School (Founded in 1816) will celebrate its 200th Anniversary on October 21, 2016–Fortis Atque Fidelis. The name is back too. UMNO Politicians, known to mess everything up, tried to call it Sekolah Menengah Penang Free.

I realise now how crucial this was in fostering a deep camaraderie. Some critics condemn such institutions as elitist and exclusionary, and their reaction is to favour uniformity: to remove the things that make specific establishments unique: to make most people get the “same” treatment.

This ultimately results in a centralising tendency in which bureaucrats, rather than principals and teachers, make many of the decisions that directly impact on the student experience. Thus, instead of having educational institutions that are inspired by their own ethos and history, we have schools and universities that have to operate within over-prescribed limits.

We have already seen the effects of this, from the reduction in diversity between schools and the reduction of diversity within them. That is why so many who were educated at English national-type schools want them to return, because they attracted Malaysians of all races.

Most tragic is the loss of institutional memory in our historic schools, where simply the passage of time, the relocation of campuses or name changes have been used to erase aspects now deemed undesirable.

There does seem to be some resistance:  St John’s Institution just won the right to revert to its original name after a campaign from its alumni. Even this needed to be cleared by the ministry, though.

Earlier this month, I was at Tuanku Muhammad School in Kuala Pilah (which my father attended in the 1950s) to witness the unveiling of its centenary landmark, and there too I saw different generations reminisce about the classrooms they were taught in, the food they ate, the corridors they walked.

But recently, in much newer schools too I have seen how innovative principals have used what they can to endow some unique characteristics for their pupils, from the names of their houses, or even the murals on the walls. I hope that such phenomena will be seen as beneficial by our politicians and bureaucrats.

Great educational institutions may have their idiosyncrasies. And in being so, they prepare young people for real life: to endow the idea that as workers and citizens, it’s the shared experiences that create unspoken bonds, that everyone is bound by the rules, and that traditions matter.

* Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.



More on the MAS-Mueller Story

April 29, 2016

More on the MAS-Mueller Story

by Mariam Mokhtar


MAS in its Glory Days under Saw Huat Lye and Abdul Aziz Rahman

Last February, Malaysian Airlines Berhad (MAB) finally made a profit after years of being in the red. Two months later, Christoph Mueller, the company’s first non- Malaysian CEO, announced that he would leave in September 2016, well before the end of his contract.

What prompted his decision? Why leave after making such brilliant progress? Did anyone believe him when he said he was leaving because of “changing personal circumstances”? Let’s see if we can find a reason for Mueller’s decision.

MAS Today

In 1994, former PM Mahathir Mohamad gave control of the successful national carrier, then known as MAS, to his crony, Tajuddin Ramli. But instead of taking good care of the golden goose, Tajuddin and successive chairmen strangled the company.

Making Tajuddin MAS’ executive chairman and selling the company to him was part of Mahathir’s bumiputera corporate advancement project.

Mahathir should have instead adopted his Singapore counterpart Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to running an airline. In 1972, seven years after Malaysia and Singapore split, the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines had to be disbanded. On the eve of the formation of Singapore Airlines, Lee told the workers’ union that his government would have no compunction in closing the company down if it did not return a profit.

 Mahathir, Najib and MAS Advisor Badawi

Now that MAB is back in the black, we fear that the government and its cronies will start to bleed it again until, perhaps, it’s time for another foreigner to come to its rescue. There are Malaysians capable of doing the job, but only a foreigner can wield the stick without inviting too much scrutiny. After all, MAB has political appointees on its board.

Mueller’s role is to act as a foreign advisor. He also gives the MAB board a semblance of respectability.When Mueller first arrived at MAS, he allegedly asked Khazanah how many middle managers the airline had. Apparently, no one knew. It is alleged too that middle managers were running their own firms and bleeding MAS dry by providing services at inflated prices.

When the first cull was made in MAS, the cronies were the first to go. You might think this was a good move, but a MAS insider alleges that it was actually a plan calculated to give a golden parachute to faithful cronies. The cronies and middle managers received handsome retrenchment terms calculated from the time they were first employed. Some had been there for three decades. They received huge amounts in compensation.

Christoph Mueller, and Ahmad Jauhari Yahya

Aware that MAS could not afford to continue giving away these vast sums of money, the management announced that over the next few years, more people would be sacked or asked to retire early but would not be given the same generous compensation terms. In effect, it was a way of getting rid of workers cheaply.

When MAS changed its name to MAB, the employees who were thankful they had been retained had to accept new terms in their contract, which included the prospect of having their services terminated with only two months’ notice. That was why MAS workers were unhappy. Cronies were rewarded. Genuine, hard-working employees were treated shabbily.

So, did Mueller decide to leave because he has a conscience? Or was he concerned about his reputation? He once turned around the ailing Aer Lingus, but with all that is happening in Malaysia now, he probably realises that the longer he waits, the more he risks messing up his CV.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many proud Malaysians were happy to serve MAS. It was a respected and successful airline. If we were to remove political interference, MAB could soar in the skies once again.

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: A life devoted entirely to Singapore

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

UMNO’s hegemony based on racism and religion

April 24, 2016

UMNO’s hegemony based on racism and religion is embodied in the Malaysian Constitution

by  Cmdr (rtd)  S. Thayaparan

“By linking something to race or religion, politicians distract Malaysians from the core issue while also garnering support from those whose identities depend heavily on their racial or religious identities – meaning most Malaysians.”– Brian Yap, ‘New Malaysian Essays 1’

Contrary to what constitutional law expert Abdul Aziz Bari claims, “those provisions” in the constitution relating to race and religion are neither “fair” nor “legitimate”.

UMNO, MCA, MIC, Gerakan and Bee End belong to the dustbin of History

Indeed, any provision that seeks to protect the political interests of any race is, by definition, anathema to any kind of national solidarity and “racist” in nature.

There is no moral or legitimate argument to be made, that the codification of special interests of a majoritarian race-based polity is somehow fair and that “unfairness” is merely a question of application.

Furthermore, contrary to what MCA’s Ti Lian Ker claims, the Federal Constitution is not “accentuating the inherent racism in Malaysia due to its provisions for race and religion” but rather “those” provisions are enabling the inherent racism of a political party determined to maintain political hegemony.

This is not to say that “racism” is not inherent in the non-Malay polity but rather in the political sphere it manifests in different ways. In addition, do not get me started on oppositional discourse.

Behind the running dog invectives thrown the MCA’s way is a deep-rooted sense of racial betrayal, which manifest in the public debates between former MCA strongman Chua Soi Lek and the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng about how Chinese Malaysians are at a crossroads (sic).

However, the MCA political operative did show some cojones when he said “we can consider amending or ratifying our constitution to free ourselves of racism” but of course, he qualified this with the most overused, disingenuous, servile and obnoxious Malaysian excuse of “come a day when we are there – a matured and democratic nation”.

First off, amending the constitution is not going to free “ourselves” of racism. Amending the constitution is merely going to remove mechanism that sanction race-based policies. More than just mere symbolism but rather concrete steps, that acknowledges the reality that all Malaysians should be treated equally regardless of race.

Secondly, the excuse that Malaysians are not mature is complete utter bull manure. The only people who are not mature are the useful idiots that the state employs to protests on the streets whenever any indication of egalitarianism is introduced into the public discourse, be it in matters of race, religion or politics.


The cabals who control those useful idiots are not immature. Theirs is a sustained ill-conceived agenda to maintain political hegemony through notions of racial superiority.

So Abdul Aziz Bari is right when he claims MCA’s collusion not only in the constitution – well, it’s a little more complicated than that – but also the furtherance of agendas that in the end proved more detrimental to the Malay community rather than the non-Malay communities, who somehow managed to thrive and prosper in this environment.

The myth of power sharing

Thriving and prospering on the most part is why the Barisan Nasional enjoyed majority support despite all the electoral legerdemain that has got worse over the long UMNO watch. In other words, the MCA’s sins of collusion for not speaking up when the reality is that the MCA enjoyed majority support from the community it claimed to represent.

Which is why a statement like “So MCA should have trained its gun on UMNO and not the constitution,” is a tad queer. Or maybe not. I suppose this goes back to the question of whether one views those provisions in the constitution as being “fair” or that the “legitimate” concerns could be classified according to ethnicity.

Which is also why the MCA’s nostalgia about bridge building “and interracial goodwill by virtue of our cooperation, understanding and compromises” is merely code for pragmatism, which in itself is a falsity because there is nothing pragmatic about electorally endorsing provisions that separates us along racial and religious lines.

As Mavis Puthucheary wrote, and who I quoted in an article a while back, articulated in ‘Malaysia’s Social Contract – Exposing the Myth Behind the Slogan’:

“In the first 10 years after Independence, the balance of power between the two main parties, UMNO and the MCA, was more or less equal. After 1969, however, the balance of power within the ruling coalition shifted significantly in favour of Umno and the political system itself became less democratic.

“Although both parties fared badly in the 1969 elections, UMNO leaders who had secured control of the government concentrated their efforts on regaining Malay support while still maintaining the power-sharing structure.

“With the introduction of the New Economic Policy and the extension of Malay privileges, especially in the fields of education and employment, UMNO regained its popularity among the Malays and consequently assumed a dominant position in the ruling coalition.”

So this myth that political parties were operating in accordance to some sort of long cherished belief of power sharing as a means of facilitating national unity, is just that – a myth.

UMNO Cultivated Idiots and Bigots

There was no halcyon period of interracial political goodwill but rather the cold comfort of a Malaysian polity engaging in so-called pragmatism because nobody really cared about the advancing forward as a nation but safeguarding the interests of their individual communities.

So Biro Tatanegara (BTN) chief Ibrahim Saad is fooling nobody when he gravely intones, “The problem (of racism) comes when there are elections, when certain quarters want to increase political power by exploiting sensitive issues”, because by “quarters” he means the Chinese community and by “sensitive issues”, he means those issues which maintain UMNO hegemony, issues which are enshrined in our constitution.

In other words, standing up to bigotry and racism becomes a racist act and questioning those very provisions or policies that divide us along racial and religious lines becomes a racial political agenda. This is funny because oppositional parties are bending over backwards and in doing so engaging in the kind of political behaviour that contributes to the system of oppression that has sustained UMNO all these years.

I have said it before, said it again and will always say it. Racial politics is a bitch and apparently an unforgiving one. But Thomas Sowell, who has since become a Republican shill, says it better: “Racism does not have a good track record. It’s been tried out for a long time and you’d think by now we’d want to put an end to it instead of putting it under new management.”

S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.–www.malaysiakini.com

The Days when boys became men

April 4, 2016

The Days when boys became men

Duncan Graham takes a look at a compelling memoir about an uprising — and the power of nationalism in Indonesia. 

The walls against comprehending other nations are high, topped with shards of real or manufactured history, reinforced with rocks of culture. One of the most unassailable is almost close enough to coo-ee – yet despairingly distant.

Indonesians are not like Australians though the Southeast Asian nation is now a democracy, albeit embryonic. It has a robust press and lively social media. After that similarities stumble.

Melbourne Law School Professor Tim Lindsey told a Perspectives: Asia seminar last year: ‘There may be no two neighbouring countries that have such significant differences of language, culture, history, ethnicity and religion as Australia and Indonesia.’

How to diminish these differences?  Along with learning the language, understanding the forces that created modern Indonesia can help.  Like the brutal Battle of Surabaya in late 1945, source of today’s defiant nationalism.

It started as a victory, but like Gallipoli for the Allies in World War I, it turned into a defeat.  British-led Gurkha troops sent to rescue 70,000 European prisoners of the Japanese did not expect resistance.

They laughed off Sukarno’s proclamation of independence on 17 August in Jakarta and set about restoring Dutch rule, even using the hated Japanese troops to maintain order.

The invaders encountered little opposition in the capital and other centres, but the principal port of East Java was no pushover.  It became the real birthplace of the Republic.

Thousands of young men and women who called themselves Arek Suroboyo (Children of Surabaya) launched mass attacks on Japanese armouries.  They used the captured weapons against the British who had been told the Dutch would be welcome back as ‘parents’.

So much for military intelligence and colonial arrogance.  In the first encounter about 600 troops were killed and the British garrison almost destroyed.

The reversal began with the assassination of Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby. The foreign forces started bombing defenceless kampongs and thousands fled south. The fighting climaxed on 10 November, now recognised as National Heroes’ Day.

As Dr Frank Palmos writes in Student Soldiers, his translation of medical student turned street fighter Suhario ‘Kecik’ Padmodiwiryo’s memoirs:  ‘Kecik’s book corrects the common, mistaken assumption that Indonesia was free from the day independence was proclaimed’.

The late journalist and novelist Mochtar Lubis helped found the literary centre Obor (Torch) which has published Student Soldiers.  He urged youngsters to read Kecik’s autobiography to understand the ‘great sacrifices’ made for independence.

With Palmos’ translation that understanding is now accessible – and not to be missed by anyone trying to appreciate the essence of the islands beyond Bali.

Palmos worked as a foreign correspondent in Jakarta before the 1965 coup that brought down Sukarno.  The young reporter had a degree in Indonesian studies from Melbourne University and superior language skills. He used these to interpret the President’s speeches to monolingual diplomats, and get closer to local sources.

Among them was revolutionary leader Dr Roeslan Abdulgani who’d been Foreign Minister in the 1950s and later Ambassador to the UN.  While in New York he was impressed by the way Americans cherished their history and decided this was one Western value worth importing.

His book about the nation’s birth, One Hundred Days in Surabaya that Shook Indonesia (Jakarta Agung Offset), was translated by Palmos into English in 1995. Now we have a guerrilla perspective of the times ‘when boys became men’.

Palmos considers Kecik ‘the brightest literary star to emerge from Surabaya’. He was able to write his memoirs only through the law of unintended consequences applied by Suharto.

The kleptomaniac general overthrew Sukarno, became President and ran his authoritarian Orde Baru administration for 32 years. He maintained power by being staunchly anti-communist which at first won him Western backing.

Kecik had received military training overseas, first in the US, then in Russia.  Despite his revolutionary credentials the fact that he’d been in Moscow made him a suspect fellow traveller when the communist purge was underway.

Instead of being shot or jailed like many others, the Brigadier General was sentenced to home detention. With idle time he set about writing his story.  Meanwhile Suharto was getting others to develop an alternative history with himself at the centre, and his predecessor reduced to being just the fringe-dwelling Proclamator.

Palmos worked with Kecik on the translation and filled the gaps with interviews.  The old man died in 2014 aged 93, satisfied that his story would now get a wider audience.

And what a yarn. Kecik was studying at the Bogor Veterinary School because the Japanese had closed medical colleges.  He made occasional train trips to Surabaya where he found a different mood:  ‘The local people were starting to stand up to them (the Japanese) in sharp contrast to the passivity we experienced in Jakarta’.

It’s a theme that runs through the book – talk in the capital, but action in East Java.  So when the new government of Sukarno ordered the Arek Suroboyo to cease fire there was little chance the instruction would be obeyed.

The rebels were ill disciplined and the many clashes impossible to control.  A boy climbed a flagpole at the Hotel Oranje (now Majapahit) where colonialists were organising their reinstatement.  He ripped down the Dutch tricolour and tore off the bottom blue strip.  The newly-ripped red and white was hoisted and it was game on.

To the colonialists the youngsters were a rabble.  Kecik called them ‘an organic body.’  Strange things happened. When one band entered an armoury they found the Japanese troops guarding the place like robots.  With no orders the men stared ahead while the astonished rebels looted the place.

The book is all the more authentic because it doesn’t paint a monochrome picture. Some of the rebels were sadists, killing and torturing prisoners of war. Casual events triggered major responses. The kids were driven by one cry Merdeka! (Freedom!)  Nothing else mattered.

Indonesia is tagged in the media as Islamic — as though this is the one and only driver of the Republic. Nationalism is more powerful. This book reveals why.

Student Soldiers has also been published by NUS Press in Singapore under the title Revolution in the City of Heroes.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.



Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

April 4, 2016

COMMENT: I do not understand why the view of one person, albiet from the daughter of the late Prime Minister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, should receive our attention, and be the subject of this article titled, Who will end the cult of LKY?

Why should a leader who has done so much for his country  not be admired, remembered and honored by his own people for his contributions to the making of a dynamic, modern and successful Singapore. Since when has remembering and honoring a leader of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s stature been regarded as fawning or an attempt  to create a personality cult.

There is a already a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles  who established Singapore as  a British trading outpost in 1819. There should rightly also be one of Mr. Lee.  Maybe, Changi should be known as Lee Kuan Yew International Airport. But I understand  Mr. Lee has left a will which prevents this from happening.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this bind. A close and respected friend from Singapore told me recently that Singaporeans have wisely chosen to erect a Heroes’ Memorial in honour of Mr. Lee and his colleagues like Goh Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Hon Sui Sen, Eddie Barker, and others.–Din Merican

Remembering  Lee Kuan Yew

by Surekha A. Yadav


On March 21, the front page of the Straits Times carried a photograph featuring a stylised portrait of Singapore’s first, now deceased, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The installation formed, out of 4,877 erasers, was 2.3 metres wide and 3.1 metres high and titled Our Father, Our Country, Our Flag.

Now the first question that came to my mind was… why erasers?But other commentators had different reactions, with one woman in particular asking why so much column space was being devoted to a man who was determined not to see his legacy descend into a personality cult.

“I would ask how the time, effort and resources used to prepare these (commemorations, etc) would benefit Singapore and Singaporeans,” she wrote in a lengthy Facebook post criticising the adulation being heaped on our former leader on the first anniversary of his death. The post was widely circulated, but not by the Straits Times, to which she has been a regular contributor and columnist for years.

A bouquet of orchids seen on the parliamentary seat of founding father and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a remembrance ceremony at the old Parliament. This is particularly interesting because the woman in question is Dr Lee Wei Ling, the daughter of the man represented by the thousands of erasers.

Dr Lee felt the national daily’s refusal to run her critical piece amounted to censorship and she declared on Facebook that she was effectively ending her relationship with the paper “as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech.”

So here we have the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, the effective founder of the modern Singaporean state, telling the newspaper closest to the state off for censoring her criticism of the fawning over her late father, which is happening in the state led by her brother — Lee Hsien Loong.

On one hand, Dr Lee’s point is perfectly coherent; while Lee Kuan Yew imprinted aspects of himself on the nation he effectively engineered, he was no North Korean Kim.

For many years of his rule and influence, we didn’t see giant statues of the man downtown, no LKY international airport or monuments emerged and that strikes me as a very good thing.

The old statesman was even determined to demolish his modest family home to prevent it from becoming a shrine.

On the other, it is a little amusing that a woman of considerable education, success and stature (she is after all the daughter of the first Prime Minister and sister to the current prime minister) feels muffled.

“The editors there do not allow me freedom of speech,” she tellingly says — but have they really offered anyone, bar perhaps our paramount chiefs, freedom of speech since the dawn of the modern nation?

Dr Lee’s father famously said: “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, and schools.”

This has been the basis of the government’s media policy for decades, and our nation’s dismal positioning on global press freedom indexes is also well known, so it’s hard not to meet a sudden burst of outrage from the pinnacle of privilege without a raised eyebrow.

I’ve now seen Lee Kuan Yew commemorative badges handed out and watched a video of children at a local kindergarten being made to bow to a photo of the former PM — someone has to put a stop to this and maybe Dr Lee is the lady for the job. One way or another, the next Lee family dinner ought to be pretty interesting.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

– See more at: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/surekha-a-yadav/article/who-will-end-the-cult-of-lky#sthash.8OsKd0kQ.dpuf


Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

April 1, 2016

Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

by Sok Keang


Cambodia  is a Southeast Asian country that borders Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Her official name is “Kingdom of Cambodia”. The name of the country was changed very often in the last three decades depending on the changes of the forms of government. Cambodia was a monarchy from ancient times until 1970, when she became a republic . It was only in 1993 that Cambodia could reestablish the Kingdom again by following the constitutional parliamentary system. Along with this, Cambodia is also known as a Buddhist country . In the 1960’s about 95% of the total population are Buddhists. The facts show that the Cambodian political culture has its roots in the combination of Buddhist culture, monarchism, and republicanism.

Regarding the topic of the Conference, which focuses on the relation between religions and cultures in Southeast Asia, I would like to share in this conference the relation between Theravada Buddhism  and the political culture of Cambodia by examining how the people behave, believe, expect, and value the political system and political issues. Furthermore, I will also examine how the process of transformation from the authoritarian to the liberal-democratic regime influences the Cambodian political integration in 1993.

Religious Practices in Cambodia

According to the 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “Buddhism shall be the State Religion” (see article 43). Due to this article, most people identify themselves with the saying: “To be a Khmer  is to be a Buddhist”. However, in practice they believe not only in Buddhism, but also in Brahmanism (Vedas)  and Animism (Nakta)  under the name of Theravada Buddhism. This is a traditional heritage from the 13th century A.D.  when Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion in Cambodia. Some people have the image of Buddha as Preah Indra (God). They expect to receive happiness, peace, prosperity, and power from Him. A contrary view of this version is the belief that Buddha is a Great Master (philosopher) and Buddhism is a philosophy of life. Therefore, Buddhism in Cambodia could appear in the forms of “Philosophy”, “Religion”, and “Native Belief” (animism).

As a philosophy, Buddhism plays a secular role in order to lead all humankind to live in equality, justice, peace, and freedom. According to the Buddhist tradition, the pagoda was not only the sacred place but also a school of education. In the past, most Cambodian people got their education in the Buddhist temples. The more you were educated, the more you became a Buddhist. Without knowledge, one might stay away from Buddhism.

As a religion, Buddhism plays the role of Brahmanism instead of the Buddhist philosophy. Here, people believe in the superpower of Buddha as a Creator. Even though they know that the theory of Karma and Rebirth take the role of God and the individual should try to liberate himself by following the ethics of Buddha, still they pray for help from Heaven. It is really different from what Buddha taught. Anyway, this is just the way of practicing Buddhism in Cambodia.

Concerning the belief in Nakta, people see the role of Nakta as an ancestral local spiritual governor (administrator) who has power to judge for social justice, to bring peace, security, prosperity, health, and happiness to society as well as to the succeeding generations in a specific or limited territory.

As you see here, the Buddhist monks serve the society at both secular (moral conduct)  and spiritual (religious practice)  levels. However, Christianity and Islam were considered as foreign religions. Therefore, it was rather difficult for the Cambodian people to appreciate the Christian and Muslim philosophy. Nevertheless, the young people of Cambodia today are very much open to ideologies of the non-Buddhist background, especially Christian philosophy. This fact shows that the practice of Buddhism in Cambodia is going to decrease compared to Christianity and Islam. So, what is the relation between Buddhism and the political culture?

Relation between Buddhism and Political Culture in Cambodia

According to the present political perspective, the root of the Cambodian political culture today is based on the combination of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism . It is a result of observing the long process of making peace and integrating the nation in Cambodia during the civil wars for almost three decades (1970-97). This fact shows that when the government denies any one of these three political elements of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism (aristocracy or democracy), the country would face a civil war and collapse. For example, the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) collapsed because it denied the role and value of the King, the elite people, and all kinds of religious practices, especially Buddhism.

However, in reality there is a group of people who support monarchism because they believe in the power of Heaven to choose the leader instead of believing in their role, duty, and freedom to choose a leader and participate in politics. As a result they became instruments of politics. This group might fight against other groups such as the aristocrats (elites) and the democrats (majority) wherein people actively participate freely and equally in the world of politics. This is a very important part in the study of the current Cambodian political culture.

On the other side, the Khmer language  also causes in part the political problem. The Cambodian people believe that “the death of the language is the death of the culture and the nation.” The Khmer language  determines the moral conduct, the social order, and the way of thinking of the people. So, protecting the language is very important to them. For example, in 1943 the French18  tried to change the Khmer alphabet to the Roman alphabet, but this was defeated because the Cambodian people, especially the Buddhist monks, objected.

However, there is no longer a need to limit oneself to the Khmer language in view of the process of globalization and the free market economy. These new ideologies have influenced the young generation to open up, by saying: “If you know how to speak English, then you will survive wherever you are”.

We can also discuss the problems facing most of Cambodian society today, such as the issues on property, the relation between freedom and equality, and the conflict between democracy and communism.

The issue of property. According to the Buddhist teachings, the worth of a person is not based on one’s economic background or social class. No matter how rich one is or how smart he or she is, if one does not know how to behave oneself in society, then he or she is nothing to the people  even if he or she is a powerful politician. Actually, the people expect to have a good leader who is smart and rich but not corrupt. The people believe that the rich uncorrupted person must either be reborn as rich or s/he was rich in moral values from his/her past moral life; so that if s/he is born poor, s/he can obtain wealth in the present life. And this type of person, which is characterized as morally good, should serve as the leader.

In relation to the land conflict, the significance of Buddhist philosophy appears in Cambodian society through the question: “Does the Earth belong to the person or does the person belong to the Earth?” Some are inclined even to ask the question: “Can a man take all his property with him when he dies?”

Freedom and equality. Most people wish to have freedom and equality in their own society, especially in a democratic country. But somehow they cannot have both equality and freedom because either “one is free but unequal” or “equal but unfree”. According to the Buddhist teaching, social equality is important . For those who believe in Buddhism as a philosophy, he would agree with the theory of social equality. This type of person wishes to live in a society without discrimination, without the caste system. The Buddhists might support socialism, communism, liberalism, or democracy. For example, in true communism the people can be equal in material services and benefits, but unfree in the sense of being controlled by an authoritarian leadership. On the other hand, in true democracy the people are free in their choices but cannot be equal in material possessions and benefits.

But for those who believe in Buddhism as a religion, they would follow Brahmanism in the Buddhist sense. This type of people believe in the saying: men are unequal by birth or they believe in the caste system. They support monarchism which can be constitutional or absolute. The monarchy expects a society with a hierarchy: the king is the head and the people are the subjects. This means that the people are unequal in view of the hierarchical structure and at the same time unfree in the sense that they are subjects. However, the Cambodian Buddhists as subjects can be free in the sense of being not alienated from the monarchy if they acknowledge and accept the fact they are subjects within the structure of the hierarchy. Presently, Cambodia practices constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy. The Cambodians believe that without social structure or hierarchy, man would live in anarchism. In Cambodian society, the people expect to have freedom and equality with respect to social structure, position, and duty. One would have freedom if he or she can maintain the balance between title, role, duty, and responsibility.

Democracy versus Communism. Some political leaders believe that Buddhism is the root of democracy while others consider Buddhism as the root of communism. They explain that when democracy reaches the level of the absolute majority (the common will or 100%), democracy will be transformed into communism because democracy could exist only when there are differences between the majority and the minority. Ideally, democracy and communism are almost the same in the sense that they have similar aspirations in terms of equality, freedom, social justice, brotherhood, and the like. They differ only substantially in terms of property ownership and political leadership. The Cambodian Buddhist believes in a political culture that accepts both private and public property. We expect to have private property with regard to basic needs. But we expect to have public property with regard to the national ideology.


Since the role of Buddhism in Cambodia appears in the forms of philosophy, religion, and animism, the value of the political culture is also different. The majority are the group that believes in Buddhism as a religion and the minority are the group that considers Buddhism as a philosophy. The Middle Path of Buddhism guides both politicians and the people: the politicians, to be moderate in their political life, and the people, to participate in politics through correct balance or the Middle Path. This is the philosophy of the “Head-Wing,” which accepts both sides: the left and the right with the center or the Middle Path as dominant.

We might get confused in theory when we analyze the political system and political issues of the Kingdom of Cambodia. According to the classical theory, democracy was against monarchy and in modern times the republic is also considered the antithesis of the monarchy. In the case of Cambodia, however, there is a constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy whereby democracy exists “under the roof” of the monarchy. The only way to solve the political conflict in Cambodia is to integrate all aspects of society so they become one unitary formation.

Philosophy Department
Royal University of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia