Malaysia: A Tale of Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon

May 23, 2016

Malaysia:  A Tale of Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon

by Dr. Azly Rahman

Malaysia’s : Hang Jebon-The 1MDB mastermind

When I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be either Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat or Bruce Lee. For those not familiar with the names, I will skip explaining who Bruce Lee was. One may check his Facebook page to find out who the San Francisco-born Chinese-American-Philosophy-major warrior was. Tuah and Jebat did not have Facebook accounts. Not even Linkedin profiles.

I worshipped Tuah and Jebat, I even wanted to be both heroes in one – like a Nescafe 2-in-1 sachet.

I would lock myself in my bedroom at times, put on my baju Melayu Johor, kain samping, a paper tanjak or headgear, and with my paper-made keris, I’d be Hang Tuah fighting Hang Jebat. I’d jump up and down the bed yelling words like “Cis bedebah kau! Mati kau!” (You son-of-a machine-gun you! Die you, die!)  before I plunge my kris into myself as I was playing both roles – Tuah and Jebat.  I was not sure which one was a better hero or a better moron of Malacca times.Today – I have killed both of them.

Here is the story of the re-branded heroes Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon; the former a warrior drunk with moronism and the latter a gangster and a playboy-warrior. ‘Tuak’ is a Malay word for ‘palm wine’ and ‘Jebon’ is a mongoose.

Hang Tuak was said to be the most loyal and most celebrated Malay hero of 15th century Malacca; a hero endowed with special powers to serve the king. He was said to be a polyglot as well, able to speak multiple languages while able to defeat top-notch fighters from neighbouring kingdoms, especially Majapahit.

He was also an expert kangkong eater, able to trick his way into getting a glimpse of the face of a Ming Dynasty emperor by pretending that he was swallowing the Chinese salad heads-up. I suppose the great Chinese sultan looked as pretty as a Hong Kong version of Shah Rukh Khan that no one is allowed to even look at his face.

The Hang Tuaks led by a Mr. Kulup

For Hang Tuak to gain access to that face – that was a most remarkable and celebrated achievement of the Malay warrior when it comes to fine and acrobatic dining. Had he stayed longer and ate more kangkongs, Tuak would have taken selfies with the supreme ruler of the dynasty, right there in the middle of the middle of the Middle Kingdom.

Hang Jebon was Hang Tuak’s BFF or best friend forever until one day he found out that Tuak was wrongfully sentenced to death by the sultan who loved women and would steal other people’s wife and daughters or even concubines and grandmothers if they look like Marilyn Monroe or Lady Gaga.

Yes, because the sultan was angry that his favourite warrior-terminator did not get to kidnap one Tun Teja of Pahang and instead the fool fell in love with Madam Teja.  (Note: Teja is not to be confused with Madam T, the wife of ‘Mr T’ the African-American TV hero with the mohawk.)

The gorgeous Teja perhaps looked like Katherine Hepburn in Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Tuak was unlucky in that mission impossible and was sentenced to death ; maybe to death by tickling till he turned pink and red and then died.

Chosen by the Mandate of Heaven

That was a form of slow death, arguably pleasurable those day before lethal injection. And that was how sultans acted those days. If you are a sultan chosen to rule by the Mandate of Heaven by some Divine Daulat, you could do anything – do good to your slaves or ‘hamba sahaya’ as well as have as many concubines that your harem can accommodate and steal other people’s wife or daughter or steal even royal goats and orangutans.

There were some bad sultans back in the day, mind you. Some may have kept both concubines and porcupines as well.

As God-appointed rulers, you can have all the nice designer clothes you want, sit on the most exquisite diamond-studded throne till you constipate, eat caviar all day, summon the Malay court  dancers to even dance like Janet Jackson or have them do the locomotion, and even have 10 gold-plated bullock carts to bring you and your palace gang members around the village-kingdom, reminding people that a sultan can do no wrong and is above the law and that going against them will have you arrested and coconuts will be shoved down your throat, as the mildest punishment.

That was the power the sultans gave themselves. Back in the day, if you laugh at a prince who could not kick the sepak takraw ball right you could end up dead as well. Maybe stoned to death with a hundred of those hard rattan ball. Those were the days – of the Malay Harry Potter days – when sultans were also carried around the village in what looked like stretchers crafted by the best adiguru (master artisans) with chair design expertise.

One of the sultans even died on a ‘dulang-looking stretcher’ in Kota Tinggi, when he was murdered with a keris by his own laksamana. His story was told as ‘The Story of Sultan Mahmud Mangkat di Julang’. He was an evil sultan who did not like people stealing fruits from his kebun/orchard. Especially buah nangka or jackfruit. He does not care if you are a pregnant woman craving for a piece of jackfruit.

Back to the two Hang men – Tuak and Jebon.

Hang Najib’s generous friends from Saudi Arabia–USD681 million Gift

So as the legend goes, Jebon was extremely angry and, in the spirit of Che Guevara and the infidel Fidel Castro, decided to revolt and take over the kingdom. Not only the sultan had to go into hiding in some ‘batu-belah-batu-bertangkup-looking’ cave but Jebon was smart, in the tradition of womanising-smart he learned from the sultans – he took all the sultan’s concubines as well all for himself.

All those Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and even Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn-Bruce-Jenner looking Malacca concubines were made his. Jebat the silat-smart Darth Vader-like warrior took them all and had a lot of fun in the process of fighting for justice. Fighting for Tuak his BFF.

It is like today’s ethos – to be a politician means to serve and to steal. And to do these big time. Tuak and Jebon were the favourite lakshamanas (‘admirals’)  entrusted to keep the sultans in power and in lust all the time. There were handsomely rewarded.

The legend and nothing more

So, that was the story of the two Malay warriors of Malacca times. That was the legend and nothing more. One cannot even do a DNA testing on those two Hangmen, There is no point spending time debating ‘cogito-ergo-sum-ness’ of the two. No point using a Descartian logic to prove their existence.

All those Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and even Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn-Bruce-Jenner looking Malacca concubines were made his. Jebat the silat-smart Darth Vader-like warrior took them all and had a lot of fun in the process of fighting for justice. Fighting for Tuak his BFF.

It is like today’s ethos – to be a politician means to serve and to steal. And to do these big time. Tuak and Jebon were the favourite lakshamanas (‘admirals’)  entrusted to keep the sultans in power and in lust all the time. There were handsomely rewarded.

The legend and nothing more

So, that was the story of the two Malay warriors of Malacca times. That was the legend and nothing more. One cannot even do a DNA testing on those two Hangmen, There is no point spending time debating ‘cogito-ergo-sum-ness’ of the two. No point using a Descartian logic to prove their existence.

But Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat were my heroes. I love them. Not anymore after they had a name-change: Hang Tuak ‘the forever drunk’ and Hang Jebon ‘the original Malacca  gangsta’.  That leaves Bruce Lee and me, myself and I as the two heroes. The Nescafe 2-in-1 me.

Malays of today do not need Tuaks and Jebons as heroes. Malays don’t need to glorify these names and confuse children what a ‘hero’ should mean. A moron is not a hero. A moron does not think. They follow the money and those with power. We have so many ‘Hang Sapu Habis’ heroes propped up in our midst.

The hero is the self – the kingdom within larger that the outside – the child that refuses to bow to authority, especially if the authority is based on the system of moronism etched, archived, and embalmed in the past.

That we call tradition and history must be integrated with Philosophy and there is nothing wrong in using the tools of today’s philosophical discourse of what is right and what is wrong in rewriting the past and killing past morons hailed as today’s heroes. That is our task in education for critical consciousness. Dare we rewrite the history of our own people – so that each of our children will triumph as hero?

Comprendo? As Che Guevara would ask.

In Memory of Adlan  Benan Omar

The Day Hang Tuah Walked Through My Door

This is a short story by Adlan  Benan Omar – a fellow lover of history and a dear friend who died on Thursday, 24 January 2008. He was only 35. Those of you who know him will remember Ben’s almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Malay history

There can perhaps be no fitting tribute to this remarkable young man, and no better way to remember him, than to reproduce this short story by Ben, which not only highlights the passion that he had for Malay history, but also shows a bright, intelligent mind that was a breath of fresh air and a shining light in contemporary Malay culture.

I continue to remember Ben with great fondness

The Day Hang Tuah Walked Through My Door 

by Adlan Benan Omar (1973-2008)

Everyone knows who Hang Tuah is. Everyone knows that he was a great warrior, that he was loyal to his king, that he fought and defeated Hang Jebat in a gruelling duel. But I knew more about Hang Tuah than anyone else. No… I didn’t read more than anyone else (how much more could a twelve-year-old have read anyway?). I knew more about Hang Tuah because he came to live with us a few months ago.

Yes, you heard me right. Hang Tuah did come to live with me and my family. Abah took him home one day. He had found the old man walking around the local playground one evening, while he was out jogging. It was getting dark and the old man had no place to go, so we took him in. Mak was not too happy about that, she thought the old man looked crooked. He was dirty and he didn’t wear shoes. Mak said that people might think our family has gone weird. Abah just laughed. “Kasihan …dia orang tua,” he said.

My friends didn’t believe me at first. They thought I was dreaming, or making things up, or just plain lying.

Azraai said that the old man was an alien from Mars and not Hang Tuah. Eqhwan laughed at me and said that either I or the old man must be mad. Anuar said that if Hang Tuah was still alive I wouldn’t be able to understand what he said because he spoke classic Malay like in the hikayats. Hilmi (our local school’s smart alec) tried to explain to me that the Melaka Empire was no more and that Hang Tuah was just a legend. He said that if Hang Tuah was still alive he would be at least five and a half centuries old and the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records stated that the oldest man in the world lived only to 120 years. Only Farid sympathised with me… and that was because he had an imaginary friend whom he always took along to play marbles with us.

I really didn’t care what they said. I knew that old man was Hang Tuah. I know because I asked him myself.

The morning after we took the old man in, Mak asked me to wake him up for breakfast. I went to the spare room and found that he was already awake. He was sitting on the edge of the bed with a blue batik bundle on his lap.

“Jemput makan, Tok,” I said, politely.

“Terima kasih,” he said.

I was curious, so I asked, “Apa dalam buntil tu Tok?”

“Barang Tok… barang orang miskin,” he replied.

Then he opened it up slowly. I saw him fiddle for something, then he took out a long keris with an ivory sheath. It was at least a foot long and studded with jewels.

Hang Tuah Sketch

“Ini keris Taming Sari,” said the old man.

I snickered, “He! He! He!”. I thought the old man was joking. Everyone knew that Taming Sari belonged to Hang Tuah and that it must have disappeared with its master.

The old man looked up at me. His eyes stared into mine. I felt a little queasy at that. His expression changed, he began to look angry. Suddenly his eyes drooped and he looked more hurt than angry.

“Kenapa cucu gelak?” he asked.

“Tak ada kenapa,” I answered, a little frightened.

“Tok tahu, cucu ingat Tok bergurau.” I kept quiet.

He began again, “Inilah keris Taming Sari yang sebenar. Ini keris Tok sendiri.”

“Kalau begitu Tok ni tentulah…”

“Hang Tuah,” he interjected, “nama Tok ialah Hang Tuah.”

“Tapi Hang Tuah sudah mati.”

He laughed, “Tidak, Tok belum mati. Tapi Tok sudah tua…”

“Berapa umur Tok?” I questioned.

“540 tahun.”

Mak didn’t really like Tok Tuah. But she didn’t say anything when he just stayed on and on in the house. She didn’t say a word when Abah and I took him to Hankyu Jaya to get some new clothes. She just kept quiet when Tok Tuah joined us to watch TV in the living room after dinner. I told her (and Abah) that the old man said that his name was Hang Tuah. She wrinkled her face (and Abah just laughed).

It was a Wednesday night and RTM had a slot then called “Teater P. Ramlee”. It so happened that they were showing Phani Majumdar’s “Hang Tuah”. P. Ramlee, so young and thin, acted as the hero and the late Haji Mahadi was Sultan Mansor Shah.

Hang Tuah4

When Jebat got killed, Tok Tuah pipped in, “Tidak langsung macam tu…”

Abah stared at Tok Tuah. Mak stared at Tok Tuah. I too, stared at Tok Tuah.

“Aku sudah tua masa tu, Jebat muda lagi. Jebat kuat. Dia sepak aku hingga aku tertiarap, kemudian aku berguling. Aku himpit dia. Aku kata sama dia ‘baik sajalah kau mengalah’. Apa gunanya kita dua bersaudara bergaduh?”

Mak started to look worried again.

“Jebat tak mati.”

Abah looked surprised. He said, “Habis tu, apa jadi pada dia?”

Tok Tuah said, “Aku tak mahu Sultan bunuh dia. Aku tahu Sultan zalim. Jadi, aku sorokkan dia di Ulu Melaka. Macam Tun Perak sorokkan aku masa aku difitnahkan. Lepas Melaka kalah dengan Portugis, Jebat ikut aku merantau.”

I said, “Bila Jebat mati?”

Tok Tuah laughed, “Jebat belum mati. Baru tahun lepas aku jumpa dia. Dia meniaga di Kedah.”

“Meniaga?” I said.

“Ya, Jebat duduk di Kulim. Dia meniaga kereta. Apa tu? Kereta ‘second-hand’ kata orang. Proton, Honda dan Nissan. Laku jualannya. Banyak orang beli.”

One day, I took Tok Tuah on a walk around KL. He got bored just sitting in our small bungalow in Bukit Bandar Raya. So after school, we took the mini-bus to Central Market. Tok Tuah really enjoyed the walk. “Banyaknya orang…” he wondered. We ate at McDonald’s. He  didn’t like the cheeseburger (well, he didn’t like the cheese, though he loved the burger itself). After lunch, we went to Muzium Negara.

I showed him the frieze of a young Hang Tuah which was sculpted by an Englishwoman in the 1950s. It showed a handsome Hang Tuah in ‘Baju Melayu’ and ‘samping’. He was holding Taming Sari in his hand.

“Siapa tu,” Tok Tuah asked.

“Itu Tok-lah. ltulah orang putih gambarkan sebagai Hang Tuah. Hensem, kan?”

Tok Tuah chuckled, “Apa tulisan atas tu?”

“Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia. Eh, takkan Tok tak ingat? Itu kan Tok yang cakap dulu?”

He kept quiet. Slowly he mumbled, “Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia? Tak ingat pun.”

Suddenly, he started, “Oh! Bukannya Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia. Silap tu. Tok tak pernah cakap macam tu…”

“Habis tu?” I asked.

“Masa tu Tok tengah pergi masjid untuk sembahyang Maghrib. Isteri Tok ikut sekali. Dia tengah ambil air sembahyang di tepi perigi, kemudian kakinya tergelincir. Dia terjatuh masuk. Orang ramal pun menjerit-jerit sebab perigi itu dalam. Apa lagi, Tok pun terjunlah untuk selamatkan dia. Isteri Tok bukan sebarang orang, namanya Tun Sa’odah, anak Bendahara Tun Perak.”

“Kemudian?” I urged.

“Bila Tok bawak dia naik, Temenggung Tun Mutahir ketawa. Katanya, Tok sayang betul pada isteri Tok. Tok pun jawab, “Mestilah… Ta’ Isteriku Hilang di-Telaga. Jadi, mungkin orang silap dengar…!”

Tok Tuah stayed with our family for more than six months. He stayed at home in the first few weeks but he felt guilty not doing anything to contribute. So, one morning, he followed Abah to work. Abah was manager of a factory in Sungai Buluh which made video tapes and CDs. They needed a new ‘jaga’ or watchman. Tok Tuah got the job. Abah said, “Who better to guard us than the great Malay admiral Hang Tuah?”

The workers got along well with him. Amin, Abah’s driver, said that Tok Tuah told them lots of funny jokes about Sultan Mansor of Melaka and his fifteen wives. Tok Tuah also got to know Rajalinggam, the sweeper, who he said reminded him of Mani Purindan, the father of Bendahara Tun Ali. Like Rajalinggam, Mani Purindan too came from Tamil Nadu and cooked delicious dhal curry.

One morning, my teacher at school said, “Tomorrow I want you all to bring a model of an old artefact. Then I want you all to explain its importance in front of the whole history class.”

Hilmi (always the teacher’s pet) spent days working on a matchstick model of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. Azraai decided to build a spaceship instead. Eqhwan bought Anuar’s origami keris for fifteen dollars and brought that to school. Farid asked his imaginary friend to draw a picture of Mel Gibson as Sir William Wallace. I? Well, I just brought Tok Tuah along.

My teacher was flabbergasted. She said, “Why have you brought this ‘jaga’ along?” I smiled, “He’s not just a ‘jaga’. He’s the great warrior Hang Tuah!”

My teacher said, “I’ll call your father and tell him you’re playing jokes in class.”

“Please, Cikgu. Just listen to what he has to say,” I insisted.

Tok Tuah stood in front of the class. He coughed. My teacher sighed. I smiled. My friends sneered. “Assalamualaikum,” he said. “Wa’alaikum Salam,” we answered.

Tok Tuah began his speech. He started out by saying that the Melaka we read about in the history books was very different from the real Melaka. He explained how the Sultan used to let anyone come to the palace with any complaints at all, and he would settle it there and then. He told us that he and his four friends used to go on tours to Pahang and Terengganu and Ujung Tanah, even to Siam, on great galliards with five big sails. He described to us that Melaka had 120,000 citizens, each of whom had land and houses of their own and that no beggars were allowed to go even a day without food and shelter. He mimicked Sultan Mansor’s snarl, and Tun Perak’s twitching handlebar moustaches and Jebat’s swaggering walk. Finally, he told us how Melaka got corrupted by its wealth and warned us not to do the same now.

That day, Tok Tuah got a standing ovation. Even Teacher clapped. I got an ‘A’ for History.

Tok Tuah died seven weeks after that. He was 542 years old. It was during the Puasa month and he took the LRT from Sungai Buluh. He wanted to stop and buy some sweetmeats (he absolutely loved ‘pau kaya’). When he arrived at Chow Kit station, he collapsed on the platform with a massive stroke.

They rushed him in an ambulance to Kuala Lumpur General Hospital but he was already gone. He didn’t feel a thing.

We buried him at Ampang Cemetery, right across from the grave of Tan Sri P. Ramlee, who played him in that film. I visit the grave sometimes just to tell him that I’m now a lecturer in Malay History at Leyden University.

I still remember the day he walked through my door. It’s as if it was just yesterday. Ah, well… By the way, did I tell you I met King Henry VIII whilst I was studying in Cambridge? He worked as a night porter at my college. But that, as they say, is a different story.

At Double 7–My Thoughts


May 21, 2016

At  Double 7–My Thoughts

In two days I turn 77 on May 23. Yes, it has been a long and difficult journey for me with more than my share of ups and downs.  I did life my way. Of course, there are stories I could tell you, but I would spare you all the agony of my rantings which are often about the good old times, and there seems to be nothing great about the present. Most people have no time for grandfather stories, so I shall spare them the jarring pain of putting up with mine.

Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican (77)

Yesterday, one of my students at The University of Cambodia asked me. “How does it feel to be Double 7?”. My answer to him is also a one liner. “I don’t feel a thing.” Like Poet Robert Frost, I say I have miles and miles to keep before I sleep.

Senator John Glenn once remarked: “Too many people, when they get old, think that they have to live by the calendar.” I don’t. So my life goes on and I lead a life of many possibilities, with occasional missed opportunities, although I may feel nasty towards former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad for his legacy of kleptocratic governance,  and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak and his bunch of corrupt, incompetent, and irresponsible cabinet ministers for making life difficult to  us.

Senator John Glenn of Ohio–My Hero and Role Model

You may remember that John Glenn, this well known astronaut from Ohio turned politician, became the oldest person at 77 to board a U.S. Space Shuttle. He is my role model for exemplifying the ethos that  we shouldn’t let age define and cripple us. The calendar is a useful way to let you know the date, but if you let yourself  to be hemmed in by your chronological age, you may lock yourself out of potentially valuable opportunities. You can bet I do not intend to remain static and come my remaining days.–Din Merican

Towards a more inclusive Philosophy Department

May 12, 2016

Towards a more inclusive Philosophy Department 

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

Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

March 13, 2016

Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.

A friend of mine was recently accepted to Harvard Business School for his MBA. In jest, my friend’s family brought to his attention the story of the Mexican fisherman and the Harvard MBA. It can be found here and goes like this:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat, with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then?”

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions . . . . Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I enjoy stories like this. They’re useful for putting our world in perspective and for challenging what we might think are solid assumptions. Assumptions like the Harvard MBA is wiser than the subsistence fisherman, or the world would be better off if everyone could be educated at Ivy League schools. But what about the moral of this story? I read the story as extolling the virtue of the simple life and the folly of ambition. Who’s the fool: the fisherman or the MBA? So, I started thinking about my friend, the future Harvard MBA. Will he be wasting the next few years going a hundred thousand dollars in debt and studying hard just so he can make all the money he needs to one day enjoy the life of a subsistence fisherman? Maybe. But if he just wants to fish, he can fish – what’s the difference to us? Perhaps the more important question is: Would we be better off if he just followed the fisherman’s approach? No. He might be better off, but we wouldn’t.

I originally planned to argue meticulously that a well-functioning economic system requires specialization and increased productivity. The description of the fisherman’s life is enticing to be sure, but why? For me, it’s playing guitar, sipping wine, enjoying my family and friends – that is why I envy the fisherman’s life. But, of course, such a life requires a guitar. Who made the guitar? The fisherman? No. Someone else had to spend a lot of time and energy learning how to make the guitar. Who made the wine? Probably a vintner who learned the process and dedicated many months to making a few bottles. What about the kids? I guess we know who made them, but who keeps them healthy? When they get sick, the fisherman surely wants someone with medicinal expertise to make them better. Anyway, my point was going to be that without the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors, the fisherman can’t enjoy his relaxing life. “Man does not live on [fish] alone . . . .” And, similarly, without fishermen selling excess fish, the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors can’t enjoy smoked salmon or a $9 tuna fish sandwich. Specialization increases individual productivity so one person can provide another with the things that are needed to make even the Mexican subsistence fisherman’s life an enticing one. But, I don’t think that’s my strongest argument against the “lesson” this story tries to teach us.

The story’s moral fails because it assumes the Harvard MBA goes to school and works hard for years with the sole goal of self-gain. The MBA is the fool and the fisherman the wise man because the MBA studies hard so he can pay thousands to attend a top school, so he can then study harder and one day come up with a business plan that will allow him to work ridiculously hard for years, so that eventually he can relax with his friends and family in a tropical clime. What dupe would think this is a good plan? Anyone who simply wants to live a relaxing life with friends should know you don’t have to go to Harvard for that. You don’t need your MBA – you don’t even need your bachelor’s degree. If that’s what you want, you move to Mexico and buy a fishing net – have at it. But some people seek something more – and our communal obligation demands more – than a relaxing life with their friends. Their sole goal isn’t self-gain, they understand that the goal is soul, and they rest easier, laugh harder, and sleep deeper knowing they’ve provided for more than simply their own immediate needs.

Sure, there are plenty of people who would be content with the subsistence fisherman’s lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, if we could all be content with such a lifestyle – one that has little or no negative influence on our world – it would be a great thing. But, there are lots of other choices for people besides fisherman and MBA. For instance: thief, liar, cheater, murderer, manipulator, plunderer. When someone chooses one of those things to be instead of fisherman, an imbalance results. We have a bunch of fishermen fishing and sipping wine with their friends, while the thief steals, the liar lies, the murderer murders. After awhile the fisherman himself has his guitar stolen, the person he thought was his friend turns out to be a liar, and the simple, beautiful life he carved out for himself is ruined by the murderers, manipulators and plunderers. In our world, those people exist. So, if we have any hope of progress from one generation to the next, we need people to step up, let someone else catch the fish and sip the wine, and return balance to the world equation. We need people with gifts to set those gifts on the positive side of the scale and push down hard. That way those still fishing for themselves and sipping wine can continue living the good life, happily unaffected by the lying liars, cheating cheaters and plundering plunderers.

If my friend was just looking out for himself – if all he wanted was to live the good life of the subsistence fisherman – Harvard would be a mistake. But he wants to be more than someone who takes care of his own. He wants to do something to make our world better, for fishermen, guitar-makers, vintners, and even MBAs. So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.

Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

March 13, 2016

Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

Thomas Jefferson (left) and George Washington
I just finished reading two rocking books by Joseph J. Ellis: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and His Excellency: George Washington. Both were eminently readable factual and psychological histories of who I’d argue are the two most important founding fathers.

Washington and Jefferson, at first blush, seem like they could have been cut from the same cloth. Both were upper-class Virginia planters, running multiple tracts of land in the way of the contemporary planter society. Both were tall, physically impressive, enjoyed surveying their lands from horseback, and exemplified the manners and civility that were supposed to characterize the leading men of Virginian society. They both shared a dislike of the British society that gave birth to their colony, Washington detesting British condescension, and Jefferson abhorring the corrupted nature of their economy that sacrificed the first principles of republican government. They were also both in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, where they helped fuel the fire that would combine with its New England brother to spark the rebellion that turned to a revolution. The revolution itself was securely fastened to both men. The military enterprise would have languished without a unifying leader if Washington had not accepted command of the Continental Army; and the ideals for which that army was to fight found their voice in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. But the similarities pretty much end there.

As much as the two men were on the same team – Jefferson even served as Washington’s first Secretary of State – these Virginian patriarchs represented the political poles necessary to assure the principled survival of the nascent American nation. Washington, ever the military man, saw the birth and building of the new nation as a set of problems whose solutions had one goal: survival. Not that he did not have his ideals, but Washington was primarily concerned with creating the environment in which ideals could be achieved, or at least pursued. Jefferson, on the other extreme, would sacrifice all order and stability in the name of the republican ideals he espoused. His declaration that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” was a true measure of his allegiance to ideals only, not men or their governments. In modern musical terms, Jefferson was the lead singer, providing the melody and the lyric to the Revolution, while Washington was the virtuoso one-man-band, providing the rhythm, bass and chords through which Jefferson’s lyrics could be heard. But unlike a rock’n’roll band, the lead singer was never the biggest star. Washington, the stoic man of action, was the singular hero of the revolution and enjoyed unmatched celebrity status. Even Jefferson acknowledged Washington as his unquestioned superior (until Jefferson began to think Washington’s faculties were abandoning him during his second term).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Washingtonian figure to unify our polarized country today? Or at least to have a Jeffersonian figure to give voice to the values we all hold dear? The problem is that these days we haven’t been able to coalesce around one, all-important issue. For Washington, the issues were independence and survival. When those were your goals, Washington was your undisputed leader. For Jefferson, republicanism, the building of an independent, agrarian society where political power was diffused among ward-republics, was the cause he personified. But once those issues began to fade, so faded the broad support for their leaders. Even Washington was the subject of harsh criticism (especially from Jefferson and his Republican allies) during his second term. Jefferson’s second term was even harder, as events beyond his control ruined his ability to erode the size of government and make way for the ward-republics.
Once we get that all-important issue, hopefully we’ll also find our next Washington or Jefferson. It happened with Lincoln in the 1860s and Roosevelt (twice, really) in the 1930s and ’40s. So, what will be the next big thing? Global warming? A new economic meltdown? Another war? Energy policy? Perhaps all of the above. Maybe we’ll have to find someone who can unify us around all the big issues. Maybe that’s the real task for our next Washington or Jefferson.