Happy New Year 2013!

The New Year brings each of us a new beginning. What has happened in the past year is behind us; neither the good nor the bad can be erased. Instead, we confront 365 days of opportunity to demonstrate that we have learned from the successes and challenges of the year — of the years — through which we have come.

The past is a guide to the present, the present a springboard toward the future. We learn from the past to improve today. Men and women are capable of change. Those who study human behavior suggest ways to accelerate change in how we manage our day to day interactions and long term decision making.

Since humans are creatures of habit, we are likely to think and behave the same way as we have done in the past. We reproduce the old because it takes no effort to repeat what we have always done. Much of our behavior is on autopilot. Remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Some Cambodian readers told me that they believe it to be a “safe bet” that their compatriots’ thinking and behavior in the next 365 days are likely to be the same as last year’s. A Khmer septuagenarian, a former instructor at the Khmer Military Academy, lamented that this very way of thinking is outmoded and unchanged from the patterns of behavior of earlier generations of Cambodians. It was he who sent me the poem, O Khmer oeuy Khmer, chous ach knong srae, which was the focus of my article in February 2012. The poem is about an ignoramus who does private business in the rice field and cleans himself with an ivy leaf. . . His ignorance is one aspect of the poem. The other aspect is Einstein’s definition of insanity. The septuagenarian wrote, it is “same old, same old for generations.” I am optimistic, however, that each of us has the capacity to change how we analyze and respond to people and events around us.

New Year, “new soul”? 

As Cambodians write to me, it is not unusual for them to blame the country’s political status quo on the absence of a Khmer Mahatma Gandhi or Aung San Suu Kyi. Were there such a person, they say, everything would be different. Does the alleged absence of such a leader justify the lack of effective progress in the Khmer struggle against Cambodia’s “kleptocracy”? It’s worth noting that both Gandhi and Suu Kyi embrace the philosophy and teaching of Gautama Buddha, the same principles in which nearly all Cambodians profess to believe, and that permeate Khmer society.

As we enter 2013, it is appropriate to touch on some inspirations for change. English philosopher and writer Gilbert Chesterton (1874-1936), dubbed a “man of colossal genius,” said, the “object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.” Words of a Ugandan immigrant named Stephen Kaggwa, who came to the United States in 2002, and who, after four years, owned a successful African cuisine restaurant in Minneapolis, should inspire anyone. “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try,” he famously said. The words remind me of the slogan, less lofty, but clear, of the global financial services firm, JP Morgan: “Decide that you are not going to stay where you are.” More than 2,000 years earlier, the great Chinese teacher Confucius urged, “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.” As a French proverb says, “Qui ne risque rien n’a rien,” or “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It means if you don’t take risks, you will never accomplish anything.

Long for them, but follow them, too?

Do Cambodians who cherish Ghandi and Suu Kyi also follow their advice?  Some of Gandhi’s (1869-1948) top ten fundamentals for change parallel Buddha’s (563B.C-483 B.C.) teaching.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” preaches Gandhi. It’s easy to say that change in behavior is the product of a change in how one thinks. But what does that entail?  Sometimes our thinking – our opinion about someone or something — is changed by a catalytic event. Someone we thought was aloof turns out after all to have been a long term volunteer at the local children’s hospital, for example. But more often changing how we think about the world around us is a gradual process requiring both experience and reflective consideration. It is serious work. The reflexive patterned behavior in which we all engage most of the time is much easier! Quality thinking is productive thinking that comprises critical thinking–evaluating options through comparison and analysis — and creative thinking — generating new ideas until we reach a panorama of alternatives.

Aung San Suu Kyi extolls the concept of a “questing mind,” which she argues every person can develop. A questing mind helps one to survive violence, oppression and all that which is contrary to what is right and just, she says.

“I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following,” peaches Gandhi. Buddha preaches, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Gandhi and Buddha are in harmony: Live in the present, learn from the past but don’t live there, it is no more, and the future is yet to come. Don’t dream about it; get busy with the here and now.

Buddha says, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” Suu Kyi told Burmese in their struggle for rights and justice, “Don’t just sit there. Do something!”

Buddha teaches mankind to do all good, avoid all evil, and purify the mind. He provides mankind with an eight-fold path to follow. Gandhi exclaimed, “Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well,” as he applied Buddha’s teaching to himself: “I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal . . . I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”

Whereas Buddha preaches, “Pay no attention to the faults of others . . . Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone,” and, “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults . . . one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice”, Gandhi explains: “I look only to the good qualities of men. Not being faultless myself, I won’t presume to probe into the faults of others.”

Avoid being small-minded

An Arab proverb goes, “Examine what is said, not him who speaks.” Unfortunately, many Cambodians tend to color others’ personalities in dire terms: Someone is attacked as being a puppet or an agent of Cambodians’ traditional enemies, the Vietnamese (called Yuon in Khmer). Adjectives are piled on, rendering the word Yuon pejorative and racist. Assertions of treasonous behavior often follow.

Eleanor Roosevelt, United States First Lady (1933-1945 in the White House), known for her sensitivity and her work to improve the lot of the underprivileged, said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

The gossipers discuss people, and seem to find pleasure digging up dirt to throw at their fellow human beings, sowing friction, ending friendships, and alienating people. The problem with gossip was described by the findings of Germany’s Max Planck Institute five years ago as having “a strong manipulative potential.” Gossip is “more powerful than truth . . . people believe what they hear through the grapevine even if they have evidence to the contrary.”

“Slandering is evil,” says Buddha, “gossip is evil.” Confucius warned: “To see and listen to the wicked is already the beginning of wickedness.” The Christian Bible offers similar condemnations of gossip.

But one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), rose above all that: “I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”

Never late to change

The Chinese say, “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” And they also say, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

It is never late to do something. Let’s make a difference in the New Year 2013.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at peangmeth@gmail.com

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-001-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-01-2013