The RIGSS Blog
To stimulate analysis, innovation, and forward thinking, and generate new ideas and insight
on subjects that matter in 21st Century Bhutan.
A humble tribute to celebrate learning, leadership and service that His Majesty The King continues to champion.
EXPOSED BY COVID-19
Sr. Research Officer, RIGSS
How did Bhutan just do it? Not a single health worker infected with COVID-19, and a recovery rate of over 97% among the 891 infected patients (as of April 5, 2021). Foreign personalities and institutions alike lauded Bhutan's response to the pandemic. The international media had special coverages on Bhutan's efficient response to the pandemic. Madeline Drexler of The Atlantic in February 2021 wrote about how Bhutan was “The Unlikeliest Pandemic Success Story”. The government, institutions, and individuals put their best efforts into easing the nationwide Covid-19-induced pain. Around the world, even the developed countries struggled to contain the pandemic and the entailing reverberations. Leadership failure was at the guilty end and a common target of blame in many countries.
However, in Bhutan's case, the success story is attributed to the tactful, wise and magnanimous leadership of His Majesty The King. While the Bhutanese people can only keep counting the blessings, we must also be cognizant enough to reciprocate the Royal Leadership. It is for us to reflect upon the roles we played and the responsibilities we shouldered as individual citizens during the pandemic. If national success is to be celebrated, we must not disregard our own shortcomings too. Lessons learned will enable us to do even better. Therefore, it must be admitted that Bhutan's response to the pandemic was not completely devoid of challenges and issues.
Despite earnest and repeated instructions and appeals from the government, there were cases of defaulters breaching Covid-19 protocols and laws; crossing the international border illegally, engaging in illicit trade, breaching lockdown protocols etc. Were some of us party to these irresponsible and self-serving acts?
Despite being economically sound, if some of us have either applied or received the Druk Gyalpo's Relief Kidu, which is intended for the needy, we may have to question our own conscience and morality. If we have not passed down or shared the benefits of loan repayment deferrals, then we may have just taken advantage of this initiative for our selfish gains. While it was a difficult time for almost everyone, there were still some of us who wanted to retain our gains and comforts at any cost. Prices of some commodities were raised exorbitantly high overnight.
As the nation was preparing for the worst-case scenario, some of us were knowingly or unknowingly making things worse, especially for the government and the COVID-19 Task Force members. Unfounded accusations and blames dominated social media outlets. While our frontline workers deserve genuine gratitude and appreciation, a few incidences deserve honest confession of complacency. As public servants, we must bear heavy moral guilt if we have siphoned and abused public resources during such trying times. Those of us who shied away from duty, or did not shoulder it well, may have to rediscover our sense of integrity, dedication and patriotism.
Did the two lockdowns make us grumble for having to stay at home? Ever since the pandemic hit the country, most of our national plans and projects progressed slower, rendering most public servants idle. Only we, ourselves, know how idle these idle times were. Actually, it should have been an ideal (rather than idle) time to be with family, enhance ourselves intellectually, learn new skills online and engage in spirituality. It is time for serious introspection.
Above and beyond, the nation as a whole achieved a certain paradigm shift. The government and agencies have been working long hours, putting in extra efforts like never before. Such collaboration among the agencies and officials is unprecedented. Task Force members comprising of officials from different sectors have been efficiently addressing problems on the ground. We could not have imagined the extent of COVID-19 impacts had it not been for such proactive measures. Indeed, our agencies and officials should function with such zeal, irrespective of whether we have a pandemic or not. Nation-building is always a work in progress.
After having endured these challenges together, our shared experience and wisdom must enhance our resolve ahead. The pandemic is not over yet. Rather, news of new COVID-19 variants sounds scarier. Nationwide vaccination drive should not justify the demand for normalcy. No country has attained 100% vaccination yet. Worldwide immunity is far from achieved; “No one is safe until everyone is safe”, so say the global experts. Therefore, the risk of importation and transmission of the virus persists. While relaxations within the country might be possible, opening to pre-COVID normalcy would be risky. Bhutanese must assent that our people’s safety must be accorded the highest priority amongst all.
More than anything else, we have the continued blessings of His Majesty The King. We have been patient and loyal so far and must continue to do so for our collective success as a country. With lessons learned from the pandemic thus far, the nation has to proceed and progress. Bhutan's social life and economy have to rebound. Innovation and resilience are the need of the hour.
After more than a year of being sheltered under the parasol of His Majesty's blessing and the government's initiatives, it is about time for us to translate our gratitude into action. We are wiser than we were at the beginning of last year. For our country to develop, we need the hands and hearts of every citizen. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the potential and promise of Bhutanese doing better than usual. We must leverage this at all times.
TOWARDS A DEVELOPED GNH COUNTRY
Research Officers, RIGSS
His Majesty The King has set the vision for Bhutan to become a self-reliant and a fully "developed" country within our lifetime. We now need to reflect on what the term truly means and what it really entails. In its basic sense, a developed country is associated with a high Gross National Income (GNI) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, advanced technology and infrastructure, and an overall decent living standard of people. But is this all there is to development?
The World Bank quantifies development based on the GNI per capita of a country. While countries with GNI per capita of $12536 or higher are high-income and developed, countries with GNI lower than that are categorized as developing. The income thresholds are updated annually to adjust for inflation (Serajuddin & Hamadeh, July 2020). However, quantifying alone cannot measure development, as indicated by the limitations of GNI where rich countries may lack in other aspects of social wellbeing. For instance, although Equatorial Guinea falls under the upper-middle-income classification, it has poor health and education facilities (Assa, Oct. 2020).
Thus, development goes beyond economic prosperity. Today, there is a growing emphasis on social welfare and human wellbeing to complement development. For Bhutan, however, this is not a new concept. Our development idea revolves around the guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which His Majesty has defined as "development with values." As the world rethinks development in the 21st century, GNH continues to gain widespread popularity. Similar to GNH, the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) takes into account qualitative factors such as health, education, and life expectancy along with economic growth. HDI is assessed on a scale from 0 to 1, where the developed countries score above 0.8.
While GNI and HDI offer a good measure of development, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, there is no set criteria or convention to define development. These indicators only give us a surface-level understanding of a country's developmental status. However, we need to delve deeper into this idea of development, which is more than just having a strong economy and the resources to provide adequate and advanced facilities. It is a common perception that poverty is an issue of only the underdeveloped and developing countries. However, the reality is that there is an alarming number of people living under the poverty line in the developed countries as well. At this rate, inequality is only growing with development as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. This is not true development.
In that sense, development is inextricably linked to equity, and with equity comes accessibility and affordability of the services available. Rich countries may have the best healthcare and education systems, but what is the point of having such facilities if the underprivileged and vulnerable sections of the society - those who need them the most - cannot avail them. A country can be considered developed when it not only has a strong and secure economy but also ensures effective public service delivery. The pandemic demonstrated how ‘developed’ countries like the UK and the US could not respond efficiently to a crisis despite having the ability to do so. On the other hand, developing countries like Bhutan have been gaining global recognition for their efforts in combating COVID-19 (Drexler, Feb. 2021). Dr. Jacob Assa, in his article, What is a Developed Country? distinguishes “a truly developed country” as having “both the means and the will to take care of all its citizens, in good times as well as in crises.” This perspective is perhaps a more profound way of defining development, one that is contextual as well as complex, and goes above the measures of GNI and HDI.
As a Buddhist country that emphasizes GNH more than GDP, Bhutan already upholds the values that align with this holistic understanding of development. This gives us the advantage of approaching development from a Bhutan-centric perspective like we embraced democracy, one that is suitable and customized to our society's needs and values. His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s quote, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product” in the 1970s clearly established our country’s stand on development that promotes wellbeing over wealth, progress over prosperity. However, this approach does not disregard the significance of economic growth, for GNH and GDP are not mutually exclusive. GNH is not a hindrance to GDP but an extension of it. Following the four pillars of GNH in pursuit of growth is the essence of ‘development with values.’ This is our aspiration for development, which goes beyond merely measuring material values such as production and consumption. In this regard, Bhutan can be a developed GNH country and can potentially play a crucial leadership role in promoting this alternative indicator of development.
Bhutan already has some pragmatic and strategic policies in place; we just need effective implementation and administration. We ought to capitalize on our unique culture and tradition instead of compromising them in the name of progress like in the case of most developed countries. Development does not necessarily have to come at the expense of our values, ethics and the environment, which Bhutan has been mindful of since the beginning.
We must continue working towards increasing exports and import-substitutes, ensuring self-reliance while generating higher per capita income. To keep pace with the changing times, a small country like ours needs to focus our investment in leading technologies and research, thereby increasing employment and reducing poverty. We can target the growing agri-business sector in the country to achieve these goals of promoting self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial opportunities (YPLP-2, RIGSS, 2016). Similarly, developing Bhutan's renewable energy sector will be a great platform for revenue generation and job creation. We can improve the quality of our essential services like health and education, which we are fortunate to have free access to. Further, enhancing the efficiency, creativity, and intellectual capacity of our civil servants will be crucial to achieve our higher developmental aspirations.
Above all, we have to uphold our strong values and culture of a sovereign nation, which ultimately comes down to good leadership at both individual and community levels. As responsible citizens of this country, we must constantly aspire to be better and more productive human beings by upholding the very principles and morals that define us as Bhutanese. And at the end, our pursuit of development must result in the creation of a just, equal and harmonious society which His Majesty The King constantly reminds us of.
SEVEN STEPS AHEAD
Former Managing Director, BBS
One evening in August 2020, the Prime Minister of Bhutan came on BBS TV. Apart from updating the nation on the current COVID-19 situation, he announced a Royal Command calling for people's support to feed the stray dogs in their neighborhoods. Bhutan had closed its international borders five months ago because of the Covid-19 scare, and now it was going into the first national lockdown. A person outside the quarantine facilities had tested positive, giving rise to fear of community transmission. It was at the height of the pandemic, and news from the region and beyond were not encouraging either. So, when the nation was grappling with economic downturns and loss of livelihood, fearing the worst outcomes, the Royal Command must have come as a surprise to many. The reason behind this was simple; starving dogs could attack humans. Despite all the challenges posed by the pandemic, His Majesty had even thought of the most minute details.
The BBS received few commands early on during the pandemic. First, enhance entertainment on television and radio. With many people in quarantine facilities and at home during the lockdown, His Majesty was concerned about the mental health of the people. The BBS introduced a two-hour live program with artists and entertainers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, the Bhutanese Film Industry, and local music bands. The Royal Office of Media also gave BBS 95 Bhutanese movies to broadcast. The feedback from the public was astounding. Many people in the villages didn't wait for the 7 pm curfew, but they were in front of the TV by 5 pm to watch the programs. People were well entertained with three movies a day apart from other programs. As far as I know, BBS was the only television and radio in the world that provided live musical entertainment programs during the pandemic. The Royal Commands were simple, but the impacts went a long way.
Another Royal Command to BBS was to engage the film and the entertainment industry. BBS received a budget and started the production of short films and programs. The Royal Vision served a dual purpose of giving sustenance to workers in the entertainment business and bringing additional programs to BBS television. Further, His Majesty was fully aware that if the pandemic endured for long, artists, actors, technical crew, scriptwriters, and many others would leave the industry. Although still in a nascent stage, the industry had come a long way in the last three decades, and it could be severely impacted if many left the industry.
Similarly, there was kidu for those who lost their jobs; medicines for the elderly delivered to their doorsteps; vegetables and other essential items distributed to households; and many more. His Majesty commanded all the Bhutanese worldwide would be provided vaccine and that the state shall bear the cost. It was His Majesty's initiatives that lessened the impacts of the pandemic on the Bhutanese people.
Our immediate needs restrict our ability to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, His Majesty The King was already looking ahead into the future. We will confront situations of the magnitude of Covid-19 pandemic again. But, it is reassuring for Bhutan and the Bhutanese that we are led by a King, who is not just an epitome of compassion but one who is already several steps ahead.
RIGSS 2021 Recruits
We grew up hearing how the future of our country lies in the hands of the Bhutanese youth. Be it during the National Day addresses, commencement speeches, or school visits, His Majesty repeatedly emphasized this profound responsibility and opportunity that we have. Our King’s trust, faith, and belief in our capabilities to lead the nation forward led us on this path of public service. As we begin our career at this prestigious institute, we are filled with a sense of excitement and motivation to play our part in the nation-building process. We bring our young perspectives in our young democracy, a unique platform to affect change.
With the introduction of democracy in the country, our visionary leaders devolved the power to the Bhutanese people. Therefore, we consider it our sacred responsibility to live up to the trust bestowed upon each one of us. While democracies worldwide continue to be challenged, abused and fought for, we remain eternally grateful for the guidance and blessings of our monarchs. For the five of us, we come from diverse educational backgrounds and outlooks. However, coming together as part of the team, we aspire to achieve the larger national vision in our small yet significant ways. We realize that in a small, developing country like ours, every head, heart and pair of hands count.
Envisioning the far-reaching impacts of our contribution to the institute and the country encourages us to strive for excellence in everything that we do. By pushing ourselves to reach our full potentials, we fulfil the essence of real leadership. His Majesty's words, "What we need is not a leader to lead the masses - we need leadership of the self," are inscribed on the walls of RIGSS and in our hearts. We seek to become better individuals, and ultimately better leaders, by fostering a growth mindset. Learning something new each day is beneficial for our personal and professional development and the community that we belong to. We live in an interconnected world where we realize that our actions - what we do or do not do - will have implications. This awareness also comes to us almost naturally in our Buddhist context, where the philosophy of cause and effect always guides us.
While this view helps us in our public service journey, another source of motivation for us is this very place. The organization culture and the working environment at RIGSS make all the difference. Everyone here is focused, driven, and continuously living up to the core values of the institute - professionalism, collaboration, excellence, and leadership. The importance of teamwork is constantly highlighted, and so is every member’s contribution to the team. Since our first day, we became first-hand beneficiaries of the institute’s tradition of being helpful and service-oriented. This mind-set of the staff here has immensely helped us in our transition to a new place. We realize how this support system builds the foundation for a healthy environment, cultivating learning and growth. We want to preserve this culture and take it forward from here so that the people who come after us can also enjoy the same, if not better.
It is incredible seeing how far we have come since we first submitted our application four months ago. It is even more so, thinking how much further we can and should go from here. His Majesty has stated that Bhutan should become self-reliant and a fully developed country during our lifetime. This is most exciting because it gives young people like us a tremendous opportunity to work hard and make a difference. However, we are certain that the path ahead would come with its own obstacles. The world is changing rapidly. Our country is evolving at a drastic rate to keep up with the demands of the 21st century. Nevertheless, we shall take these challenges as opportunities to create, collaborate, and discover smart solutions.
This year, we join RIGSS at a crucial time when both the institute and our country are going through transformative reforms. The demand and prospect for the institute to shape the governance, policy and leadership landscape in our country is greater than ever before. There cannot be a better time than now, when everything seems to be at a crossroads, to unleash the best in ourselves. As we embark on this new chapter of our lives, we are filled with immense gratitude - to our parents, families, friends, well-wishers, and the institute. Most importantly, we are thankful to His Majesty for being the most visionary and magnanimous leader, and the greatest public servant we know.
HERCULES OF TONGCHUDRAK
Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan
Of so many wonderful memories of Gasa, one that stands out is the human element of a landmark place called Tongchudrak, midway between the Gasa-Laya trail. I am referring to Ap Khadip Phurba, who I regard as a larger-than-life personality. He claims - in fact, demands - both credit and compensation for making the direct (shortened) route possible. Single-handedly, his undivided, undying willpower, combined with ingenious skills in building dykes, he changed the river's course and built a makeshift bridge using hundred percent local materials. Like many, I also have succumbed to his claims, as the stark reality of the situation that one gets to experience first-hand on-site is a compelling one.
His is a story of how far the human spirit can go when will, determination, grit, and courage are in abundance. His is not a story of a mere mortal. That's why I respectfully call him Hercules - the Hercules of Tongchudrak. He displays the determination required to pursue one's goals and the necessary level of passion needed to achieve them. I cannot help but see his story as a showcase of "leadership of the self" - an emerging approach to "leadership" articulated succinctly in philosophy and practiced by our beloved King.
The Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing, an Institute envisioned by His Majesty for molding Bhutanese into great leaders, has the following quote from His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo as its guiding philosophy – “What we need is not a Leader to lead the Masses – we need Leadership of the Self.” This quote placed above the Prajna auditorium door overlooks the central lobby and welcomes anyone that enters through the main front gates leading to the reception.
I met Ap Khadip Phurba for the first time in June 2015. By then, he was already in his seventies. By any average measure, he was, without doubt, in the twilight years of his life. So he should be in some dark and dingy corner of a house with prayer beads in his hands, with toothless jaws in lazy motion chanting prayers. But that was not the path or place he chose for himself. His favorite place was upstream of the Mochu river at Tongchudrak, which is about eight hours walk from the headquarters of Gasa Dzongkhag and about five hours from Laya.
For almost nine months in a year, rain or shine, with his lanky body knee-deep in the water, he single-handedly carried and placed stones, boulders, and logs along the middle of the river to build a diversion dyke. He wanted the dyke to change the river's natural course to shorten travel time by almost one hour. His mission was to make a favorable walking trail along the base of the great Tongchudrak rock face.
And yes, this indomitable task he had embarked upon gave me the real context to experience what a "Herculean Task" means. I have heard and even used this term on numerous occasions but never really got the feel of what it truly meant until this time. An old and withered man working to divert the course of a river single-handedly couldn't be anything but a Herculean task. And in his younger days, with his tall height and muscular build, he must have stood out from the rest.
His name is Phurba, but people jestingly call him Khadip Phurba, meaning Phurba the Stutterer. He stuttered on every word. Depending on the onlooker, it could be either painful or entertaining to see him seriously struggle to say a word or two clearly. I have not met a stauncher stutterer, but one could understand him correctly if one listened with heart. Most did not care to listen to him; he was rather taken as a joker. One could say that he was the least understood personality in Gasa Dzongkhag. In fact, from early on, I was advised by many well-wishers not to pay any heed to him because he could be a serious trouble maker. But somehow, my instinct told me otherwise, and our first meeting at Tongchudrak confirmed it.
He hails from Chongra in Laya Gewog. He proudly describes his house’s location as the one next to the house that hosted Shabdrung Rimpoche on his maiden entry to the country about 400 years ago. He lost his parents four decades ago and four of his six siblings over the years. He has a seventy-six-year-old elder sister. He was married for thirty years to a woman who was nine years younger than him. They did not have any children. For the last fifteen years, he has been a divorcee. His primary source of income is from his forty yaks, tended to by his nieces. He lives with one of his nieces, who has six children, but he spends most of his time in the waters of Mochu at Tongchudrak—pursuing his mission of diverting the river to a new course so that the travelers could walk along the dry base of the Tongchudrak cliff.
Based on local sources, the story of this Herculean task began some twenty-nine years ago in 1992. He was supposed to have submitted the need to raise a dyke along the river banks of Tongchudrak to facilitate the travelers at a meeting graced by His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. It is said that in the meeting, His Majesty had remarked his submission as a good idea and that the Dzongkhag Administration should look into it. This Royal command was interpreted by Ap Phurba as an award of the dyke building works to him.
Since then, on and off, he has been working on this. He used his own resources for the work but received some cash compensation from the government. He approached various government authorities and personalities for additional compensation. The Dzongkhag administration could not help him any further as his modus operandi did not fulfill the necessary conditions for any official payments.
So from time to time, he approached VIPs like ministers, government secretaries, members of parliament, and other dignitaries in Thimphu, Gasa, and Tongchudrak, complaining about the incumbent Dzongda for not compensating his work and requesting their intervention. By 2016, he must have received compensation totaling Nu. 500,000, which was his original official claim. The most recent was a Soelra of Nu. 298,000 from His Majesty The King in August 2016, which was considered the final payment sealing all his claims. He, therefore, agreed not to pursue the matter any further.
But in the spirit of Hercules, he continued to approach authorities for compensation, despite signing the agreement. Some explain this unchanged appeal for compensation as a manifestation of his obsession with the place caused by the supernatural spirits of the locality. Locals jokingly remark that he is possessed by the supernatural spirits of the place. Whatever the truth may be, it is for sure that in the true spirit of Hercules, his unconditional devotion to the task at Tongchudrak will be upheld till the end of his earthly time.
I believe he is a perfect example of someone who exhibits "leadership of the self." He sees merits in his work at the Tongchudrak waters and therefore continues to work on it with full determination. I fully second the usefulness of that makeshift bridge that he improvised, as I have also crossed the river a number of times using it to shorten my travel time. Even the horses appear to be happier when not having to traverse the stretch over Tongchudrak rock.
He worked alone without any supervision. However, we cannot rule out the supernatural beings giving him company. Most of all, he did not seem to care for his life, considering the risks of working in these waters, especially at his age. Though I like to believe that we will never fully understand this larger-than-life personality, I can't help but think that he found the purpose of his life in serving others.
Today, with the motor road construction having reached Tongchudrak, his project for the last three decades is bound to become irrelevant. So, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say. When I met him in 2020, he did not mention anything on how this would impact his life's work, and I really could not gauge what his feelings were – a Happy or Helpless Hercules. Well, whatever his feelings, I think I prefer not to know them, but rather shout out loud in his praise: Long Live Hercules of Tongchudrak! May the spirit of "Leadership of the Self" flourish.
Miwang Ngadag Gyalpo Gyalo! Wangchuck Dynasty Gyalo! Palden Drukpa Gyalo!
 RIGSS – Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies was established in 2013 under Royal Vision. Today it is regarded as a peerless institute in the country and at par with the best in the region.
 Druk Gyalpo – King of Bhutan
 Mochu river joins her male companion Phochu at a confluence just south of the Punakha Dzong, which then becomes the Punatsangchu and later empties into Brahmaputra river in Assam in India. The famous hot springs of Gasa is on the banks of Mochu at Gasa.
 Gasa – one of 20 districts in Bhutan
 Dzongkhag – District. Bhutan is divided into 20 districts.
 Laya – one of 4 Gewogs (blocks) of Gasa Dzongkhag. It is the venue for the annual Royal Highland Festival
 Gewog – Smallest administrative unit. Bhutan has 205 Gewogs
 Shabdrung Rimpoche – Founding father of Bhutanese state in 16th century (1594–1651)
LEARNING AND REFLECTING
Student Intern, RIGSS
There I was, standing in the corner of my high school atrium, fascinated by the diverse faces of students as they talked animatedly amongst themselves. Never before had I found myself amidst such a crowd, and to say that I felt out of place was an understatement. I found myself moving deeper into the corner when suddenly, a tall man adorned in small hoop earrings and polarised cycling shades introduced himself as my homeroom teacher. His flamboyant appearance was a stark contrast to the modestly-clad teachers I was accustomed to. Soon after, he ushered us to our homeroom, where I was formally introduced to my classmates. During my two years at Prem Tinsulanonda International School, I experienced many things for the first time in my life: living away from home, interacting with people from various countries, and learning about their culture and communities. Likewise, my friends learned to say kuzuzangpo and kadrinche, they grew to love kewa datshi and waiwai with shakam ezzay, and some even visited Bhutan after high school. Gradually, I started to find my place at Prem.
My study abroad experience was culturally and academically enlightening. I was able to see our education system from a different angle. For instance, in my Dzongkha class, we did a literary analysis of Dzongkha literature, namely Gyalsey laklen and Ashi Nangsa. We also read works by foreign authors and analyzed them in Dzongkha. I had never taken these approaches in my Dzongkha classes before and it made me see these works from more than just a moral standpoint. My courses were challenging, but they prompted me to think critically and creatively; I was encouraged to become more inquisitive and open-minded. Prem's progressive pedagogy employed laboratory research, online simulations, and graphical analyses that facilitated theoretical learning and prepared me for college in the US.
In high school, additional courses in the Arts and Foreign Languages were also offered. I regret not taking this opportunity but instead confining my options to STEM. Back then, I was under the notion that a successful future was restricted solely to a career in medicine, engineering, or the law. However, when I started my undergraduate degree at Hamilton College, I was unsure if I wanted to continue pursuing STEM because I felt that I had not explored any other options. My college's open-curriculum and liberal arts program allowed me to explore and finally decide on a major in chemistry and a minor in digital arts. I recognize now that the opportunities and possibilities are limitless in the 21st Century. The future is digital, and we need to evolve to adapt and thrive constantly.
I am now in my final year of college and I often find myself reflecting on my learning journey. As I do, I realize that the global and social awareness that I have gained from diverse academic and cultural exposure has prepared me to set forth a firm footing into the future with confidence. I recognize the strong values ingrained in me by the Bhutanese education system, which has taught me to treat every individual equally. Through this outlook, I gained some special relationships with people I have met so far. One such experience I recall is with my late dorm custodian, who made me a meal over summer break and said that I reminded him of his grand-daughter.
In the Royal Kasho on Education Reform, His Majesty relayed that education is an indispensable national priority. In Bhutan, free education up to the tenth standard is a constitutional privilege for every Bhutanese. One of the revelations I had, while I was abroad was that quality public education is not a norm elsewhere, and as Bhutanese, we must be grateful for this opportunity and make the best use of it. Our education system perfectly incorporates cultural and moral values, and Bhutanese traditions; however, we need to integrate technology and research-based learning in classrooms. I was beyond grateful to His Majesty for his extraordinary vision in recognizing the shortcomings in our education system. The reforms suggested would ensure an education system that is equally reflective of the progressive and competitive world. I pray that His Majesty’s vision translates into reality to take Bhutanese students to greater heights in the future.
NATIONAL SECURITY- SITUATING COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN BHUTAN'S SECURITY CONCERNS
Masters Student, LSE, Former Asst. Integrity Officer, ACC
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc, some Bhutanese have treated national efforts parallel with the low-intensity military operation of 2003. Some urge compatriots to make amends for failing to respond to the nation's call during the 2003 operation. The duty might be different, but both have implications on national security. Bhutan's general rhetoric and understanding of security appear to confine to traditional security threats of being 'flanked' between two populous countries with military and economic power. This directly impinges on essential values of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and statehood. Non-traditional security concerns, which can pose threats to the survival and development of a sovereign state and humankind as a whole, aren't as necessarily pronounced as they should be. These include – pandemic, natural disasters, and cybersecurity.
On the eve of our democratic transition, His Majesty The King signed the revised Bhutan-India Friendship Treaty in 2007. Four years earlier, in 2003, His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo successfully handed over Indian militants residing in Bhutan's southern stretch to the Indian government. The former strengthened Bhutan's sovereignty while the latter ensured her security. Coming to the present time, His Majesty The King commanded the sealing of the international border to keep His people safe and the country secure as the COVID-19 caseload increased globally.
Now, in the reign of the third democratic government, COVID-19 is an ongoing test of how prepared we are in the wake of uncertainty. Did we live up to the expectations of our Monarchs? Are our actions commensurate with the trust bestowed on us?
Into the second year of the pandemic, Minister for Agriculture and Forests tells residents of an agrarian country to 'change the dietary habit to address the chilli shortage.' After the second lockdown, three women walked for almost an hour to refill liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder in Nganglam. With one death from 859 confirmed cases [as of 05 February 2021], the figures suggest Bhutan's fight against the pandemic as exemplary. However, overall responses could have been better. For example, as Phuntsholing witnessed positive cases every day in August 2020, BBS's panel discussion was mostly on zoning in Thimphu. While it must have helped prepare for the second lockdown, Phuntsholing required more coverage than a normal news story. As Thimphu residents ran out of vegetables, farmers in villages were said to have let rot their farm produce. The aggregate of individual household security forms the national security, including economic security.
Are we doing better in other non-traditional security threats? Our responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), and fire appear to be more prepared. The Disaster Management Act of Bhutan 2013 provides a clear line of responsibility, including at the Local Government as the establishment of the Dzongkhag Disaster Management Committee indicates. Considering that COVID-19 [as it stands today] did not spread across all 20 Dzongkhags, would it have been better coordinated through Dzongkhag specific response with similar legislation? The second lockdown saw coordination headed that way. Perhaps experience is important. Bhutan witnessed the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, which was, of course, of insignificant number? The practice of 'yulsung' was implemented as early as 1949. Didn't we learn enough lessons? In the absence of specific legislation, the Penal Code of Bhutan has become the principal legislation to deal with breaches of COVID-19 protocol. For example, a man in Samtse has been prosecuted for crossing the border to fetch water for his five-year-old son. Trespassing the international border during such times is one grave concern, but trespassing to drink water paints a different picture, particularly on the level of awareness on the ground and access to necessities such as water.
As disease outbreaks become more likely attributable to ecological disruptions, and drugs and pharmaceutical companies become more inclined towards profit than ethics, we can never rule out epidemics and pandemics in the future. Legislation with a clear line of responsibilities might help coordinate region-specific responses. Schools in Lhuntse need not have to close because of cases in Thimphu. Road construction in Trashi Yangtse can continue even when Phuntsholing sees infections. A tiered system coupled with proper coordination is expected to reduce economic disruptions, thus lowering recovery costs. Retrospective commentary is quite easy, though.
Information technology opens unrivalled opportunities. Bhutan e-Government Master Plan 2014 is one such acknowledgement. It is also accompanied by certain risks. As much as territorial integrity and national boundary, information and data integrity are important in securing national sovereignty. Digital sovereignty will be tested as the reach of information, communications and technology (ICT) deepen. Information, Communications and Media Act of Bhutan 2018 authorises interception, monitoring, decryption and blocking of information received or stored in any ICT system if it threatens the interest of the country's sovereignty, security, and harmony and defence. The National Cybersecurity Strategy (NCS) of Bhutan is also said to have been drafted. As technology giants in the U.S. face Congressional hearings, in Bhutan, social media such as WeChat is one medium in which some official documents are being circulated. Perhaps these are ordinary documents?
In pursuit of e-Governance, data and information are being migrated online. To this effect, 'Application Development Guidelines' are put in place. Unless the specific project proposal document covers security protocols, the guidelines eligibility criteria about 'sensitivity to security concern' in developing one such database or system are silent. Government's e-governance database and application such as 'Management for Excellence (MaX) System' covering entire civil service, 'Government e-Payment System' and 'Government Payroll System' have been built by expatriates and foreign companies. Apparently, expatriates have been trusted with the government's entire personnel and financial flows. Perhaps, code of conduct and audit mechanism is resilient enough. Was it because of a lack of Bhutanese expertise? Some Bhutanese are said to be working in Silicon Valley while some are plying their business in technology companies in Singapore. Cannot Bhutanese build their own security system, including data and information management systems?
As evident, concerted efforts are being put at varying degrees. However, our preparations are supposedly short of the imminent challenges. What would have been the status of those laid-off employees had it not been for Druk Gylapo's Relief Kidu? Into the second year, neither the executive nor the legislature has indicated a long-term solution for such redundancy. Does the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007 cover such redundancies? The question remains as to what the concrete recovery measures are. Come 2023, Bhutan will be graduating from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDC). By that effect, access to finance will possibly be reduced.
Currently, different security threats are subsumed under different legislative instruments. Attributable to such an arrangement, it appears that the security component didn't receive much attention as it should. Has the time come for Bhutan to develop a comprehensive security framework covering both traditional and non-traditional security threats? Or is such a fusion incompatible?
As we commemorate His Majesty's auspicious 41st Birth Anniversary, can we commit both in words and actions to maximise and deepen our efforts to strengthen Bhutan's security and sovereignty which we know is amongst His Majesty’s top-most concerns and priorities.
[Disclaimer: The author claims neither authority nor expertise on the subject matter of security.]
An alumnus of Foundational Leadership Programme-2, Dechen hails from Mongar. His occasional posts and commentaries are available at his personal website, www.dechenrabgyal.com.
OF HARDSHIPS AND HOPE
Founder, iHub Bhutan
I feel the real struggle in life begins after we graduate, especially on this side of the world, where students are unaware or have not planned about where they are headed. Unlike many others, I had a smooth start at first because I knew what I wanted. But the journey has been a rough ride and continues to be so even today. After graduating in 2013, I had the opportunity to work in one of the associations in the country and got a job in Singapore.
During my stay there, I learnt about the concept of co-working and incubation for aspiring entrepreneurs, which was (and still is) new for Bhutan. With excitement to bring this concept back home and hoping that things would be convenient like that in Singapore, I left my job and returned. Within days, the dream of bringing change almost got shattered. This began when I had to wait for about a year to get a business license. We talk about the ease of doing business in Bhutan, but many startups give up before even trying because of such lengthy processes.
Four years have passed since I joined the entrepreneurial world with my dream startup iHub. I built this startup to help other startups through pre-incubation programs and co-working space. Many of them struggle in their early days because they do not meet the right mentors to guide them. And for a young startup, co-working space is essential as it creates an open, collaborative space where we could rent a desk at an affordable price and create a network to connect.
It has been a lonely journey so far. I learned from my mentors, who are experts, and I share what I know to aspiring startups with the little knowledge I acquired about the entrepreneurial system. I am always grateful to my friends who have always stood by and supported me. They have been my guides in this journey, and without them, I am certain I would not have made any mark in the entrepreneurial community.
Although iHub was able to create some positive impact in the lives of some startups, it has been a continuous challenge for me all along.
Looking back from where I started, I realize that it was never easy. In building a startup ecosystem, I had less or no time for my family, friends, and myself. There were times when I was without a single penny for months and had to sell off personal belongings to sustain myself. And I did all these because I had decided to take that risk in life, knowing the challenges of the entrepreneurial world.
iHub so far has not made any profit because that was never the intent. I aspired to build substantial social capital and meaningful connections. What has given me joy is that through iHub, three startups established their businesses. They began by hiring mere tables and chairs from our co-working space and now have their own offices. They have raised more than Nu 37 million and created employment opportunities for more than 20 people. Happy Delivery, an online delivery and logistic business, Sadone Design, which specializes in modern designing of traditional arts and crafts, and Chechay Sanitary Pad, the only female-led business in the group, are some of the startups that have fared well so far.
Amid all these experiences of happiness and struggle, for me, RIGSS came as a blessing. Through RIGSS, I understood the importance of "self-love" and the ability to look at things differently. Very few of us from the private sector can afford to attend the RIGSS programs. This Royal Soelra is something I would cherish throughout my life. The process of reflection and finding purpose made me realize how much I had missed in life while chasing my dream. After RIGSS, I immediately adopted a core value for myself and iHub - "Possibilist" and "Doing Business with Values," respectively.
In the modern business world, we are mostly profit-driven and forget the real principle that binds and makes us unique. So through the iHub program, I have always tried to integrate doing business with values. And since I follow the principle of possibilist, no matter what, I always find ways to keep myself and iHub going. The year 2020 was a challenge for everyone. Even my business got disrupted, and I had to join one of my startup friends who kept us busy and earned a minimal amount to sustain through these challenging times. Before that, we planted trees on behalf of others and made our living during the initial days of the pandemic.
Now with my personal core values, I can explore markets beyond Bhutan. We are currently partnering with agencies abroad to provide entrepreneurial training both within the country and overseas. I always believed in social capital, and now I have an extended network of friends and experts from my RIGSS days, on whom I can always rely.
2020 taught us that together, we could do a lot. And that we are too complacent and have never explored things that we can do. This will be over soon. And I have learnt that what doesn't kill you makes you even stronger.
Before joining RIGSS, I had a different perspective of our system or government. Now that I had the opportunity to interact with my cohort and attend impactful lectures and immersion programs, I have learnt that my friends are young and smart, with the potential to make a difference in our system. I learnt to place national priorities ahead of personal interests and work towards national goals no matter where and which agencies we are in. I have discovered my calling, and my place in the nation-building process.
BHUTAN'S FOREIGN POLICY
Asst. Desk Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Author's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not, in any way, represent the views of the organization with which the author is associated with.
A brief introduction
Bhutan's foreign policy evolved gradually after Zhabdrung Rinpoche unified the country as a nation-state in the 17th Century. Before the unification process, Bhutan was heavily engaged in fighting back several invasions from the Tibetans and a few from the Mongols. Back then, Bhutan's engagement with the outside world in terms of people-to-people relations, trade, commerce, political discourse, international relations, etc., was never a national priority. This article assesses the crucial milestones in Bhutan's external engagements. It presents the context in which our visionary Monarchs administered Bhutan's foreign policy and its contribution towards maintaining a sovereign independent state.
How and when did it evolve?
Fast forward to the late 18th Century, having fought several battles with the British forces, Bhutan had to cede its territories (duars) in the south. The Bhutanese lacked military strength and capacity and were no match for the well-equipped British troops. Following the Duar War, Bhutan signed its first treaty, the Treaty of Sinchula, with the British government in 1865. In return for territories that Bhutan ceded, the British agreed to pay an annual subsidy of Nu. 50,000. The treaty promised a peaceful coexistence between the two countries and assured Bhutan's sovereign status as a signatory to the treaty.
Later in the early 20th Century, and a few years before Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned as the first King, he engaged in the Younghusband expedition in 1904. He proved to be a successful and indispensable mediator between the British government and the Tibetans, which gained him huge attention from countries in the region and beyond. Such skills and talent of an individual Bhutanese helped shape the image and reputation of the entire country. An interesting excerpt quoted in Dr. Sonam Kinga's Polity Kingship and Democracy reads:
"One character that did well out of the Younghusband Expedition was that tough, sharp Bhutanese go-between, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck. If answering devotion to national self-interest is the hallmark of the good diplomat, he can scarcely be faulted."
Fifty-five years later, the Treaty of Sinchula was renewed, and a new treaty known as the Treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910. The main revision was on the annual subsidy, which was doubled to Nu. 100,000 and an additional clause was included as reproduced hereunder:
"The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British government in regard to its external relations."
The clause above served two purposes: firstly, it is a projection of Bhutan's existence as a sovereign independent state. Therefore, the Bhutanese never entertained foreign interference in its internal affairs. Secondly, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck sensed the threat of being controlled by the other dominant countries in the region. Thus, Bhutan agreed to be guided by the advice of the British.
Embracing a new neighbor
A huge turnover in the region's geopolitics was when India gained its independence from the British empire in 1947. This also marked an important milestone in the conduct of Bhutan's foreign policy. Two years after India gained independence, the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1949 with the Government of India. The treaty marked an important step in formalizing our bilateral relations with a new neighbour - India. The main revision was an increase in the annual subsidy to Rs. 500,000 and retention of Article 2 of the earlier treaties replacing "the British Government" with "the Government of India."
It was then followed by the historic exchange of visits by the leaders of the two countries. The third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, visited New Delhi at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's invitation as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day of India in 1954. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi, also visited Bhutan in 1958. The visits indicated a breakthrough for Bhutan to end the self-imposed isolation and engage with the rest of the world.
The signing of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty between His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Hon'ble Foreign Minister (of India) Pranab Mukerjee in 2007 is also a direct outcome of those inherent diplomatic skills exhibited by our visionary Monarchs. The treaty reflected the growing Indo-Bhutan relations, reaffirming trust, confidence, and respect between them. It did away with Article 2 and the clause on the 1865 and 1910 treaties' annual subsidy. The new Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty states:
"In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of it's territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other."
On the regional and international fora, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan in 1962 with a primary objective to garner support for development plans. Later, in 1969, Bhutan's membership in the Universal Postal Union was a crucial step towards informing the rest of the world about our existence as a sovereign independent state. The postage stamps were sent out as "Little Ambassadors" to promote Bhutan's sovereign status and independence. By then, Bhutan had gained huge recognition and attention from the international communities. There was no single objection from the UN Member States, including the UN Security Council, to Bhutan's membership in the United Nations in 1971. Another proactive measure was joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1973, which safeguarded Bhutan against the major power bloc's dominant ideologies. It was also an important step that assured Bhutan as a responsible member of the international community and, more so, in furthering our relations with like-minded countries.
A bold decision and enhanced relations
An extraordinary move in Bhutan's external engagement was when it recognized Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971. The decision was taken when the region was ostensibly getting highly volatile due to the unrest in the northeastern states of India. Bertil Lintner's Great Game East has a lot more on issues concerning Asia's most volatile frontier. Bhutan continues to receive due regard and appreciation from the Government of Bangladesh for being the first country to recognize its independence. As a result, Bangladesh became the second country with whom Bhutan established bilateral diplomatic relations in 1973 after India in 1968. It truly gives a sense of how Bhutan chose to conduct its foreign policy across time and space.
On a similar front, during the coronation of our Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1974, the Presidents of India and Bangladesh, the King of Nepal, were invited to be the honoured guests. Other invitees included Heads of Mission, based in New Delhi, of the P5 countries, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Burma, Singapore, Japan, Sri Lanka, Canada, and UN agencies' representatives, including the UN Secretary-General. One could imagine the time and resources the Bhutanese had to acquire to extend excellent arrangements and hospitality in the early 70s for the visiting guests. The country's development in terms of accessibility (transport and communication mostly) and other infrastructure was still at a very nascent stage. Nevertheless, Bhutan has never failed as a nation.
To diversify and broaden the external financing windows, Bhutan joined the World Bank and IMF in 1981 and ADB in 1982. Bhutan was a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the six other South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 1985. Afghanistan joined later in 2007. Here, it is important to understand that regional organizations such as SAARC were established when the big and powerful countries were actively engaged for regional supremacy. In other words, external threats to Bhutan's sovereignty and security continued even in the '80s. And being a founding member of SAARC, a regional organization based on equal footing, gave an additional space to project our sovereign status.
A gradual shift in Bhutan's foreign policy
While Bhutan plays an active role as a responsible member of the international community, His Majesty's vision for multilateralism has further strengthened its standing and prominence in the international fora. A notable contribution to international peace and security is Bhutan's long-standing commitment and participation in the UN Peacekeeping Operations.
Drawing inspiration from His Majesty's 112th National Day Address, the government has already launched the process of formulating the 21st Century Economic Roadmap. Economic diplomacy - enhancing trade and commerce, creating a conducive environment for foreign direct investments, and exploring external financing windows to meet domestic priorities - will become an important foreign policy objective.
With rapid technological advancement, His Majesty The King has always emphasized science and technology diplomacy. In the future, Bhutan needs to actively leverage its diplomacy and tap into the growing science base of more advanced countries. It will help develop our human resource capacity and stimulate innovation.
What kept us moving?
The main element of Bhutan's foreign policy pursued by our successive Monarchs was building genuine trust and friendship based on mutual respect with all countries. The exemplary Indo-Bhutan relations nurtured for more than five decades are a direct outcome of such policy. There is also an interesting anecdote, although not widely spoken - the Fourth King's visit to Japan in February 1989 to attend the state funeral of the Showa Emperor. Many foreign dignitaries stepped forward, paid tribute, and left the place. However, unlike them, the Fourth King returned to his seat after paying tribute and waited until the funeral rites were over. Such genuine acts have gained immense goodwill and the people of Japan still vividly talk about them.
Our engagement with the rest of the world had always been, as Kishore Mahbubani wrote, "the minimalist approach." Every single step that our Monarchs took was well-thought-out, timely, and calculated. For instance, our persistent efforts towards maintaining good relations with the P5 countries are paying off even without formal diplomatic relations. Such policy measures allowed Bhutan to focus on domestic priorities like socio-economic development and, more importantly, maintain its sovereignty. As a small and landlocked country, Bhutan had never exhibited its smugness over the inherent superiority in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Centre for Bhutan Studies. Final Programmes for the Coronation, June 1974 and the Silver Jubilee Celebrations June 1999 of His Majesty The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Thimphu. (1999). http://crossasia-repository.Ub.uni-heidelberg.de/315/ 1/Coronation.pdf
Das, B.S. Mission to Bhutan: A nation in transition. India. Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. (1995).
Wangchuk, Dorji. Letter from Japan. (2016). https://dorji-wangchuk.com/2016/11/11/letter-from-japan/?fbclid=IwAR0mGO8L_ajSaLL3fEidPATEXQyxDczXuAX9UmzhdOLSIcQjar_qr-ceu9Q
Institute of Developing Economies. Sub-regional Relations in the Eastern South Asia: with special focus on Bangladesh and Bhutan. (2004). Japan. http://www.ide.go.jp/ library/English/Publish/Download/Jrp/pdf/1323.pdf
Kinga, Sonam. Polity, Kingship, and Democracy: A biography of the Bhutanese States. Thimphu. Bhutan Times Ltd. (2009).
Lintner, Bertil. Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia's most volatile frontier. India. HarperCollins Publisher. (2016).
Mahbubani Kishore. Has the West Lost It? A Provocation. The United Kingdom. Penguin Random House. (2018).
Marshall Tim. Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that explain everything about the world. The United Kingdom. Scribner-Simon and Schuster, Inc. (2016)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. https://www.mfa.gov.bt/?page_id=59
Tobgye, Sonam. Kuensel. The development of Bhutan's relations with India. February 09 2019. https://kuenselonline.com/the-development-of-bhutans-relations-with-india/
Economic Roadmap for the 21st Century. https://economicroadmap.gnhc.gov.bt/ neighbor
CIVIL SERVANTS’ MINDSET FOR 21ST CENTURY BHUTAN
Bhutan is at a crossroads, in every sense – rebuilding an economy crippled by the pandemic, reforming the civil service to better cater to the changing demands of the 21st century, and revolutionizing the education system to produce future ready citizens. His Majesty The King’s vision for the foreseeable future is crystal clear – for Bhutan to become self-reliant and a fully developed country within our lifetime. And so much of it all lies in the hands of our civil servants.
With over 31,000 employees, Bhutan’s Civil Service is by far the largest employer in the country, and by that account, the largest pool of know-how and talent. There is roughly one civil servant for every 24 Bhutanese, an astounding civil servant to population ratio which must be amongst world’s best. South Korea’s is about 1:50 (Edge Weekly, Oct. 2019). From our GDP of about Nu. 200 billion, we spend close to Nu. 20 billion annually on civil servants pay and allowances. Given such statistics, one will be tempted to believe that Bhutan’s planning, policies, strategies, infrastructure or services are of the highest standards or amongst the most efficient. The biggest question is “Are they”?
The civil service worldwide is ideally a dynamic institution, constantly evolving to meet the challenges of the changing times. In Bhutan too, we know our civil service has come a long way. From the erstwhile Department of Manpower instituted in 1973 by the Fourth King to the current Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC), our civil service has undergone numerous transformations. However, the call for change is stronger now because the change outside and around us today is more rapid and disruptive, and problems of the VUCA world are increasingly becoming more pronounced. Civil servants need to catch up faster than they did ever before to stay relevant and ahead of the curve.
In the Royal Decree on Civil Service Reform issued on 17 December 2020, His Majesty The King acknowledges the contribution of the civil servants in the nation-building process thus far, and calls for its reform in preparation for the future. “They have contributed immensely to the success of our democracy and in nation-building, becoming an admired corp of well-educated, highly trained, and committed officials in the process. Even as we celebrate their successes and achievements, we have to prepare for our future.”
The Royal Decree also highlights an area of concern, that indeed appears to be amongst the greatest grievances against the civil servants in Bhutan today. “We have to take on board legitimate concerns over the sense of complacency and indifference generated by guarantee of job security.” That civil servants, rather than facilitating, are becoming an impediment to development and progress, is a matter that merits deep introspection by individual civil servants and organizational leadership. Nobody would want to be in the right place for the wrong reasons, doing the wrong things.
As we embark on this important journey to reform the civil service as envisioned in the Royal Decree, I reflect on four mindsets that could be cultivated or promoted in our civil service. His Majesty The King once remarked that with the right mindset and attitude, an average man can move mountains.
The Servant-Leader Mindset
Civil servants are paid to serve the larger public or national interests, including policy formulation, planning and strategizing, policy implementation, resource mobilization and utilization, infrastructure development, monitoring and evaluation, public service delivery etc. Because civil servants are paid to do what we are expected or entrusted to do, the most undesirable mindset in civil servants will be to think that we are doing someone a favour. The work civil servants do is not charity.
But public service, in its true sense, is much more profound and transcends any monetary equation. Ideally, civil servants should be intrinsically motivated by the service we can render in the form of the work we do. We should be driven by the impacts that our sincerity and hard work will have on the wellbeing of fellow citizens and our nation at large. In the civil service, we (ought to) live more for others than for ourselves, that indeed is the true purpose of civil service. A doctor should be driven by the lives he can save or the pains he can mitigate. Similarly, a teacher should be driven by the possible impact of his students on the future of our nation. No quantum of money can buy such a level of inspiration and fulfilment.
The mindset we ought to have in the civil service is that of a servant-leader. Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader” wrote thus about a servant-leader: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…”.
With the loyalty of a servant and the competency of a leader, there is no doubt that Bhutan’s civil servants will serve our public better and navigate the complexities of the 21st century. But first, we need to discover the “servant” in the civil servant.
The Entrepreneurial Mindset
The draft 21st Century Economic Roadmap for Bhutan highlights how excessive regulation, bureaucratic red-tapism and indifference in the civil service are painful bottlenecks in our system, particularly for businesses. Many of us in the civil service know this. Perhaps we have a great opportunity now to change it, and change must begin with oneself.
If our country has to become self-reliant and a fully developed country during our lifetime as envisioned by His Majesty The King, civil servants will increasingly need to shift gear towards a more entrepreneurial mindset. Civil servants need not do business but we need to have the business acumen as a part of our competency. We have the potential to be more decisive, innovative and risk-taking. We need to graduate from the existing fail-safe mentality.
A robust and resilient economy, high income and high living standards are necessary imperatives of a developed country. If we have this realization, it won’t be difficult for our fellow civil servants in the Ministries of Agriculture or Economic Affairs, the Tourism Council of Bhutan or the Thimphu Thromde to formulate plans and policies that will help generate more revenues for our economy. These are random examples; civil servants across government agencies can do the same, one way or the other. If civil servants have an entrepreneurial mindset, we would see, or better still create, opportunities beyond the regulatory horizons.
Our development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has sometimes been seen as an impediment to growth. In a way, it is a necessary impediment to reckless, destructive and unsustainable growth. However, within the dictate of GNH, there is so much that we can achieve on the economic front that can still make us a developed country with high income within our lifetime. Becoming a developed country need not necessarily come at the cost of GNH and its principles.
If we are to become a developed country in our generation, it will be imperative to promote an entrepreneurial mindset in our civil service – a mindset that values time, innovation, efficiency, partnership, data, risk-taking and money. It is about time that we rethink the belief, or the myth, that we are happy with less.
A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful ways; a growth mindset thrives on the challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work (Carol Dweck).
Nobody knows everything under the sun. But today, we have the opportunity and the resources to know as much as we need to, or wish to. All we need is a bit of humility to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, the openness to learn, and the belief that we can get better through our efforts. In a recent RIGSS Podcast interview, the Resident Representative of UNDP Bhutan, Ms. Azusa Kubota, highlighted the need for “humility” as a part of building capabilities. She said “The first humility is to really admit that we all need to embrace the fact that we don’t know many things happening around us and we certainly don’t know our future; acknowledging this requires courage and also this will allow us to seek support in defining what it is that we don’t know”.
In the Bhutanese civil service, the assurance of job security irrespective of how much we know or don’t know, or how much we perform or don’t perform, seems to be one of the biggest inhibitors of the growth mindset. The inability of the system to differentiate civil servants based on merit leads to a perception of lack of recognition to those who invest time and effort to learn more and do better.
The world around us is fast changing; the only way the bureaucracy can catch up and stay ahead and relevant is by bureaucrats embracing a growth mindset. A growth mindset will help us know more, innovate, solve problems and dream bigger. It will help us achieve higher levels of motivation and performance. A growth mindset will allow us to embrace change. With a growth mindset, it’s not about how good you are, it’s rather about how good you want to be. And sky is the only limit.
The Problem-Solving Mindset
In a recent zoom conference, author and social entrepreneur Tami Simon was asked about the mindset of employees in her company that makes her company do so well. The mindset, she said, is: “You have a problem? Let me solve it.”
We are generally good at problem identification or definition, which no doubt is important. For example, most of us today can talk about the problems the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted upon us as a nation, such as unemployment, dwindling economic growth, food security etc. We now need to move towards finding solutions, which is most important.
Those with a problem-solving mindset embrace problems rather than shun them. They see opportunities. And embracing problems is perhaps the starting point to finding solutions. In times of massive uncertainty like today, problems are varied and never-ending, and the only way to move forward and do better is by discussing and discovering solutions to our problems. Our attitude towards problems, whether we embrace them or shun them, would make all the difference.
Bhutan’s civil service has the best of brains and a wealth of experience. We are solving a lot of problems, and we can do so much more. We are capable of taking that “dragonfly eye view” of problems so that we see threats and opportunities beyond the periphery of vision (McKinsey Quarterly, Sep. 2020). The ability to view things with a 360 degrees lens is crucial for each and every Bhutanese, particularly those of us bestowed with the trust of public service. If we realize that we can, and must, solve our own problems, then we can. If we have a problem-solving mindset, everything else towards finding solutions will follow.
We have so much potential in the Bhutanese Civil service, be it numbers, capabilities or experience. We are so many for a country so small that we can actually be amongst the best in the world in terms of public service efficiency and effectiveness, and the standards we set. The Royal Kasho on Civil Service reforms not only gives us the vision, it shows us the paths to get there. It is us civil servants, and the civil service system as a whole, who need to be amongst the first to acknowledge that we need to do better because we have the potential to do so. Potential unutilized is opportunity wasted.
As we embark on this milestone journey of civil service reforms, efforts towards transforming the civil servant mindset need to be accorded utmost consideration. We may have the best of systems but if we fail to re-engineer the civil servant mindset, much of what we have today will likely remain the same. The real thrust to change must always come from within, and we must do all we can to unleash that thrust.
14 YEARS OF GLORIOUS REIGN
Senior Analyst, DHI
With the blessings of the Triple Gem and our people's good fortune, Bhutan has always been blessed with selfless Monarchs. In 2006, His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo handed over the reigns of Kingship to His Majesty The King, expressing that the then Crown Prince had a genuine interest in serving the country and looking after the people's welfare. These prophetic words indeed came true, as His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has ushered in a new era of peace, prosperity, and happiness for all Bhutanese people. On 21st February, as the Nation celebrates our beloved King's 41st birth anniversary, here is a small reflection of what The Druk Gyalpo has accomplished in His 15 years of glorious reign.
In matters of foreign policy, our King has proven to be an impeccable statesman strengthening diplomatic relationships with all countries, and in particular with our closest neighbour and friend, India. From the very beginning, His Majesty declared that "Indo-Bhutan Friendship is indispensable for the future success of Bhutan." His Majesty made it a point to regularly visit India and invite Indian leaders to visit Bhutan, to strengthen the ties of friendship between the two nations. Bhutan is the only country to have been accorded four invitations for a head of state to grace India's Republic Day celebrations as Chief Guest. The fact that India chose Bhutan as the first country to provide the COVID-19 vaccine is a further testimony of the friendship between the two nations. His Majesty has always accorded topmost priority to fostering the Indo-Bhutan relationship.
Besides India, Bhutan’s immediate neighbour is China. Although there is no formal diplomatic relationship with China, His Majesty The King has maintained a good relationship with China. Sometime in 2015, all were pleasantly surprised to read an article in Kuensel by the Chinese Ambassador to India Le Yucheng, talking candidly about his admiration for our Kings and Bhutan's development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. With His Majesty’s guidance, Bhutan was able to play her part in peacefully resolving the escalating situation that arose in Doklam in 2017.
His Majesty has uplifted Bhutan's stature by leaps and bounds with His humility and diplomacy on the international stage. Our relationships with Thailand, Japan, and Singapore has become strengthened in the past decade and a half, especially after His Majesty visited these countries. In 2015, His Majesty dispatched a 52-member team to Nepal to assist in earthquake relief operations. This gesture of His Majesty immensely helped Bhutan build the goodwill of Bhutanese in Nepal. With His Majesty's intervention, Bhutan was able to join the UN peacekeeping missions to contribute in our small way to global peace and security. Out of regards and affection, a Japanese woman left about USD 150,000 in her will to be used for His Majesty’s noble Royal Initiatives in 2011. Such stories only reiterate that our King's leadership is admired beyond our borders.
In one remote village of Bhutan, a woman was condemned and isolated by her community. They were under the strong superstition that she was a "poison giver." During a Royal visit to that village, His Majesty intentionally took Ara from the woman to dispel this thought from her community. Everywhere we go, there are similar accounts of how His Majesty touched the lives of citizens from all walks of life. Immediately after ascending the Golden Throne, His Majesty initiated the nationalization of sand, stone, and timber to bring down the cost of these raw materials. His Majesty also began nationwide land reforms in 2007, and as of 2020, 131,801 beneficiaries were granted 137,745 acres of land across the country. Whenever natural disaster struck Bhutan, His Majesty’s personal guidance to relief efforts and the care and compassion for victims have enabled quick recovery. We have seen how His Majesty personally oversaw the rehabilitation works after every calamity. Through the Royal Kidu programs, His Majesty has directly helped hundreds of needy and vulnerable people by granting them a living allowance, land, citizenship, scholarship, medical assistance, and numerous other Kidu.
The impact of COVID-19 on our economy and people would have been entirely different if it was not for His Majesty's intervention. More than 35,000 people who lost their livelihood during the pandemic continue to be supported through the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu. Likewise, following His Majesty's command, commercial entities and individuals were given loan deferment and interest waivers as a means to support them in this difficult time.
Such is the greatness of our King that His benevolence has touched all sections of the society. The Civil Service Award system recognizes civil servants and employees of state-owned companies by granting them service medals and certificates from His Majesty the King. The King has always looked after uniform personnel and their families' welfare by providing them higher remuneration, good pension schemes, and other benefits through systems like project HOPE. The construction of affordable houses in Phuentsholing and Goensho Tshamkhang for the elderly at Wangsisina are other instances of how His Majesty supports economically disadvantaged citizens.
His Majesty started the Royal Highland Festival to improve the highlanders' economic condition and to showcase highland culture as Bhutan's pride. Based on the vision set by His Majesty, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan was able to bring about numerous initiatives to convert the country into a cashless digital economy, including improving access to finance and lowering interest rates of loans. In recognition of His Majesty’s exceptional leadership, UNDP presented the Special Recognition Award to His Majesty for advancing Bhutanese people's wellbeing.
In the last 14 years, His Majesty had set up several strategic institutions. From the efficient functioning of these institutions, we realize His Majesty's far-sighted vision in setting them up for our long-term benefit. The Druk Holding and Investments Limited (DHI) was established to undertake commercial activities on behalf of the government and bring about performance excellence and corporate governance. The Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing was established as a premier leadership institute and a think tank to promote leadership development and research. The Royal Academy in Paro is yet another visionary initiative to provide holistic education to enable students to realize their full potential to nurture successive generations of leaders. Similarly, the De-Suung program was introduced to instill the spirit of volunteerism and encourage all citizens to appreciate the sense of community, harmony, and cooperation. With their honor code of "Service before Self," the 18,000 plus Desuups today have become an integral support system, assisting different agencies during national events, celebrations, and disasters.
During the coronation address in 2008, His Majesty stated that the youth are the most important citizens of our country. His Majesty reassured, "I will not rest until I have given you the inspiration, knowledge, and skills so that you will not only fulfil your own aspirations but be of immense worth to the nation." His Majesty has worked tirelessly to fulfill this promise. Upon Royal command, various youth engagement programs and camps are held annually to engage our youth meaningfully. His Majesty often reminds our youth to make excellence and success a lifelong pursuit. During royal tours, His Majesty always makes it a point to meet students, spend time and engage with them. His Majesty grants an exclusive audience to the academic toppers every year. The King also awards personally signed certificates to all excelling students. His Majesty encourages students to read, telling them that by reading even ten pages a day they will have read at least 12 books a year. His Majesty also ensures to converse with students who are on the verge of entering the job market through the audience during the National Graduate Orientation Program and the RUB Convocation Program.
All the youth-focused initiatives taken so far have ultimately culminated into a special once-in-a-lifetime program called Gyalsung or the National Service. The Gyalsung program has germinated as a result of the deep love His Majesty has for the youth of our country. The year-long training for all youth will make them strong independent thinkers capable of better serving their family, community, and country. With His Majesty as the champion behind Gyalsung, a bright future awaits the youth of our country.
Symbol of Sovereignty, Unity, and Peace
The greatest gift that His Majesty has granted us is taking forward Drukgyal Zhipa's legacy of safeguarding our sovereignty and keeping Bhutan united and peaceful. Bhutan has experienced three elections so far. His Majesty is a symbol of unity for the people of Bhutan- the Bhutanese are able to remain as a single family through the otherwise divisiveness that comes with political differences.
In Royal addresses, His Majesty commands the public servants to render their cooperation to the elected governments to ensure continuity and fulfill the national objectives. In a close-knit society, any division on the grounds of politics, religion, region, language, or race can cause irreparable damage. But with His Majesty at the helm, we are confident that divisions and differences of any degree will be handled with the greatest of care. His Majesty has stated time and again that nothing can harm our country if we stay united like members of a closely bonded family.
The Guardian Deities of Bhutan had indeed answered the prayers of His Majesty Drukgyal Zhipa for Bhutan's bright future under the new King. Bhutan is today a happy, secured, and progressive Nation ever ready to reap the opportunities of the 21st century. On this auspicious occasion of His Majesty’s 41st Birthday, we would like to offer our deepest gratitude to His Majesty for His wise leadership and unconditional love, and our humble prayers and good wishes for His long life, good health, and happiness.