The great exodus – mass emigration by our size of population – that is happening right now is merely the breaking point of many years of frustration and disillusionment. It could as well be a response to deep-seated problems that have plagued our country – economic inequalities, widening gap between rich and poor, economic stagnancy suffered by the so-called middle class, unemployment crisis, lack of opportunities, and above all, an evident lack of hope for individual prosperity and financial wellbeing.
These problems are real and profound.
A common argument used by every person going to Australia or planning to leave is: “Rather than work in Bhutan my entire life, I’d better slog in Australia for four to five years. What I will earn in Australia in a few years, I won’t make it in my entire life here.”
It boils down to economic security.
The hopes and aspirations of Bhutanese people are generally basic (of course from a simplistic view). They want to secure the future of their children by providing good education, maybe drive a decent car, have sufficient savings in the bank, own a house of their own at the end of their career, and live a stable, secure life in retirement, mostly in spiritual pursuits.
The irony is that most of us will struggle, work like mules our entire life, and not be able to own even a small house at the end of our lives. That is a scary future we are glaring at. And when we don’t see ourselves fulfilling these basic aspirations, we look for opportunities that will make it happen elsewhere. The success stories of Bhutanese in Australia – how so-and-so bought land here or built a building there, only inspire others to join the bandwagon. It is a basic human psychology to follow the herd.
Australia is now a source of great leveler. The Bhutanese middle class is buying land, flats and apartments, building houses. This is the only way that they can invest in immovable property, and climb up the social and economic ladder.
And given the prospects, thousands of Bhutanese want to leave the country. Some have tried to make it work here but failed. They don’t see the possibility of making it big in Bhutan at least in this lifetime. Others with regular jobs like civil servants have limited options. There is no quick, accelerated process to becoming wealthy when one has to live off pay cheque to pay cheque, nearly half of which is spent on paying rents. Highly skilled workforce like doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers are also leaving because there is no economic incentive in pursuing these professions.
What is disturbing is that many young graduates, fresh out of universities, those who haven’t even tried to do something are already despondent. They don’t see a future for themselves here.
The answer to what must be done is in the problem itself – economic opportunities for all that will enable each and every Bhutanese to live decent lives, own homes of their own, and secure a stable future. That would mean financial security, economic empowerment, jobs that pay well, cheaper home loans, affordable home ownership schemes, and stronger social security policies.
Not all is gloom and doom though.
We are going through a period of great reform and transformation – a magnitude second only to the democratic transition that happened in 2008. The transformation initiative envisioned by His Majesty himself is a bold and timely intervention, one that aspires to reboot our entire system and archaic traditional conventions that have undermined our economy, human resource potential, and our collective ability to achieve greatness. We had become complacent.
The vision is loud and clear.
In the next 10-15 years, we should see and feel the impact of this transformation initiative. Economy wise, we should be in the higher income category, with a diverse, competent workforce with world standard skills – an advanced economy.
Effective governance and bureaucracy is key to achieving these aspirations, and as such, major reforms are underway to change how the civil service machinery functions to its optimum, effecting positive change.
Skilling, up-skilling and reskilling of our youths to make them world ready is a top priority now. University and colleges are revisiting their curricula to make education relevant by aligning it to the changing realities of the world of work.
National volunteers of all age groups are trained, not just in skills but values as well. “Skills with values” will redefine the Bhutanese workforce. Just as the Japanese are respected for their discipline, punctuality and dedication, Bhutanese workforce will also be known for being ethical, trustworthy, and dependable.
It is never too late. It is a timely course correction.
There’s so much happening all around us. There is a sense of constant momentum, of one thing or the other happening – a huge relief from the inertia that we had suffered for so long. And that should be a source of hope and optimism for all of us, not the other way round.
Change can be difficult. But we should know that without bold changes inspired by visionary and strategic leadership, a small country like Bhutan can easily be left behind. At this juncture, every Bhutanese should reflect on whether they want to be a part of this great transformation that is happening in the country or not, and better still, actively contribute to this process of change and transformation as we navigate through the most challenging, yet exciting times in our modern history.
Ultimately, it is a question of choice and responsibility.
A former newspaper journalist, Kinley Tshering is a creative entrepreneur working at the intersection of art, entertainment and technology