For years now, our normal ways of doing things have stretched us to the limit. Anything beyond, or beside, the norm was unthinkable – even intolerable. Making multiple visits for a simple service, whether it is from a government office or from a private sawmill, was normal – as it was normal to expect the state to provide everything. Conversely, new ideas, accountability, risk-taking, sense of duty, or thinking out of the box became rare commodities.
Then, Covid-19 happened. And disruptions and innovations became the norm.
Many public services went online. More utility bills were settled from a smartphone, and cooking gas and vegetables got delivered at our doorsteps. University graduates took up menial work. Zoom meetings replaced in-person travels and foreign trips. You don’t even have to get out of your car in the pouring rain to register at the checkpoints. Few days back I voted for my Gewog leaders in Tashigang by just walking over to a polling booth in Thimphu – something that was suggested repeatedly in the past. Covid-19 has shown us that when we think beyond the norm, everything is possible.
The pandemic brought us together. For once since democracy dawned on us, we became one nation. We put our differences and designations on hold. We had parliamentarians and former ministers patrolling the streets in freezing cold and donning the simple and honest Desuung outfits. Soldiers, policemen, civil servants, and desuups walked in the blistering heat of the South. Our health workers worked past their breaking points. Farmers donated their precious produce. Businesses and private citizens wrote cheques to the Relief Fund. Humanity took over hierarchy, commonality over compartmentalism, and abundance over scarcity.
Above all, led by our King, we brought the pandemic under control while achieving the highest vaccination rate in the world. What else can we not do when we put our minds together? What is there that we cannot accomplish when we move beyond our comfort zones? The coronavirus has taught us that when a nation is united around a common cause extraordinary things ensue. When people agree on what is important, they reach for the unimaginable. This pandemic will subside one day. Do we then take the first opportunity to jump back to our old self, and to the old normal? Or do we maintain our new we?
Living within our means
In the post-Covid-19 era, we must aim to live with, and within, our own means and manpower. Self-reliance may be an ambitious dream, but it is not an impossible one. I have always believed that nothing is that difficult to be addressed or achieve. Things are difficult because we make it difficult. We let our ego precede our responsibilities and our abilities. We work in silos with us-versus-them mindsets. We all know what needs to be done. We have all the ideas and solutions. However, we don’t do – because everything is about optics nowadays. Everyone wants to look good. Meanwhile, our country gently weeps.
So, where do we start? We can start from the government. For, only when the system and people working in it facilitate growth and creativity, can the society generate more wealth and wellbeing. The Parliament has just endorsed the tax incentives for businesses in the Red Zone. Can we say that this is just a beginning? We should start small. We could aim for food self-sufficiency, for instance. Let’s be able to feed ourselves. Make that the short-term national goal. This virus will be tamed sooner or later, but another will appear, as humans push deeper into the Amazon rainforest, or as mutations get easier because of global warming. We can also cut wasteful expenditures like luxury cars, posh offices, ceremonial gates, tours and travels and ill-conceived and substandard public works. Fiscal policies should aim at increasing the production and productivity of the citizens – and not pay for complacency and consumption. The word ‘growth’ must replace ‘development’ in the national planning mindset. As a sociolinguist and communication scholar, trust me, vocabulary matters.
The path to economic self-reliance does not end with the government. It is a massive undertaking – one that will require us to look way beyond the civil service. Any sociology student would have heard about systems theory, which postulates a ‘society as a complex arrangement of players, including individuals and their beliefs, as they relate to a whole’ such as a nation. Simply put, no major social issue, or a national cause, can be addressed by one section of the society, or discipline. It will take the whole government, private sector, universities, schools and every citizen – to achieve that.
Furthermore, it will also take several generations and many elected governments to get there. And this is where I am a bit sceptical – and not because of our quick-fix mentality but for the slash-and-burn approach that we are seeing more now. Some time back, I met a very senior retired government official on the Sangaygang road. Over a brief chat, one thing he told me was: once you are out of the circle your legacies are erased. My heart sank hearing that. Younger generations should build on the shoulders of those who came before them. Otherwise, there is no way that we can go very far if we don’t learn from, or honour, past legacies.
Building a society of trust
Last January, resourcing a Zoom session on education reform, attended by over 80 participants, I was asked to make just one recommendation to improve the education system. I had only one word: trust. Yes, trust and mutual respect are in short supply these days. Otherwise, there is no dearth of knowledgeable people and solutions or even resources for that matter. But unless we trust our own people, and maximise our human resources, no major reforms will happen. No saviours will descend from a foreign land.
Somewhere along we have coined our own version of the “Cancel Culture”. We reject our professionals as “so-called experts”. We brush off our youth as spoiled brats. We treat our senior citizens as old-timers. We scrap our entrepreneurs as profit-hungry. Anyone outside the civil service is a lesser citizen. Even within the same office, there is mutual misgiving. That’s why information sharing within the bureaucracy has become a mirage. Trust entails a sense of ownership and belonging. Distrust breeds indifference and apathy, at best.
Trust must start somewhere. Like we could look objectively at the excessive regulations and the need for collaterals and committees and heaps of documents and signatures. Some checks and balances are necessary. Anything excessive stifles the innovations and opportunities. Rules are not cheap either. They are expensive to administer. That’s why we have a bloated bureaucracy. Unless we correct all the above, Australia beckons and the brain drain will gain further momentum.
We are a very small country that can purely operate from a space of trust. Ideally, provisional permits can be issued on the spot to enable the applicants to hit the ground running. The concerned public office can then check the credentials of the applicant with other state agencies and grant the final approval. It is possible. For example, when I enrolled for my PhD at the University of Macau in 2016, I couldn’t produce a few critical documents, like my original degree certificates from my previous universities, because I never made it to any of the convocations. The Admission Office let me in nevertheless, on a written assurance from me that I would produce the originals within three months, which I did. What is possible in Macau that is not possible in Bhutan? More trust and more penalties can be the way forward for public administration hereafter.
Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on our economy, mental health, and governance. Our King continues to risk his own life. Huge state resources have been spent to keep us safe and fed. The treasury is most probably empty. And yet, the pandemic is far from over. We need to continue to show the same level of solidarity, sense of duty, innovations, flexibility and resilience that have brought us this far. And when this crisis ultimately recedes, we should also ask if we want to return to that old normal, or whether we want to take into the future the best version of ourselves we manifested – and collectively recover the lost time and wealth. I believe this pandemic presents the biggest opportunity to relook at everything – from education to economy, from public service to the private sector, and from society to sustainability.
As we embark on the path to recovery and resurgence, though, we need to define a common purpose – a clear vision. Once upon a time, it was well-defined. We were on a mission to catch up with the world. We all dove into nation-building. We came very far. Now I don’t know what we are doing – or where we are heading. Every five years there is a new direction or a lack of it. Still, as a born optimist, on the eve of this National Day, I have one dream for our tiny great nation. And that, coming out of this crisis, it will truly realise its greatness in smallness, and celebrate its resourcefulness over resources, and restore the traditional sense of dignity from dependency.
The choice is only ours to make. And the future either looks at us with awe or with ire.
Contributed by Dorji Wangchuk