Bhutan in the Age of Technology
“The question I have is how are we able to leverage technology… As a small country, unencumbered by the complexities faced by much larger countries, we can do things faster and better than others. Our institutions can be smart, flexible, responsive, dynamic and efficient.” His Majesty The King.
Over the past years His Majesty The King has established a number of national priorities in the perspective of a Royal vision for Bhutan. With the world literally gripped by technological fever, now dubbed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, there is, in the Royal advice, not just a validation of relevance and importance of technology, but a deep sense of urgency.
The frame for adopting technology is governance in the broadest sense – the functioning of society as a whole. If we fathom the tone, His Majesty is literally steering the government and people of Bhutan into a new era that can transform the way Bhutan functions. This could translate into a revolution in the mindsets and attitudes of officialdom, the business community, and civil society at large.
On June 2, 1999, Bhutan launched television and Internet services when we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of His Majesty Drugyal Zhipa’s reign. Where has that brought us? On the 20th anniversary year of television and Internet, His Majesty The King addressed two gatherings of university graduates and young officials. In the Royal addresses, His Majesty described the current realities characterised by Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, Blockchain, Machine Learning, Big Data, IoT (the Internet of Things), Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
This is a reminder of technological trends. At a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, nearly 10 years ago, three global personalities made presentations on their dramatic life-changing technological innovations. Even as the audience gaped in amazement, the fourth speaker, a former president of Nokia, Finnish multi-national telecom and infotech organisation, got up and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Having been a fortunate observer of Bhutanese society from a journalistic perspective, as well as a modest participant in the system, I reflect on our response to technology over the past 20 years. To ask a blunt question: Technology is the most obvious tool for the dynamic functioning of our social, economic, and political systems… have we been able to take full advantage of the technological advancements?
The blunt answer is no, we have not.
Let’s look at the government. We have an ICT roadmap, extended into national ICT masterplan, policy, and vision, but they are still largely theory. Ten years ago, the government declared the aim of the national ICT policy of becoming “an ICT-enabled knowledge society”. The terminology keeps changing but, more importantly, what does it mean? There isn’t a place called knowledge society where we stop. We must reach a momentum where we move from information to knowledge to wisdom. Bhutan must become a society that learns to learn.
For politicians, the terminology is good material for speeches. But, with government organisations working in silos, ICT — an indispensable tool for life and work — was relegated to an activity of one department within the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC). Ministries and agencies are taking small ICT initiatives on their own, resulting in overlaps and duplication, incompatible systems, and wastage of funds. For example, in biometrics, the Home Ministry was once developing a system to get the impression of the forefinger, the Foreign Ministry was doing a separate system for the thumb, and the Royal Bhutan Police was doing one for 10 fingers. Meanwhile, the world is doing the entire palm.
To move ICT forward, the government leadership has to understand that:
- It does not mean they have to be proficient in the latest software;
- It means we have to give our specialists the space to perform;
- It means we need to invest in ICT development — particularly infrastructure, connectivity, regulatory environment, and education.
Most importantly, the essential perception is that technology must be viewed, not as machines, but as a means for people to improve how they work and live. We have largely viewed technology as machines and thus, learnt to do the wrong things more efficiently. Digital transformation requires that we must fundamentally change the way we think and work and live. And that’s why powerful systems like e-procurement, ease of doing business, and many other technological breakthroughs have not happened in Bhutan.
The best-educated section of Bhutanese society — the bureaucracy — needs to recover from a malaise. A Bhutanese official once told his Singapore counterpart, the ICT Secretary, that our government had banned social media during office hours. “Why?” he asked in surprise, because the Singapore government had made it mandatory for officials to use social media to reach the people. He was told that the government was worried that civil servants would waste time socialising with friends instead of working. “Your civil servants have time to do that?” he said. “In Singapore, if we waste time on social media, we will be in office until midnight to finish our work.”
For effective ICT governance, Bhutanese civil servants need to be brought to a higher level of ICT literacy and skills, but that is a challenge in more ways than one. When MoIC organised basic ICT training for 7,000 civil servants, many were not interested, and others had different demands. For example, when trainers were sent to one dzongkhag (district) to train the dzongkhag staff, they demanded Daily Subsistance Allowance even within the dzongkhag or they would not attend. So what they were saying was “If you don’t give me money, I will not educate myself.”
Meanwhile, a sizeable proportion of Bhutanese who are qualified in ICT have moved to Australia.
Businessman 1: “Did you get the email which I sent three days ago?”
Businessman 2: “I was just about to open it.”
At a time when Silicon valley was producing 65 millionaires a day in the ICT sector, we were following up email messages with telephone calls to explain what we had written.
Twenty years after introducing ICT, we are not using it for the most basic tasks. In 2009, the MoIC secretary proposed to purchase a laptop for USD 800 to be delivered in two days. But, through the Bhutanese tendering process, it cost USD 2,500 and took five months. Same with air tickets. We pay the full price and receive an extremely limited ticket from the agents. At a time when companies upload their actual prices on the website, we depend on Bhutanese travel agents whose foreign partners take a larger share of the profit.
Our banking system has moved at a snail’s pace. Electronic financial transactions came very late to the Bhutanese financial institutions and Immediate Money Payment System was started in 2017. It was embarrassing for the secretary of MoIC when an Australian woman, who was working with a Bhutanese partner, explained that, when she wanted to pay her colleague, the friend would ask her to give cash to a cousin in Melbourne who would ask her brother in Thimphu to give her the Ngultrums. “Please help me to pay your own people,” she said.
Bhutanese domestic ICT companies are struggling to survive in a small market with limited resources. For a long time, ICT in Bhutan meant just selling computers. Some FDI companies are doing better with their capacity, resources and their own markets outside. The regulatory environment needs to be adjusted to pressure Bhutanese software companies to develop capability and also to not outsource work to foreign partners.
As dictated by one of the greatest laws of nature, including human nature, people find and use something if it suits them or if they need it. The most visible example in Bhutan is that, even before the government developed a coherent regulatory environment for technology, youths were hooked on to games. One boy was even sent to South Korea for rehabilitation from video game addiction, a compulsive mental health disorder that can cause severe damage to a person’s life. In the past we were teenagers; now we are screenagers.
The religious community, without ICT or even modern education, and without government support, was soon using their phones for prayers. A 76-year-old Bhutanese nun shocked her son when she asked him to buy her a thumb drive instead of her usual need for a maroon Uniqlo jacket for the coming winter. She had apparently saved a number of precious teachings of Buddhist masters on her mobile phone and she was afraid of losing them, so her research pointed her to a thumb drive where she could save them.
The negative ripples of social media, from Arab Spring in the Middle East to South Asia, reached Bhutan before the formal recognition of this powerful force that is influencing all aspects of human life and relations. The initial panic was “What do we do about this negative development?” The negativity referred to rumour and gossip, personal attacks, and hate speech that was the beginning of social media, its impact heightened in a small society.
But it was not long before we realised that it was not social media disturbing Bhutanese society. What were we saying about each other before social media came? Nice things? We were saying exactly the same things, the only difference being that the powerful “gossip machine” called social media gave us a much larger audience.
Social media and Internet policies are really guidelines to being a good human being and that speaks for itself. In the debate on the need for laws to govern social media, the conclusion is that laws that apply offline apply online. This includes privacy and defamation, two painful issues. Cyber security is the disconcerting exception because it involves steep costs in expertise and infrastructure. Any Bhutanese writing an email should be aware that advertising companies, manufacturers and digital poachers in other countries before your own recipient, read it.
A large number of Bhutanese use Wechat, albeit with no social media discipline. Even the language has succumbed to social media. Pointing to her sleeping husband, one 60-year-old woman said: “kho switch off imbay” (he is switched off ).
A Turning Point?
So what will it take for Bhutan to become the “smart, flexible, responsive, dynamic and efficient society” which is the Royal vision? The government has taken an important step by identifying technology as a flagship project and allocating Nu 2.5 billion for “Digital Drukyul” in the 12th Five-Year Plan. It has also adopted the crucial decision that the development of ICT and the information society has to be a holistic effort. This means we will be better coordinated… that is, in theory.
But that is just the first step for a society still grappling with the “First Generation” of technology. Talking about leap-frogging, the leaps will need to be of a giant proportion for Bhutan to, not just catch up, but to eventually forge its own GNH-inspired ICT culture. Technology worldwide is largely GDP-driven.
We are talking about the need for well-tempered political will, foresight, and courage. It is not a blind leap because the path has been laid. In fact there are numerous countries that have declared ICT a national priority. There are countries that have declared themselves digital without even understanding what it means; some that have good policies that are not implemented, and there are countries that have done it.
Estonia is often quoted today as a success story in achieving remarkably effective eGovernance and developing an information society. In a progressive move championed by the then Prime Minister, Mart Laar, it invested in telecom, banking, R&D to build an efficient, secure, and transparent ecosystem. Singapore drove its initial ICT movement with the Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat, then Finance Minister, overseeing many of the government’s digital transformation initiatives. Finland declared “access to Internet” a basic human right and “creativity” a national vision.
India, a nation of over one billion people, has been working toward the development of ICT which has exploded, becoming one of the largest sectors of the Indian economy. In 2000, India set up a science and technology body to coordinate government-administrated projects relating to information technology. A number of different government agencies, formerly under the Ministry of Science and Technology that are concerned with IT were brought together into an integrated Ministry of Information Technology (also referred to as MIT). It introduced a large number of projects aligned with the vision of “making India an IT Super Power by the year 2008”.
Digital Drukyul’s focus on connectivity, digital identity (including digital signature and biometrics), transforming business licensing into an integrated system, G2C services, and an emphasis on ICT in the education system cannot remain a theory.
For Bhutan, Drukyul going Digital is not an option, it is a Command. And, if they have not heard it from their ancestors, young Bhutanese need to be reminded that a Royal Command is “heavier than the mountains, more precious than gold”.
In recent weeks and months, we saw a dramatic phenomenon. Technology, or the use of technology, received a major boost with the onslaught of the Coronavirus globally, and very visibly, in Bhutan. With the vigorous use of technology for everything from medical research to online education to families having to say farewell to dying loved ones through social media, the world is far better connected since the emergence of the pandemic. In Bhutan, thousands of people would have been much more traumatised without connectivity as everyone returning to the country went into quarantine for three weeks. Agencies, including the government – in fact, society as a whole – would have come to a standstill as everyone was encouraged or made to stay home to avoid the spread of the virus.