Dr. Orolmaa MÖNKHBAT, Vice President for Academic Affairs of the National University of Mongolia is the guest of this edition of TMO Forum, hosted by Dr. N. Batnasan. This edition of TMO Forum focuses on the hopes and expectations of the people specifically on the newly formed Government of Mongolia and the challenges it faces, including the state of corruption in the country which is holding back its progress.
Batnasan: The State Ikh Khural (Parliament) on 18 October discussed the formation of the new Cabinet. As a leading sociologist, what kind of Government do the people hope and wish to be?
Mönkhbat: On this day members of the new Cabinet were appointed. Research and studies carried out in recent years show that the confidence of the people, the voters in the state and government has fallen to the lowest possible level. There is no trust in all the governance institutions. For instance, 2 out of every 3 pollees have said they do not trust the State Ikh Khural, the Government, the President and the Judiciary. The people want just one thing and that is a decent life. On top of this they want to be treated fairly, without any kind of discrimination. And this is the attitude also to this new Government.
People say that the state and government must be stable. They think that a government that is resigning is a bad thing which will lead to instability, but that’s not really the case, because the road of development we have chosen is democracy and in democracy there are many things which are either disliked or liked by the people. If they like the government, it will stay put, if not then it must discontinue to function.
It is commonly believed that the division within the Mongolian People’s Party led to the ouster of the previous Government of Erdenebat. But there are many reasons. Outstanding issues pending solution had piled and the previous Government let down the people’s hopes as it failed to address them and public resentment and agitation climaxed to reach the peak. And this is why, I think, the government was dismissed. So now the people want this government to set aright what the previous government could not.
We are noticing something new in the country. I believe that the Mongolians are beginning to approach issues from the standpoint of their own interests. In the past we used to go after something abstract. Today people are asking how will the state and government actions and activities influence their life in the real sense of the work, how will they affect my business, will my salary increase or not. This is a right thing to do because we know that demand is explained as a conscientious interest, that is, when a person recognizes his/her interest, and goes fo it after its recognition. The people desire a state and government that is accountable, responsible, transparent, reports back to the people what they have done so their actions can be evaluated and assessed.
The previous government fell because justice had been abandoned, election promises were retracted, and the Cabinet members had been involved in bribery and corruption. This is what the society does not want, this is the demand of the society. Our President was elected by promising he would stand up for justice, that he would wage a war against corruption and oligarch families. Similarly, the new Prime Minister Khürelsükh said the following when he was appointed the PM: “I shall establish justice, I will work to improve the livelihood of the people.” The success of the Government will depend on how it stays good in its promises as it will be judged by the people.
Since the people have lose their trust, they are left with only hopes. Trust and hope are two different things. Trust means I or someone else can do it, things will come by. Hope is akin to saying perhaps he can do it or make it, and when hope is dashed, it will lead to agony and despair and there is the danger of extremist feeling surfacing in the society.
We are witness to radical Islamist extremism. In the 1970s educated young people in the Arab world because unemployed, social justice was non-existent and these people wronged the few group of leaders on the top of the state and government and resorted to different forms of struggle. One group of young people saw in religion greater hope and became religious, and when religion and politics intermingle, they breed extremist ideas and today the entire world is facing the danger of extremism.
If the persisting situation in Mongolia continues, there is no reason to dent that a situation similar to that in the Arab countries in the 1970s could happen in Mongolia too. If we browse the social and mainstream media, we find that extremist ideas are being expressed. For example, many people welcome the idea suggesting that people guilty of corruption should be executed by shooting or hanging, and even trying the 76 members of Parliament on the central Sükhbaatar Square to met out justice. This is what I would say is the result of the actions of the state and government themselves, who are also creating their ow enemies.
Mongolians today are saddled in debt and especially majority of people of active social age between 25 and 50, have mortgage loan, salary loan etc. In order to pay of their loans, they are sacrificing everything but at the same time there are others, who at the cost of the state, are hoarding wealth and becoming richer by the day.
We were witness to a new trend during the Presidential election this year. I believe that the stance of the parties regarding debt waiver may become a decisive factor in the 2020 elections, more than the promise to develop the major mining projects, improving social welfare etc. Literally every Mongolian, both in the rural and urban areas, have all taken some kind of loan. Political parties and politicians themselves create irresponsible situations. For instance, the two major parties said they would write off people’s debts. The DP said that the state will pay the debt on behalf of the people, and MPP followed suit promising to “give out shares to the people which could be sold for cash,” thus creating some kind of expectation within the public. The 2020 political battle will be waged around this.
Traditional promises such as social issues would be addressed, justice will be created, war against corruption will be waged, state accountability system will be improved, so on ans so forth. All this is creating new expectation and in this sense, the new Government will face many new challenges and the most serious one are the trust and hopes of the people.
Mongolia is a democracy. But political parties in the country have the least concern whether the state and government decisions are welcomed by by the voters or not. When they take power, they think they have been given the mandate to act as they please for 4 years in office. Similarly, this is what the MPs think – we can, the people are like a white paper on which anything can be written. They think that the people have short memory, which is static but active like a snowball which picks up momentum gradually and grows and destroys everything on its way.
Batnasan: I have observed a number of points from your answer. One, justice has become the most important issue in the Mongolian society. Within the context of Mongolia, an issue that is talked of the most and has impact is the question of corruption. How to reduce the level of corruption and your research says that corruption has evolved into the level of a system. This is yet another trust and expectation of the people?
Mönkhbat: We divide corruption into two, small and grand level corruption. Let’s say a parent gives a kindergarten teacher a box of chocolate or 50 thousand tögrög and the child is taken in. This is small level corruption and we come across it almost on a daily basis. And studies show that teachers, doctors and customs officers are the most corrupt. Is this bad and dangerous, it is just like grand corruption, which we don’t see, common people don’t encounter with it and even then it affects out lives, the destiny of the nation and grand corruption in Mongolia has today reached the level when it poses a serious threat to national security, according to one of our studies.
We had done a quality research on the national security of Mongolia among experts who concluded that corruption has reached the level of undermining the country’s national security. Secondly, corruption in Mongolia has assumed the form of a system. This means that it is an organized scheme with definite players who have their own set of duties, responsibilities and functions, and who accordingly get a share for their contribution, and on top of them are political parties. The key players in grand corruption scheme are the ruling party, the legislature, the executive government, the judiciary, the media and the civil society.
Mongolians believed there was nothing higher than the blue heavens above but today this notion has changed as on top of everything is the political party. Political parties decide everything, and a handful of people with power in the party have the last word. The governance structure is patterned along these lines too – the parliament adopts laws and legislation that suit the corrupt officials, the right to concession contract, for example, has been given to the Government by the Parliament. This right is exercised by the Government in the capacity of executive power, in the kitchen of which the pie is divided. While the judiciary reliably ensure their safety and will see to it no one of them is put behind bars. On top of this there is the so-called fourth estate and our media, serving the interests of the corrupt officials, are engaged in brainwashing the people. They’ll scare the people, create baseless sensations claiming “if this is not done then Mongolia will be destroyed.” What’s more the civil society also joins their ranks. They will go on strikes and demonstrations, and call press conferences if decisions threaten the corrupt officials. In this manner we have a well-organized system of corruption. People cast their votes trusting and hoping that a war will be waged against this system and that justice will eventually be established. This is what the people expect and hope from President Battulag and also from Prime Minister Khürelsükh. This problem cannot be addressed by say a national hero, or a “smart” President or a Prime Minister along. What is needed is another system that would have the strength and capacity to stop the existing system.
I am not able to see any force in Mongolia capable of stopping short this big system of corruption. If this situation continues to persist then this means a fertile soil is being created for the appearance of extremist ideas and if this happens, there will be much more bigger problems and challenges.
The problem of corruption has a direct bearing on national security because Mongolia is a small, underdeveloped country yet with enormous natural riches and a unique geographical location, and our neighbors and other countries view Mongolia from the standpoint of their own interests. Therefore under this corruption system, decision-makers would be bought over first. A couple of years ago, if we remember, a minister, in breach of law, had given in long-term lease large tracts of lands to a foreign company. In this way, a system will be put in place whereby decision-makers will be bought over and they will be blackmailed. Of course, foreign armed soldiers will not come to invade the country. So the question is do we have any political force in the country that can withstand the existing system and replace with a much more fair and just one?
Batnasan: Judging by what you are saying, the question arises whether the corruption system is serving the interests of an individual or a group of people, is their interest above the party interest and is the party interest above the national interest? In other words, ranking and order of interest have become lopsided. Some 20 years ago, when one of the late prominent political leaders of our country S. Zorig, who was a university professor, had said: “How is interest ranked? The highest in this rank comes Mongolia’s interest, then comes the party interest and finally, people’s interest.” How can we change this lopsided ranking system?
Mönkhbat: Earlier I said that demand is a conscientious interest. Therefore, national interest is not an abstract notion. National interest is based on our interst. The people, political institutes form a nation and their common interest form the national interest.
But we find that there is a middleman now between national and people’s interest. And this middleman is imposing his or her interest as a common interest. In reality, it’s the duty of the state and government to institutionalize the interest of the people, which, in its turn, must become national interest. The state and government must make effort to honor this interest, because the 3 million people of the country do not come together and talk about protecting their interest, which they do by creating a governance institution by electing state and government officials. And this institute, on behalf of the people, must work to serve the interest of the people.
Batnasan: The question of interest is very important. One thing I have been observing of late is that people are nostalgic about the Mongolian society before the 1990s and are praising the past political leaders. This is not happening in Europe where, for example, research is being carried out how the dictatorial regime in former East Germany was persecuting its people. In our country, the opposite is happening. This goes to prove that everything bad in our society after 1990 is taking precedence over everything good and people involuntarily sing praises about and remember the previous society. If we look back on the system existing before 1990, we find that people who knew their job were promoted whereas today the criteria has changed – a person is evaluated on the basis of how best that person can serve the interest of the existing system. How can we make sure that people who know their job and who place national interests above everything else will be put up in the fore? In South Korea, Singapore it’s not a politician but a university professor becomes a minister. How can we set aright this lopsided interest structure?
Mönkhbat: I think you have touched upon two important issues. One, are the people becoming disenchanted with democracy? And because of this people are nostalgic about the previous system? Why do people become nostalgic about and remember the past? Simply because if the previous system had been better than what it is now, they will tend to remember and yearn for the past. Let me compare men of 50 who lived way back in 1985 and who is living today. A human being does not exist and survive only to eat and drink. In those days the person of 50 did not own cars as the person of 50 does today. But even then the person of 50 of today will not say that life was not good in the 1980s because people then did not own cars, but this person will remember the past where there was more justice. The so-called political leaders and their yes-men in those days, when they handed over power with the change of system, did not even own an apartment house but today a Government minister, after one year in office would have a hosue, not only in the country but also in a foreign country, this person would have money stacked in banks and would be owning different shares. And when people look at these rich politicians, they start talking saying “This person was no different from me, how come he has accumulated so much wealth, simply perhaps because he has become a minister,” and such thoughts create agitation and so people say “Those were golden days, today I am helpless.”
Democracy, that we have opted for, is not to be blamed. Some people have made democracy their own property and democracy no longer serves the common interest of the people and that is why, no wonder, people are saying we need an iron fist to rule the country.
But I don’t agree with this because I know the road of democracy that we have chosen is the correct one. We are only wary of those groups of people who have taken property right over democracy and who have made democracy serve their personal interests.
Therefore we need to once again ask ourselves “What is democracy?” Is the democracy that we have today the democracy we wanted or it is a mere pseudo-democracy?
The society itself is a big filter. To illustrate, we all go to school and good students get a chance to go a better university and get a better job, and when you perform well in your work, you get a promotion. This may sound unfair to those who do not study well or perform well. So injustice means more justice. Because of more talent, skill and knowledge, which is a reflection of inequality, some have better opportunity than others, while some have less opportunity. This is what I would call just. But before the law everyone is equal.
This filter is today non-existent in Mongolia. It has been replaced with a different filter for which you must have money, you must serve the interest of the system and you must be loyal to the ruling political party. It doesn’t matter if you are dumb and foolish, what’s important is you must be loyal to the party, your party boss and if you can be like this then you have all the opportunities before you, and simply because we have such a strange system in place in our society today, we find many distortions.
People in the State Ikh Khural were not elected because they are good people. But they think they were elected because there is no one better than them, and because I am so great I must be in the Government where only great people work and so they stop at nothing and fight tooth and nail to become a minister. And they start giving different names to the Government – Government of Changes, Government of Innovation, Government of Decisions, Professional Government, so on and so forth. But the new Government has finally realized it is just the Government of Mongolia.
Today anyone can become a Government minister and a minister says that he or she will develop his or her sectoral policy. In fact, a minister does nothing – a minister is not involved in the daily operations of the ministry, a minister does not develop any policy and that is what they say that a medical professional need not necessarily become a health minister. But in reality, policy is a process that comes from bottom to top.
Batnasan: Speaking about policy, it is studied and developed by scholars and researchers, which is then made into a law by the Parliament. And Cabinet members pass decisions on policy-matter. Because these two notions have been mixed together, policy today has become non-professional. In other words, scientists and scholars come up with different versions and it is for politicians to choose from them to make them into a law, a decision.
Mönkhbat: Allow me to take the example of United States. There are different research institutions called Think Tanks. They are not public entitities but university professors and experts collect oceans of information, analyze them and come up with different policy ideas, which are picked up by the government, In Mongolia we have an official institution called the Academy of Sciences. The State Ikh Khural also has under it a research center. All this goes to show that in Mongolia we seem to realize the importance of research. But the decisions taken, in many respect, do not base on the outcome of their research and so decisions tend to be erroneous, faulty. On the one hand, the capacity of our researchers are below standard and so their research work is not appealing. On the other hand, people at the top who take decisions reject ideas and suggestions coming from the bottom especially if they do not serve their interest or liking.
In the last 20-30 years, social issues have become dependent on a set of factors taken together. Dozens of factors influence one simple issue, for example. Poverty, corruption are dependent, say, on multiple factors. Similarly, governance or election are related to and dependent on many different factors. Therefore, every single question must be thoroughly understood before setting out to solve it and this can be done by bringing many people together as one team and we need such a system today.
We have the basis for such a system in the country. A Government ministry has multiple advisers, the advisers themselves have advisers under them, a ministry has its own research center, there are NGOs carrying out different research and study, but the system of filtering professionals has changed. Professionals, experts, scholars and researchers will not be recruited for a job but relatives, comrades in the party will be given preference. People are being recruited on only one criteria – you must be loyal to me, you must do what I want. So what’s wanting in our political culture is instead of bringing together in one team people who know and can do, but people who can serve your interest and do favors for you. On top of this, we have a capacity deficiency.
Batnasan: We have heaps of outstanding issues pending immediate solution, such as injustice, corruption, poor governance, the professional level of policy- and decision-makers, loans and debts, economic decline, poverty and inequality etc. From where should the new Government start its work? What are the people expecting from the new Government?
Mönkhbat: Mongolians have a high sense of self-control and restraint. But lately Mongolians are beginning to lose faith in the future. In 1993 the sociological department of the National University, together with Asakhi daily of Japan, carried out a joint study. In those days, more than 90 percent of the respondents gave a positive answer to the question if they believed they would have a better and a brighter life. Remember, those were not easy years, the shops were literally empty except for the wind that would blow through the open doors picking up dust from the shelves where there would only be packets of salt. Even then people had such an optimistic thought. Compared to that period, we have literally everything we want to buy but even then fewer people have confidence in tomorrow.
In this way the trust of the people is going down the drain and soon their hopes and expectations will also begin to wane away.
So what are the expectations of the people today? What do they want? They expect the state and government structure to be healthy in order to wage a war against corruption. They want to establish social justice,. They expect the state and government to fairly districute the economic wealth so that poverty will be reduced. These problems must be tackled in a comprehensive manner. By changing the boss of the anti-corruption agency we will not be able to establish justice in the society. This cannot be accomplished until we overhaul the political structure. Once this system is made health, the scale and scope of corruption will start to shrink, and when that happens social wealth distribution will become fairer and povery and other social problems will be addressed.
Money alone cannot address all the problems. Politicians are saying that they can address the problems if the budget has money. But in reality, that’s not true. Most dangerously, if we have more cash in our budget, the number of billionairs from among the government functionaries will multiply. Therefore, I feel what we need most is to establish social justice and for this we need to address in a comprehensive manner all problems that are running contrary to justice. If we fail to build strong foundations of a building in a proper manner, the building will fall not very long after. Therefore, we must lay strong and stable foundations first and foremost.