Better late than never

PC: Kuensel

A bit of good news that the media covered last week caught my attention. Kuensel reported that, “the prime minister, cabinet ministers, opposition leader, national council chairperson, the chief justice of the supreme court, ACC chairperson, attorney general and the auditor general together surrendered 21 subsidised cylinders”. Kuensel’s coverage included two photographs of our leaders trading in gas cylinders “… for others who cannot afford the non-subsidised LPG.”

The photo-op was a part of “Our Gyenkhu”, the government’s initiative to encourage citizens to buy non-subsidized gas.

I applaud this initiative, and join the government in encouraging the use of non-subsidized gas so that those that don’t have the means, especially farmers in distant villages, will have better access to subsidized LPG.

But I have one question: why did our leaders take so long? Why didn’t they make this simple sacrifice a year ago when the government launched non-subsidized LPG with an announcement to “appeal and encourage all in urban areas to come forward and voluntarily give up their subsidized LPG and avail non subsidized LPG.” In fact, the former MOEA minister followed up this announcement with personal letters to all government and international agencies. Some responded promptly and I wish to acknowledge their support and cooperation. Chief among them were the Zhung Dratshang and senior officers of the armed forces.

Now let’s get this important initiative rolling. Let’s make it a success. It’s better late than never.

Enough entertainment

The Royal Audit Authority seems to have recently submitted their report on hospitality and entertainment expenses to the government. Their findings have caused widespread alarm in the country.

I have not responded to the report for a simple reason: I have not yet received a copy of the report. I have not seen it, and I don’t know if they expect a response from me.

The media, on the other hand, have already obtained (or were given) copies of the report. And they have run with it. Kuensel alone has written six pieces on the RAA’s findings and has convinced a very concerned nation that the previous government wasted huge amounts of money on lavish chagoep and nyendar, followed by soelra, contributions and semso.”

I have not responded to the media, also for a simple reason: they have not contacted me. Not a single journalist has tried to contact me (or any of my colleagues in the former cabinet) for my thoughts or views or comments on this important matter. So I’m forced to conclude that Kuensel has made no attempt to tell the news objectively. They have relied on a single source and have purposely excluded the views and concerns of people who may be directly affected by their stories. Why? So that they could cherry pick sensational bits from the RAA report, combine it with their personal biases and produce inflammatory stories. That’s why their viral stories has everyone convinced that the entertainment expenses were excessive and that they were used solely for “nyenda and soelra”. No need to plough through their stories for evidence; just look at their cartoon at the start of this post.

I now owe the people an explanation.

In the middle of 2017, RAA issued a draft report on hospitality and entertainment expenses of the government. The former cabinet agreed with their main recommendation that proper guidelines needed to be established, and promptly directed the Ministry of Finance to prepare the guidelines.

In the absence of clear guidelines, cabinet ministers (and the chief justice, speaker, NC chairman and opposition leader) had blindly followed precedence. And according to precedence, expenses related to the travel of ministers and their teams, travel of government guests and expenses for unplanned national events were also booked under “hospitality and entertainment”. In fact, this practice was not just entrenched, it was accepted practice. That’s why, until their 2017 draft report, the RAA cleared the “hospitality and entertainment” expenses of all ministers, each year, every year without any comment. Not once did they ask any question or raise any objection. And I’m referring to the annual audits going back to 2008 and beyond.

So based on the RAA’s draft report, the Ministry of Finance was instructed to develop clear guidelines. In addition, all ministers were directed to review their individual expenses and submit segregated accounts. My office at that time (the PMO) also studied and segregated the expenses of the former prime minister (that’s me) and conveyed their findings to RAA .

For the period 2013 to 2018, Nu 39,662,234 was spent on “hospitality and entertainment”. Incidentally, my predecessor spent Nu 51,684,107 during his tenure. This is according to the report generated by the Finance Ministry’s public expenditure and management system (PEMS).

If you look at the third-last row of the table (the one for the year 2017-2018), you’ll see that while Nu 1,962,758 was booked under “hospitality and entertainment”, more was spent on “national events”, “government guests” and “local government visits”. These activities are outside the scope of entertainment and hospitality, and, as such, were booked separately.

The PMO carried out the same exercise for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, and determined that actual “hospitality and entertainment” expenses for those years were Nu 926,840 and Nu 903,583 respectively and not Nu 14,450,176 and Nu 8,401,220 as reflected in the report. The actual expenses were calculated by segregating “hospitality and entertainment” from other allowable expenses, most of which consisted of in-country travel. So if the revised figures for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 are used, the total expenditure for “hospitality and entertainment expenditure” would fall to Nu 18,641,261. And if the correct expenses for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 are incorporated, the total “hospitality and entertainment” expenditure would fall further still.

This is a far cry from the Nu 55 million per year that Kuensel has misled people to believe I spent on entertainment, and that too mainly for chagoep, nyendar, soelra and semso

But why was travel booked under “hospitality and entertainment”? Because that was past practice, one that had always been accepted by the Ministry of Finance and RAA.

And why was so much money spent on travel? Because I travelled a lot. I visited each and every one of our 205 gewogs, with some, like Lunana, taking many days to cover. In addition, I visited all 20 dzongkhags on six different occasions — to report on the 11th Five Year Plan, to sign annual performance agreements, to coordinate the mid-term review of the 11th Plan, to discuss the draft 12th Five Year Plan and to report on the completion of the 11th Plan.

The travel expenses, including for hotels and food, for the entire team traveling with me was booked under “hospitality and entertainment”, but they were allowed to claim only 20% of their DSA. (In the past, civil servants accompanying the prime minister were also provided food and board, and they could claim full DSA).

It’s not for me to say whether the actual expenditure on “hospitality and entertainment” was excessive or not, but I agree with RAA that proper guidelines, including expenditure ceilings, are required. All expenses should not be lumped together as “hospitality and entertainment”. However, I object to the fact that they have issued this report after clearing these expenditures each year and every year, during their annual audits misleading the respective finance officers that everything was in order.

More importantly, I strongly object to the fact that the whole exercise seems to have been carried out so that the report could have been released just before the elections. Why so? Probably to influence the elections. But why do I say so?  Because sources have informed me that RAA had planned to release two other reports (on the East-West Highway and on central schools) just as we were wrapping up our tenure as the former government.

I don’t know what eventually held them back. But if there’s even a hint of truth in this, then, I’m afraid, we have real cause for widespread alarm.

A birthday greeting

Happy birthday!

Happy birthday!

On the joyous occasion of His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s 33rd birth anniversary, the People’s Democratic Party joins the nation in offering our deepest respects, heartfelt felicitations and prayers for His Majesty’s long life and a long prosperous reign.

Long Live the Druk Gyalpo!

Bhutan has been blessed with a succession of enlightened monarchs – selfless and benevolent kings who have always placed the interest of the nation above all else. They have ensured the peace, security and stability of our country; they have bestowed liberty, justice and happiness on our people.

Bhutan continues to be blessed. At a time when our people were enjoying unprecedented peace, prosperity and happiness, His Majesty the King blessed us with democracy. He then worked tirelessly to ensure that the transition to democracy is smooth. When we, the people, were unsure about democracy, His Majesty gave us assurance. When we were confused, His Majesty gave us inspiration. And when the political system seemed to flounder, His Majesty provided steadfast support and counsel.

That is why, within a very short time, the foundations of our democracy have already become unshakable.

On our part, His Majesty’s birth anniversary is an opportune occasion to dedicate ourselves to take democracy forward, and so serve the Tsawa Sum. Political parties, their members and candidates can do so by committing themselves to genuine nation-building instead of pursuing narrow political interests. Civil servants and the clergy can do so by remaining truly apolitical. And, most importantly, every Bhutanese can do so by fulfilling their sacred responsibility to vote in the upcoming elections. The best gift we can offer His Majesty today would be the pledge that we will take our democracy seriously.

Two months ago, on December 17th, during our National Day celebrations, His Majesty the King called on the nation to participate in the upcoming elections “as candidates, members of parties and voters.”

Today, on His Majesty’s birth anniversary, it would be befitting on our part to commit to do so … as a simple, yet heartfelt birthday gift.

Long Live the Druk Gyalpo!

Happy Losar!

nagini-crn

Chime R. Namgyal’s “Nagini”

I am guilty. My last post was on November 23. That means that I have not updated my blog for about two and half months – 79 days to be exact. That’s a long break. I took the break to collect my thoughts. I also took the break to focus on party matters – to consult and work more closely with my PDP colleagues in the lead-up to this year’s elections. I’m happy to report that, so far, our journey to the 2013 elctions is proceeding well. So far, so good.

I have been very fortunate that my blog has received a following far greater than I actully deserve. In fact, many of you have kept visiting this website even though I was not able to update it regularly. I want to thank all of you for visiting, and for participating in and adding to the discussions here, regardless of whether you subscribe to my views or not.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been looking forward to writing again, and, for that, I’ve been thinking about an appropraite day to restart. Today is the first day of the first month of the Bhutanese calendar. Today is losar. So it is as good a day as any to revive this blog, and to reconnect with my readers again.

On this Losar, I would like to wish all of you, your family members and friends, and all your loved ones a very Happy Losar! May my losar greetings bring you peace, prosperity and happiness. May the Year of the Female Water Snake inspire you to achieve your aspirations and fulfill your dreams.

On this Losar, let us remember the peace and prosperity we have enjoyed since Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel united Bhutan, and under the golden reign of our successive monarchs. Let us celebrate the leadership of our monarchs who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to give us a kingdom that we are justifiably proud of.

On this Losar, let us remind ourselves of the sacred responsibility we shoulder – to contribute to making our democracy a success. Before 2008, all of us were united in our reluctance to welcome democracy in our country. But we were also united in accepting it because it was given to us, as a gift from the Golden Throne. Now we must again stand united, each and every one of us, in carrying out our sacred democratic responsibilities, foremost among which is to make sure we vote.

As elections draw near, we must remind ourselves to make our votes count. Your one vote can be the difference between having the right member of parliament or not. More importantly, it can be the differnce between having the government of your choice or not. And most importantly, it could be the difference between whether you get the future of your choice or not.

In 2008, almost 80% of the electorate voted. It is a figure all of us should be proud of. No other liberal democracy can boast of such a huge voter turnout. The extraordinary turnout clearly indicated that our electorate knew the importance of the ballot and was willing to exercise it. That said, not as many voters turned up for the local elections held in the last two years. And that should concern all of us.

Therefore, on this Losar, I would like to call on all my fellow citizens – my brothers and sisters – to commit to exercising your democratic franchise. Think of voting as a duty, a sacred duty, and not a privilege. I hope that all of you would have already decided to vote … in the NC elections, in the primary elections and in the general elections. And please spread the message. Encourage your friends to vote. Encourage your family to vote. Encourage your neighbours to vote.

On this Losar, I would also like to remind all politicians and political parties to keep the interest of the nation above all other things. I am proud of my fellow politicians and more so of all the aspiring politicians, and I am sure that all of us will work to make our Kings and our people proud. Still, I would like to urge our politicians to put personal differences aside, and focus on the important business of nation-building instead.

I am sure my politician friends would agree that we are not in politics to win at any cost. We are not in it to hold on to power at any cost. Instead, we are in it to build stronger Bhutan. We are in it to build a better Bhutan. We are in it to build a country of our dreams.

On this Losar, let us commit to making the Female Water Snake Year a year of destiny for Bhutan. I am confident that each and every one of us will do our part in the upcoming national elections. I am confident that we will vote, that we will vote responsibly, and that we will vote for the change that we can believe in. And I am confident that, with the blessings of Guru Rimpoche, the protection of our guardian deities, and the guidance of our beloved Kings, we will secure an even better and brighter future for Bhutan.

HAPPY LOSAR ONCE AGAIN!

The banner features a detail of Chime R Namgyal’s depiction of a “Nagini” that he created for Tashi Delek, Druk Air’s inflight magazine.

 

Amazing social media

Social animal

Social media is amazing. Click on a few buttons, like a page, follow a friend, and, voila!, you know everything that’s going on around you.

To politicians, that knowledge is invaluable. It allows them to hear the people, to listen to them, to feel their pulse.

But social media has an even bigger gift for politicians. It facilitates communication. It allows politicians to interact continuously with people, easily and directly.

Yes, social media is amazing. That’s why I, as a politician, am active on Twitter and Facebook. That’s also why I’m on Youtube and Bambuser and Linkedin and Instagram. And that’s why I maintain this blog.

Over the years, I’ve received many messages, mainly on Facebook. Many of them have carried good wishes and words of encouragement … and criticism

But I’ve received many other types of messages as well: some giving me advice, some complaining about public policy, some explaining their personal problems, some asking for help with their school research, some asking for money, some asking if I know their long lost friend, and some simply to say “hi!”

Of the thousands of messages I’ve received, my all time favorite came from a young boy. He sent me this desperate message last week:

“Uncle, I have a cute little pug dog who I love very much. Last time, my mummy has given to your brother as he has a female pug. And my mummy cannot remember his no. Please ask him to bring back my pug. I miss him very much. Please uncle!!!”

I had to attend to his request immediately. I tracked down my brother, then went back on Facebook. But before I could tell him the good news, this message was waiting for me:

“Thank you uncle. He brought it back. Me and my sister are very happy now. Mummy wanted to send him with Aunty but we didn’t let her send him. Please tell other uncle, he can bring his dog to our home to meet my dog sometime. We will also send our dog to his home. Again, thank you uncle.”

Social media is amazing.

Observing anticorruption day

Here’s how I observed International Anticorruption Day yesterday:

One, I went through Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index report for 2011. Bhutan is rated 5.7 (10 means perceived to be very clean; 0 means very corrupt) and is ranked a decent 38 out of the 182 countries and territories that were studied. Bhutan’s rating of 5.7 remains unchanged from the 2010 corruption perception levels. Not bad, but we can, and must, do better.

Two, I tuned in to see BBS’s live debate on the topic “Is Bhutan doing enough in fighting corruption?” The debate, which was organised jointly with IMS, had six panelists, all honourable members of the Parliament. The debate would have been a lot more meaningful if the panelists were chosen to defend two different sides of the motion – one team contending that Bhutan is doing enough to fight corruption; the other arguing that Bhutan is not doing enough.

Three, I closed my poll that asked “Is ACC taking too long to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?” The big majority – 300 of the 352 who took the poll – answered “yes” the ACC is taking too long.

Four, I drafted a letter to the ACC encouraging them to investigate and resolve the Gyelpozhing land case as soon as possible. The case is significant as it raises serious questions on the conduct of our senior-most public officials, many of whom hold powerful offices. Did they, for example, violate laws in the way that land was acquired and distributed? And was conflict of interest standards compromised by senior officials who applied for and received land?

Five, I drafted a letter to the Royal Audit Authority requesting them for a copy of their report on the special investigations that they carried out on the lottery operations. I had asked for the report in June this year, but was denied it. I’m hopeful that, for the sake of transparency and accountability, the RAA is now prepared to make the report public.

On tour

Dear friends,

I’m continuing my tour to the dzongkhags – to congratulate the new local governments, to report on the work of the opposition party, and to discuss what we should focus on during the remainder of our term.

I’m in Dagana. Today, after we visit the Impressive Daga Tashi yangtse Dzong, we go to Dagapela, and from there we trek to Lhamoizingkha. I’m looking forward to visiting this part of our country before they become accessible by car.

I haven’t been able to get my laptop online. That’s why I haven’t posted anything new. But I can access the Internet on my phone. So I’m able to update my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Please stay in touch through them.

With my best wishes,

Tshering

Sorry!

I have not been able to update this blog – not because I’ve been busy touring our country, but because the data card I use to connect my laptop to the Internet is broken. So while I’ve been able to post updates on Twitter and on Facebook using my cell phone, I have not been able to work on my blog. I am sorry.

We are now back in Trongsa, our first stop on the tour. From here we had traveled to Bumthang and then on to Lhuntse, Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang, Samdrup Jongkhar, Sarpang and Zhemgang. Tomorrow we head to Wangdiphodrang, and then to Thimphu.

In these dzongkhags I reported to local government leaders and civil servants to describe the opposition party’s roles and responsibilities and to explain the priorities of the opposition during the past three and a half years. I also solicited feedback on any weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings of the opposition party, and called for issues that we should focus on during our remaining 18 months in office.

I’m now back in Trongsa, where I’m enjoying Yangkhil Resort’s painfully slow wireless services!

Pension benefits

We talked about pensions two years ago.

First, we voiced concern that the NPPF pension scheme was sustainable for only 30 years.

Then, we discussed the merits of a defined-contribution plan over the existing defined-benefit plan.

And then, we expressed alarm that the government was interfering in how our pension scheme was being run.

Let’s keep talking about pensions. There’s good news. And there’s bad news.

The good news is that, despite increased competition in the financial sector, NPPF seems to be performing well. In the last year, the membership base has increased by 5.4%, from 40,222 to 42,393 members. Revenue generated increased by 14.57%. And the total fund grew by 18.6% to Nu 8.97 billion.

The good news is also that NPPF’s pension scheme could soon become available for workers in the orgranized private sector.

The bad news is that our pension scheme is become even more defined by benefits. Retirement pension benefits have now been increased to 40% of final salaries. This is bound to make our pension scheme unsustainable, especially after returns on NPPF’s investments start to inevitably drop due to the growing competition in the financial sector.

The bad news is also that some six serving ministers are already drawing pension benefits.

Our ministers collect pensions because they have retired from the civil service. And because they’ve reached the retirement age. They’re entitled to draw pensions. But, as serving ministers, they still have regular incomes. So the very purpose of pensions – i.e., to provide predictable income when income from formal employment is not longer available – seems to be lost.

In a defined-benefit plan, pension rates are based on the salary of a member with little regard to how much that member has contributed.  Such a scheme naturally encourages members to collect their pensions as soon as they reach retirement age, even if they are still formally employed. That’s why our ministers collect their pensions although they have regular salaries. The system encourages them to do so.

In a defined-contribution plan, pension rates are based on the contributions of individual members. So the more a member contributes, the more that member will collect during retirement. Such a scheme would encourage members to make contributions as long as they have regular jobs, so that they enjoy bigger benefits when they no longer have regular jobs.

NPPF knows that defined-benefit plans are not sustainable. The experience of many countries has already demonstrated that.

So NPPF should migrate to a defined-contribution plan. The transition will be difficult. And it will be painful, especially for members who will retire in the next few years. But it is possible, now. Our pension scheme is still young; contributing members outnumber pensioners by a huge margin; and returns on the pension investments have been good. Plus, our government may be willing to chip in to defray some of the immediate costs associated with migrating to the more sustainable defined-contribution plan.

Big picture – 10

We haven’t done this for a while. The first person to get the big picture wins a copy of “Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan”.