The need for a critical culture

The Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) floated some draft guidelines on opening up of home, car and consumer loans for public feedback on its website recently.

This paper not only covered a story highlighting those guidelines, but also praised RMA for seeking public consultation on an important issue.

However, when the Financial Institutions Association of Bhutan (FIAB) and its members, in another article, criticized some of the guidelines and suggested improvements, RMA issued a ‘do not talk to the media notice’ to the banks.

The institution, in effect, was telling the banks not to publicly criticize the guidelines which they felt was already discussed with them earlier before making it public. The banks, on the other hand, have a different story to tell – saying that many of their feedback and recommendations were not included.

Such a situation is not restricted to RMA and FIAB alone – as it is reflective of a larger culture in Bhutan that does not welcome open criticism, no matter how well meaning or accurate. It also reflects a culture where many ‘stakeholder consultations’ are either only a mere formality or it is not to the satisfaction of the stakeholders.

There is no doubt that the situation in Bhutan has improved a lot compared to the distant past, but we still have a long way to go.

This official and partly social culture may be the reason why most meetings and even consultation feedback mechanism witness only mute spectators. The lone person or a few people concerned or bold enough to offer even mild suggestions or criticisms are tagged as trouble makers and the bosses or the system as a whole works to limit or at times undermine them.

One of the main reasons why His Majesty the Fourth King and His Majesty the King introduced democracy to Bhutan was to empower the ordinary citizens, and in empowering them – to also strengthen the nation through their collective efforts and contributions.

Granted this cannot happen overnight and it will take time, but at the moment – there seems to be a lack of effort from institutions, politicians, bureaucrats and society in general to push towards this end.

The Monarchy has done its part and now it up to the rest to fulfill this democratic responsibility and mandate.

For change to be really effective, it must start at the level of individual citizens. This may sound clichéd, but it is still true. All of us, regardless of being in the government system or outside, should develop a more professional and tolerant attitude when it comes to criticism and feedback.

The habit of taking any professional criticism as a personal one is perhaps an undesirable national trait. In truth, this trait is not limited to just the powerful, but can be seen at all levels of our society. This is all the more apparent to journalists who get similar reactions whether their factual stories are critical of a powerful person or an ordinary one.

However, for ordinary citizens to change and come out in the open – the system as a whole – be it in the form of the political establishment in power, bureaucratic machinery or other institutions, like constitutional bodies, corporate bodies, private bodies, etc., must also encourage a free and frank exchange without ‘consequences.’ The mute spectator of today will, in all eventuality, become like his or her boss.

The beauty and strength of a democracy is that one person or a few people do not have to bear the entire burden and make all the decisions, but this burden and risk is shared among an informed and active citizenry for the greater good. This is also why it is important for the government to consult the public on important policy issues so that it knows its flaws in advance, and through critical feedback can work to strengthen its plans and programs, or at least make it workable.

It is time that Bhutan’s governance and social structures start pushing towards having a more open and tolerant system that will becomes stronger with transparency and critical feedback from the people.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Winston Churchill

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