One day, years ago, I felt a burning sense of shame. It was my first day as a student at one of the world’s renowned universities. I was given an assignment to solve a problem. My classmates were divided into three groups and we set to come up with the best solution. To me, there seemed to be a simple solution to the problem. Instead of torturing our brains to solve it, it seemed it was easier to avoid it, to work not to solve it. So I told my group members what I thought about the issue. I spoke about what we call in Mongolia “making a poison”, a stratagem to solve the problem.

In my group there were seven or eight young and middle-aged fellows from different countries. They attentively, if perplexedly, listened to my idea, but none of them picked up what I offered for a solution. Each of them shared their own versions of solutions, put them on paper and started discussing how most effectively resolve the problem—a totally different approach from the one I offered. I was terribly embarrassed and deeply ashamed of what I proposed. It was a profound, burning sense of shame and disgrace. Ever since then I have always sought to mean, do and speak to solve, to enable, to create, to support and to facilitate.

So, it was a wrong attitude, a contaminated mentality, a dirty way of thinking that left me so badly embarrassed and ashamed. I feel that burn even now, years after the incident. Human beings are psychological beings. A human mind can awaken quickly; and if and when one really wants, really regrets and repents, the mind is something that can change.

Mongolia’s ordeal

When we, Mongolians, talk about the sources of our pride, we begin by recounting the virtues of our Chinggis Khaan. Nothing in the human experience was alien to our Great Khaan; he was not immune to fortune or misfortune, to triumph or failure. The young Temuujin saw the source of the Mongolian ordeal in a corroded mentality, in factionalism. He learned well that internal strife, rivalry and enmity would block Mongolia’s path to prosperity.

He was faithful to friendship. He couldn’t stand treachery and sedition. He forgave mistakes that were regretted, and promoted unity and collective efforts for achieving shared, common, objectives. One source of his success was his very ability to turn the Mongols’ internal rivalry and destructive, coercive, temper into a productive, cohesive, progressive force.

Indeed, all of the great transformations, revolutions, and episodes of great progress recorded in our history were accompanied by changes in the mindset of the Mongol people. The most famous words of the young General Sukh , whom the people of my generation all read in school, confirm this truth. He taught that if we can unite in the call of our minds, “the way for us to move on will gain any perspective”. The ordeal we live with today is not associated with the new choice the people of Mongolia have made; rather, the ordeal stands because we still haven’t been able to turn the unparalleled opportunities of freedom into a creative force.

Some people, especially our politicians, have been tampering with freedom too lightheadedly, too easily. Why? To easily succeed, easily earn money, easily get promoted, easily resolve problems, easily expand the sphere of influence and rows of supporters, govern easily, easily become an opposition, etc. The “easy” path is like an addiction, and the number of addicts, and the depth of their addiction to such transgressions are increasing at the speed of light . A whole group, even a class, of such people emerged as the winners, whose money, success and victories are fed by such trampling of virtue for the sake of the easy path.

What now looks more appealing is not creating, but destructing. What looks more rewarding is not investing in plants or development, but paying to defame and vilify. And this is what they take for a “true love for country”. And the public tends to embrace and support this phenomenon , while those who oppose and criticize are crowded out. The Khamba Lama Choijamts says with a heavy sigh that we Mongolians have stepped beyond any possible boundary in disparaging and deriding each other. In one of his recent interviews, the Khamba Lama laments the behavior of a housewife who, while watching TV in between her house chores, spoke badly of every person she saw on TV.

Mongolians are savvy. People have started openly talking about wrong attitudes and wrong actions taking ever wider strides in our society. We have a thick pad of lessons from our history. We had fallen from a great empire to a poor country; we have gone through both decadence and prosperity. And the underlying causes stem from inside, from ourselves, the Mongols. This is true about today’s Mongolia, too.

It is not because Mongolia is a democracy that we engage in internal conflict and discord. It is because our contention is useful for someone else. Plus, we have lived for too long in a vicious circle. Those who learn how to get out of the circle are pulled back into it by those who haven’t found any means of subsistence out of the circle. We can’t even walk on a straight path. The one in the back stumbles in the way of the other in front. And the road is all laid out with stumbled people lying awry. We must come to our senses to realize this viciousness. We will not succeed, Mongolia will not develop, if this situation persists.

After all, the fundamental interest and benefit of the Mongolians is the development and prosperity of our country; the free and happy life of the Mongolian people. What we must get rid of is our underdevelopment, our stagnant mentality. Here we must do a revolution. Mongolia cannot afford energy and resources for internal fights and discord. No matter how poor it is, Mongolia is our home, our motherland. And it is we, Mongolians, who must take care of our home. A Mongolian must support a Mongolian, and that will make us all better off.

Mongolia is a country with a unique past, a unique present and a unique future. Our geographic location is unique; the environment is vulnerable. And there are few of us, very few. There are shortcomings that we can tolerate. Also there are games that we just cannot play. For any country, a favorable development opportunity is a rarity to be treasured . And this is especially true for Mongolia. And such a rare chance occurred eight hundred years ago – an auspicious time when the wisdom of our forefathers brought about that chance. And maybe today, we might be standing at the doorstep of another such historic chance. At such a moment in time, every Mongolian must pull out of the vicious circle, and must not serve as the patsy puppets of others.

The “Heads’” Ordeal

Baabar once wrote that the “revolutionaries feed with “heads””. There are some human heads that are really Mongolia’s misfortune. But we are a people who chose freedom not to feed ourselves with such heads, but to co-exist even with such heads. We made our choice believing that it is better to live with our own heads how ever bitter the life, than to live with another’s head, how ever sweet the life is. Modern Mongolian society is beset by two misfortunes that have even become social phenomena – corruption and harassment.

We speak a lot about corruption. We all know of it. And we do have some knowledge about how to reduce, restrain, this evil. But we have yet to address harassment. Those who want to create and to build are harassed. Right and appropriate decisions are harassed and are not made. Timely assignments and tasks are harassed and are not carried out. Those of good will are harassed to turn their backs to us. A Mongolian is harassed to dispirit. A foreigner is harassed until he leaves the country. The right-minded are harassed to dishearten. But the ill-willed are cheered up. And, harassment does away with the last person to ask for responsibility for this very omnipresent harassment.

And, it makes no sense to talk about the things that were not created, not built, not resolved, and not implemented. Who is to be held responsible for unaccomplished works, for unimplemented decisions? Who? It’s void, it doesn’t exist for it never happened. We can talk about a thing that exists, that is built, created, or produced no matter how well or bad it is done. Things can be improved, or worsened. Things can be praised or criticized. There goes even a saying that in a free society, how ever bad things tend to go, the tendency is always for better. But what do you do about a thing that doesn’t exist?

Over the past 25 years, how many unbuilt powerstations, unlaid railroads, unestablished plants and factories were created! Of these, how many are operating? Perhaps, only one. That very ore-dressing plant of the hard-destined Oyutolgoi! Yet, we have the decisions made, the contract concluded, the plant built; therefore, we have something tangible to talk and discuss about.

Halting one construction that affects Mongolia’s development is like killing a life, a heart beating for Mongolia. It’s like killing a foetus in the womb. What can you say about an aborted fetus? But if the baby is born, it develops and grows no matter how well or bad people talk about him. Oyutolgoi plant is a baby born by Mongolia and the investor.

If we have bad practices, they must be improved, and good ones must be promoted. Good or bad, if you have started something, you move on through struggles, criticism, and denunciation. If the next generation is smarter, it learns lessons, corrects the wrongs and moves on. Sometimes the best judge is time, and not the outrage-mongers.

As I consistently emphasize, the most favourable opportunities to create and develop occur only rarely. And especially for countries like Mongolia, time is the most valuable asset. If the Erdenet copper deposit was discovered in our times, it’s quite likely that the Erdenet mine wouldn’t be built at all. Even when building the socialist system, a system where mistakes were feared, Mongolians recorded both success and failure. Erdenet mine, described as the best development project of the century, only started earning profits for Mongolia after 25 years of operation. An asset is an asset when it is used, when it starts creating value.

If Mongolians got the chance to fly to space in our times, Mr. Gurragchaa, our hero cosmonaut , would never have left the Earth . A paid TV program would have “killed” his spaceship. Our space hero is just so lucky that he was born at the right time. Time and opportunities are the two things that are valuable for Mongolia, more than any foreign currency, so we just can’t afford to lose them. Mongolians will have a new source of pride if we manage to accomplish our tasks on time, if we use opportunities rightly. But if we fail to do so, we will end up with one more head-ache.

It is inspiring to wear out your shoes delivering the best messages for your country. It’s hard to get a slap in the face upon returning home. There is not a single Mongolian who would speak badly of Mongolia to foreign leaders and people. But at times, when you see the people who you trusted so much dispirit you, when the agreed principles are broken apart, I feel embarrassed for having so sincerely praised my country, for adamantly taking my working so hard as my duty. But I am grateful to the destiny of being called “a Mongolian”.
Every time I say “We can fix our mistakes. Mongolia is a free country, a country which does not hide its shadow” I am inspired.

I do believe in the greatness of the destiny of Mongolia—Mongolia’s path is much longer than that of any good, or bad, man. Any bad act leaves a lesson to learn; any good deed serves as a model for others to follow. My Mongolia will be left with my children. With our grandchildren, our younger generation. It will be left with tens and hundreds of thousands of Mongolians. We, in our turn, must carry our burden, must do what we have to do. Say what we have to say at the right moment, do the things we ought to do, make necessary decisions, even enduring our mistakes and failures, and persevere to move on. We cannot expect ovations for all of our performances . Not all ovations are well deserved.

For a distant observer, a solution to a problem may look two-sided like a double-edged blade. Either right, or wrong. Taking an example on one of the “Hills” [ironically, “Tolgoi” in the Mongolian language means both “a head”, and “a hill”], for Oyu Tolgoi deposit, there wasn’t any easy solution either right or wrong. If there were, of course, the right one would have been chosen. There wasn’t an issue of negotiating a good or a bad investment agreement, either. For the contractor, there was only an issue of perseverance at that very moment, environment and circumstance.

For the investor, there were not many choices in Mongolia. Nor was there a right to lose time, or extend the time. And because we worked honestly and fairly, I said then “we Mongolians made one step forward”. In history, a step taken cannot be undone. Nor is it possible to change the course of time by stating or writing “IF”. A person’s mind-set and scope of thinking, on one hand, and the historic moment and historic solutions, on the other, are two distinct things. Behind an individual’s heroic struggle and policy criticism, as one wise man put it, hides a “small private interest” whereas behind a country lies the people’s collective interests and benefits.

As for investors, there are no good or bad ones. There are just investors. Yet for Mongolia, there is a notion of a third investor. I think we must carry on this policy from generation to generation. And, it is not that important to differentiate between large or small volumes of investment–the more capital is spent in Mongolia, the more capital is “absorbed” by Mongolia, the better. Spending more in Mongolia is good for a regular Mongolian citizen, for our businesses, for Mongolia. And indeed, Mongolians don’t really need to covet the investor’s money before the investor himself chooses to spend it.

It’s been a quarter-a-century since I left home in a cold winter resolved to dedicate my mind and courage for the good of my country and people. And during this time, what I have learnt and sensed to my bone and flesh is that when it comes to the economy, words and tales produce little . Nothing can cheat, can fool the economy around – not election promises, not paper reports, not wordy debates at conferences, not TV programs, however exciting they may be. “The smiling or the crying” of the economy is measured by money, by labour and by how much you accomplish. If the economy incurs losses, the costs are borne, without mercy, by both the poor and the rich.

The many trillion tugrug-worth cost of the cold war that Mongolians waged against each other at meetings and gatherings, through radio, TV and newspapers, is being paid by every single Mongolian. Lost time, missed development, unbuilt wealth, flown-out foreign exchange add to the heavy load of payments weighing on our shoulders .

Mongolians are paying that cost with cut salaries, pensions, and income. Mongolians are paying with frustration, with the last tugrug in their purses, with the weight of debt. Mongolians are paying by devaluing our national currency, by mobilizing all they saved, inherited and earned through their hard work. People are paying by halving a kilo of meat and flour, by halving a loaf of bread and a bottle of oil. Those who cannot afford even this much are paying too by subsisting without food, without firewood. Mongolians are paying by scrimping on the clothing of their wives and children. Mongolians are paying to the utmost for the fun and pleasure of those who brought about this payment, who perpetuated that “harassment”.

Besides, we have learned that we cannot attract other’s capital, other’s money, by lying. We cannot restore confidence and trust by cheating. We must pay the price, the cost for all of this mess. This is a lesson I learned from the turbulent developments and misguided decisions of the past few years. It is true that the life of an open society is a learning process. And it is also true that the tuition fee for this learning is paid by all. In fact, we could move ahead without paying some of the payments we incurred to ourselves so thoughtlessly.

Let’s engage in populism for the sake of creating

The more Mongolians linger behind in our quest for development and wealth creation, the more often we hear the word “populism”. Populism does not necessarily have to be associated with destruction or harassment, or with any person’s ways of subsistence or prominence or rise. Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg visited Japan, discussed, agreed and achieved good things for Mongolia. So let’s engage in populism by supporting what he says, by inviting investors, by encouraging wealth creators, by implementing mega projects. Let’s do populism for the right purposes: for creating more, for doing and achieving, by encouraging each other and meaning the good.

To me the word “motherland” carries a connotation of “keeping inside”. Let’s stop wearing it like a badge and trying to profit from it. It is too dear, its essence is too precious to be bandied about for outward appearances . If you want to love your motherland, love inside yourself – love by working, doing, creating, by supporting each other. Anyone can shout out loudly, especially in our time, but true love of the motherland resides in the heart not the mouth.

In the old society, in socialism, it was a heroic deed to criticize the society and blame the leaders. But there were very few people who dared to do so. And the punishment was also severe. Today such deeds are no longer heroic. It is just a matter of rights, your right. You decide for yourself what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do. Your life depends on your own self.

The ordeal we Mongolians go through today comes not because we suddenly ended up in a bad society, or because we elected a bunch of bad guys. Perhaps the situation will change for better, but most likely it will not change much. Most of our sufferings are caused by the very fact that each of us come to manage our own life. If everyone could take care of his own life, could really be the owner of his fate, most of our problems would be solved. We didn’t earn freedom for someone else, we chose it for ourselves. But freedom is a choice that requires thoughtfulness, demands patience.

I thank you, dear reader, for having read this article thus far. I now would like to remind those people who partake in policy making and implementation three points. There is a saying “To break a family, spoil its children; to break a country, spoil its officials”.

One. It is a precious and rare honour to participate in guiding the direction of Mongolia. Serving your state, your people is a rare duty, and rare opportunity. If your actions, policies and activities are likely to hurt and damage Mongolia, from the moment you realize this, stay away from the state, the government. There are jobs that one cannot, may not, do. I have been reminding some people of this principle, one that I always keep in my mind.

Two. A statesman, a public official, must serve the supreme interest. This supreme interest is the interest of the Mongolian people, the interest to achieve development and prosperity. Development for Mongolia is the guarantee of our security, sovereignty and independence. It is the common interest of every Mongolian. This is the essence of public service of all levels. Self-interest, egotism is unacceptable for a public servant. This is what our fathers and forefathers taught us. Here lies the true meaning of the historic choice we made . Mother Teresa, the embodiment of the beauty of mind and uprightness of deeds, once said: “God doesn’t require us to succeed, he only requires that you try”.

Three. Ethics is something that begins with each person himself or herself . An ethical person is ethical even in the darkness, remaining ethical when nobody is watching him or her. An ethical person is ethical before a thick purse, too. An amoral act brings evil to the doer. If we want Mongolia to succeed and prosper, we must not denounce and degrade each other, and must stop enmity and discord.

This does not mean, however, that we must not talk about our mistakes and failures. On the contrary, me must bring them out and discuss very scrupulously. This is, in fact, where the power, the resilience of our chosen system rests. Any official can be criticized. But none must be worshipped. Democracy can be blamed, but it cannot be defamed. An open society, factionalism, slandering, rivalry, good or bad habits are all, to repeat, distinct notions. A wise man would easily distinguish between them.

A Lunar New Year celebration is approaching. An auspicious time for auspicious blessings is near. I have penned these words for my children’s children, for my younger generation to remember forever: “Be positive. Be creative. Be constructive. See, think and serve well”.

I end this article with a straightforward question a voter asked me: “Did I elect you to eventually bring this savvy people, this rich country, to the point where we are today?”

Mongol Tsakhiagiin ELBEGDORJ

P.S. Mongol is the name of my grandfather.

February 12, 2015