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  • Lawrence Ng

Mongolia Will Be Asia's Tech Hub - MTC with Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, State Secretary of Mongolia

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

*UPDATED* We recently spoke to Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, State Secretary of the Ministry of Digital Development and Communications of Mongolia about her mission to improve its citizens' life with the use of technology and her vision to make Mongolia Asia's tech hub! Check it out!

Q: I have so many questions to ask you. I'm just going to start with this, you are the youngest ever cabinet minister in Mongolia. Why did you want to go into politics with a kind of specialisation, or rather a focus on technology?

I spent ten years of my career working for international organisations. In 2019, I decided to implement a programme called 'Digital Pathways' with the University of Oxford, which I graduated from, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Digital Technology and what's blocking Mongolia to develop digital technology and do the digital transformation successfully and turns out, as a result of the study, it was the government itself.

So it kind of bothered me as a young Mongolian to see that the government, which is this institution that has to move the country towards development has become the block that's hindering it.

Q: So e-Mongolia was established in 2020. And how many services do you have on the platform at this point?

We have 660 nationwide services. We also digitalised local services, so we have 21 provinces and we have digitalised our towns and services of this local government. We have about 90% of the population using the e-Mongolia platform. You can actually see a herder on the horse in the wilderness of Mongolia using smartphones and getting government service.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you've only implemented this about a couple of years ago and now it's so widely used in Mongolia. How do you feel about helping to be a part of providing this access for the Mongolian people?

We want to think and we sincerely believe that Mongolians are very adaptive to new things. So I think that kind of paid off in this case as well and a lot of even older communities are using e-Mongolia intensively and people, when they try it for the first time, they want to tell their friends, families and that's the best marketing method we have.

So it feels good but we have a long way to go. It's just the beginning.

Q: Now you have to run an entire team, obviously, in the ministry. Tell us a little bit about how there's a woman of your age and obviously, this is very impressive. How do you go about doing that? What is the leadership style that you've decided to adopt as a cabinet minister?

When I joined the government, it was a very traditional institution like everywhere in the world, you can't just bring a startup leadership style to government. I think I kind of turned out to be very aggressive, to be honest, and very into detail, but also I don't like the bureaucracy and the levels within the government. I work with the most junior staff directly.

So I'm looking for constructive criticism everywhere I go and look for the spots that I miss. I try to educate as many young people and as many young women as possible in my team so they can become future leaders.

Q: I'm sure there are a lot of young women watching this interview, here or all over the world and thinking, this is somebody I want to be like. But we live in a world where the patriarchy is still very strong, right? And so what are some of the biases that you've had to overcome and what do you have to do to overcome these biases?

The first day I joined the government, when I went to the Parliament House, I remember the guards were asking if I were an assistant or a service lady. I think I spent months kind of trying to have myself acquainted with these security guards because they change shifts, but that's kind of the beginning of my journey in that I experience challenges and gender biases.

But interestingly enough, almost 65% of the population of Mongolia is under the age of 35, so we are a very young nation with a rich history. But again, we are not allowing young people to lead or create anything. So I think, I'm hoping and I'm working to break that gender bias for future girls to go into politics, go into government.

Q: Why is it so important to you to encourage women or young girls into the field of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)?

In every country, when we look at tech companies or the tech sector in general, the gender ratio is very unbalanced and a lot of companies try to compensate for this gender equality with administrative work which they hire a lot of women. But the higher paid technical, technological workers are mostly men everywhere.

When I was in high school, I experienced the same thing. I love ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and I love software engineering, but my teachers would say, "Oh, an accountant is better for women" without thinking. So that's kind of embedded in the educational system everywhere. So I try to give opportunities to girls. I'm not forcing them to become software engineers but I'm giving them opportunities to see the options to become a software engineer or work in the tech area.

Q: What have been some of the reactions that you've got, especially from women or even men in Mongolia, about what you've done and are continuing to do for the country?

I get a lot of criticism as well, but I try to see the feedback behind our intention, behind that criticism and more importantly, younger generation is seeing the opportunity and they're realising that "oh, you can join the government in such a young age" and still, you can contribute and you can leave your remarks there.

Q: There's something that you're quite passionate about, which is also digital literacy, right? What are your plans to have digital literacy in Mongolia for younger people?

We are starting a national digital literacy programme, which is focusing on target groups, including herder communities, elder communities and disadvantaged and stable communities.

And especially for those, we want to give them second chances, options and job opportunities using technology. Because they're already left out of the development, left out of the technology in general.

Q: What is your advice for young girls who are not only thinking about going into technology but also politics?

I think the first and most important piece of advice would be to be brave. A lot of girls are very smart and very hard working. But when they experience the first shock or criticism, they usually think about their families and what they'll be saying to their families, not themselves and for that reason, a lot of women tend to give up or do safer jobs.

The biggest and the most important thing that you have to be ready for is a lot of challenges and you have to be brave to go through them.

Q: What are some of the plans that you and your team have in mind to drive technology and Mongolia forward?

One of the most interesting results that I'm hoping for is to combine Mongolian culture with technology. We have nomadic culture, lots of tourists come to Mongolia to experience the wilderness of Mongolia and interact with nature and the city is very metropolitan now. A lot of people see Mongolia as like horses and herders but they've changed a lot and it's a very interesting hub as well.

You know, in humanity, we need to help each other to experience different things, embrace our advantages and cultures and understand each other. I think Web 3.0 is allowing us to do that and for that, I think it is giving Mongolia a great opportunity and we are ready to work for it.

Q: Is there any other current technology that you're trying to develop in Mongolia, for example, AI (Artificial intelligence) or blockchain? Are you also thinking about Mongolia becoming a cryptocurrency hub, for example?

We are now focusing on AI and blockchain as is everywhere else. It's everywhere, when we think about technology, it's already flat. So it doesn't matter if it's in Mongolia or the US or Singapore, we have these talented people, young people developing these things.

But what we are aiming to do is to allow foreign companies to establish a company in Mongolia, operate in Mongolia, and just check out Mongolia not as an investor view, but as a place where you can create your own community.

So that's something I'm looking forward to and working for.

Q: Considering the geopolitical climate that we're all experiencing at this time. What are some of the challenges that perhaps the ministry or the country as a whole has to manoeuvre to attract these different foreign investments?

For the government, we have to be very flexible and very fast with what's happening in the world, with the pandemic and everything and most of the governments everywhere I think, except Singapore, are very bureaucratic and it's very hard to move with a lot of legislations and a lot of rules and policies.

But for Mongolia, the Prime Minister's economic reform means that we want to make the government productive, small and smart, so we can be as flexible as possible to attract foreign citizens and foreign investors and make them discover Mongolia and help us develop Mongolia together as well.

Q: What is your vision for Mongolia in terms of digitalising the nation, in terms of technology and in terms of empowering the people with technology?

The plan we have is four or five years, but we can squeeze this plan and implement it in two to three years. One thing leads to another and the advanced technologies are coming up every day, every minute, every second. But with this technology, what we do not have to forget is humanity.

So we are doing this, we are creating these technologies for the sake of humanity, for the sake of the earth and for the sake of fighting climate change and stuff like that.

So often when we are rushing, competing and developing all the things, we forget the most important ingredient in that which is to keep humanity alive and safe.

So for our digital nation, that's something that we want to embed in the beginning and we want to make policies that are personal and human-centred rather than technology, policy or government-centred. So that's the centre of our digital nation concept and digital nation policy and I'm hoping to see that we can use technology to solve problems for humans and bring humanity together, hopefully in Mongolia.

Q: That's a really good thing that you said because if you talk to a lot of technologists, one thing that they will say is that ethics is always 20 to 30 years behind. So the fact that you're looking at it from a human-centric point of view, I think that's kind of the heart of where we need technology to be because we developed this for us to use, to be advanced, to be progressive, but also to be safe and I think that's going to be a very important aspect, so that's fantastic.

You could say something to your country, right? The Mongolians, what is it that you want to say to them about where you and your team are looking at bringing Mongolia into? What is a message to the Mongolians?

The main message is to create our second chance, economical and social second chance after mining. So we have mining booms and the economy and politics have been following that mining and I think that's how it is our second chance to accelerate Mongolia's development in general. So I want everyone to rush into that, learn about technologies and look at this as a second chance.

Q: What do you want to tell everybody about Mongolia, about what you're planning to do?

If I were to prioritise, I think Mongolia will become Asia's tech hub and it is already a hidden gem in Asia with technology. So I rush a lot of investors and, not even investors, just people to come to Mongolia and explore Mongolia with us and make Mongolia a digital nation with us.


Important For Women To Be Brave and Show Leadership - MTC with Bolor-Erdene Battsengel

Hi Bolor, very pleased to have you chat with us on "Making the Cut".

Thanks so much for having me. It is my pleasure to talk to you today.

Are you a person that likes the latest and coolest technology? What are some of the technologies that you find interesting?

I try to keep up with new technologies and tech-based solutions to solve social problems. Currently, I am learning more about AI and blockchain to introduce them to e-Mongolia, a government platform that provides 650 government services. We want to be able to suggest services to our citizens using AI. Also, I am currently very interested in Space technologies. How communications and science satellites work and how countries and companies have to work together in the future.

Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, State Secretary of the Ministry of Digital Development and Communications of Mongolia
Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, State Secretary of the Ministry of Digital Development and Communications of Mongolia

When there is an IT problem at home, are you the go-to person?

I do set up most of my electronics in my home as well as my parents' home.

What's your leadership style? Do you have to adjust your leadership style when it comes to managing colleagues that are even younger than you?

I have created a blended leadership style. Personally, I prefer giving my team the freedom to manage their assignments, build ownership, and think and act on them. However, the government has its own procedures and certain cultures. Therefore, I am blending these two. For the prioritized tasks, I like to deep dive with the team and truly listen to what all of my team members think and want to pursue.

Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook
Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook

You are a young female leader in a male-dominated field, what are some of the challenges you have had to face?

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is a highly male-dominated industry not only in Mongolia but also in many other countries. Government and politics are very male-dominated in Mongolia as well. There are only three female cabinet members and a few female parliament members in Mongolia. Not only am I one of the few women in leadership positions in Mongolia, but I am also one of the youngest. The challenge for women and men in government or in politics is very different. It takes more time and effort for women to be accepted by their peers. Gender bias for young female leaders is very challenging as it can be hard to earn males’ support as well as respect from other women in government.

Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook
Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook

What advice would you give to fellow women in tech and government?

I always tell women to be brave and hardworking. Many women voluntarily sit behind the scenes and don’t stand up for themselves as leaders because they may be shy or have subconsciously accepted that men should be the ones on stage. Therefore, to be able to open more doors for women and break gender biases, it is very important for women to be brave and show leadership.

What can we do to encourage more women in tech fields?

Involving more women in tech starts from elementary education. I think in many countries, the traditional education systems encourage girls to pursue more administrative jobs like accounting. I talked to many girls from all around the world and understood that from an early age, girls tend to get discouraged from being software engineers. Therefore, if we want to change this, it should start from very early educational curricula and give equal options to both genders. In the short term, women in tech should be a supportive and inspiring community that welcomes fellow girls. For this reason, I initiated a program called Girls Code which brings 30 girls from disadvantaged communities and teaches them how to code. Nine of these girls were accepted to some of the world’s top prestigious universities with our help, and the remaining are already working with local tech companies.

What are some of the challenges faced by Mongolia when it comes to catching up with some of the most technologically advanced countries and also in building a strong tech startup culture?

I think in Mongolia the legal environment was not friendly for tech businesses and the digital literacy level was lower. However, last year we approved five new laws including Digital Signature, Personal Data Protection, and Virtual Assets. While these regulations are allowing tech businesses to flourish, we are also creating a number of digital literacy programs to further encourage their development.

You also led the e-Mongolia project, tell us a little bit about the platform and how it came about?

In October 2020, we launched the e-Mongolia platform with 181 government services. Now we have 650 government services available online, enabling our citizens who live as nomadic communities to be able to access services in the middle of nowhere. Now we have about 90 percent of our adult population using the e-Mongolia platform. We are planning to digitize all the government licenses this year.

Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook
Credit: Obuna Battsengel - Facebook

What are your ambitions for the Mongolian tech landscape in the future?

Mining has been the main economy in Mongolia for years and it is very important for us to diversify the economy. As someone who is leading the ICT sector, I truly believe that the tech industry can be one of the main economic sectors in Mongolia. Developing the technology landscape will be beneficial to our local economy but it will also allow international companies to operate in the region, as we have a friendly legal environment, cheaper labor force, and a strategic geographic location.

Thanks Bolor. It was a pleasure speaking with you and let's have a video interview when you come to Singapore.

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