In 2010, Alimaa Altangerel, a columnist and social influencer, sold a phone number she had taken over from a friend for 10 million togrogs (USD 3,500). Today, the market value of that number would be 120 million togrogs (USD 42,000), 100 times the average monthly wage in Mongolia.
“It’s a status symbol,” says Misheel Bayandalai, an informal business owner who posted that she is interested in buying phone numbers starting with 9911 or 8811 at the “Buy and Sell Numbers” Facebook group with more than 109,000 members. Several such groups are operating to connect people who are seeking specific phone numbers with sellers in Mongolia.
“You need this number to get things done,” explains Misheel. “When you call from a regular phone number, some people would not even pick up.”
Unknown in other parts of the world, culture-specific status symbols like phone numbers, deserve a second look. Often, they point at larger, underlying perceptions about the arrangement of societies and highlight the transitional state of these countries. In fact, it is a battle for the top without a constituted middle class. It underlines the promise inherent in market economy to potentially make everyone a winner when truly there will only be very few.
“Mongolians like to flaunt their wealth with expensive and rare things,” says Alimaa. “It is a nomadic mentality.” Investing in clothes and accessories was ideal for nomads to preserve their wealth and show off the family’s status, as they can be easily carried during the frequent migration. Snuff bottles, knives, and saddle gilded with gold, silver, and precious stones were a status symbol for men. And it was prestigious for married women to carry a considerable amount of the family’s wealth on their silver headdresses decorated with semi-precious stones, coral, and pearl, explains Alimaa. This pride was suppressed during the communist era since early 1920s. But when the country shifted to democracy and a free market economy in 1990, the nomad attitude to status symbols of Mongolians started to emerge again.
“There were winners and losers in the transition period,” says Oyungerel Chogdon, project manager at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Office in Ulaanbaatar. Many people have benefited from the new opportunities for entrepreneurial activities. On the other hand, many powerful and politically well-connected people used the unfair advantage of rapid privatization and liberalization. “Suddenly, some people got extremely wealthy, while ordinary people were suffering unemployment and poverty,” explains Oyungerel. “The gap between rich and poor widened dramatically.” Those on the top started to flaunt their wealth.
Due to the rapid urbanization, Mongolians who live in the city can no longer show off their wealth with horses and saddles. “Instead, in came expensive cars and phone numbers,” says Alimaa.
In 1996, the MobiCom Corporation, a joint Mongolian-Japanese joint venture, started to provide the first mobile phone service in the country. Pre-paid numbers started with 9919 and post-paid numbers with 9911. Since people were still suffering from increased poverty and income inequality caused by the rapid economic transition, few could afford mobile phones. Post-paid numbers were perceived as more prestigious because it meant you were financially capable enough to put in a deposit and pay the bills. Besides, 9911 numbers were advertised as “guaranteed prestige.” Just like that, a new status symbol was born.
Today owners of the phone numbers starting with 9911 either come from families who could afford it in the 90s, or are rich enough to buy it now. Moreover, if the number contains consecutive repeating digits, a string of the exact numbers, or increasing numbers, it is considered even more appealing and valuable. Cell phone providers brand new phone numbers as Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Diamond, depending on whether they contain the right combination of digits.
There are other benefits for owners of 9911 and other prestigious numbers. “If you need urgent cash, any non-bank financial institution will offer you a quick loan in 5 minutes, without any proof of income,” says Misheel.
Offering those quick loans for 9911 owners makes a profitable business for Erdenedalai Choinkhor, Chairman of the Altan Bumba financial group. He started with an equity capital of 20 million togrogs (USD 7,000) to offer quick loans for 9911 phone number owners in 2017. His equity capital increased 150 times now, and he is running a total loan portfolio of 50 billion togrogs (USD 17.5 million).
Twenty-five years ago, only a few thousand people could afford mobile phone services. As of 2020, Mongolia has about 4.4 million active mobile registered subscriptions for its 3.3 million population.
There is also a lot that barely changed during this time. Even though the country owns and extracts immense reserves of coal, copper, gold, and many other mineral resources, over a third of its population lives below the poverty line. In 1995, when the first Living Standards Measurement Survey was conducted, the poverty rate was about 36 per cent. As of 2018, this number was 28.4 per cent. While the government struggles in the battle to eliminate poverty, the gap between rich and poor widens. The Gini index was 33.2 in 1995 and 32.7 by 2018.
As the pandemic hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest, the COVID-19 related economic slowdown did not hurt wealthy people, making the luxury phone number business thrive, according to Erdenedalai. The price of 9911 numbers increased dramatically during this time. “It’s a Giffen good. People want it more as the price rises,” says Erdenedalai.
There is a phone number hierarchy. “9911 owners are the wealthiest people,” says Erdenedalai, pointing out that there are phone number categories for the middle class and small and medium-sized business owners as well. Bold Natsag, 34, a self-employed construction engineer, agrees with him. “Almost all the ministers and parliament members have 9911s,” he exclaims, referencing the list of parliament members’ phone numbers published at the local daily newspaper on his phone. “All the wealthy or high-ranking people have expensive numbers,” he says.
“People discriminate against someone based on phone numbers they use,” Bold says, pointing out that life is hard if you don’t have good numbers. “You will lose all your opportunities. Those who are rich enough and have decent numbers take them all”. Whether you apply for a job or post a business advertisement, people would always choose to call expensive numbers, Bold explains. He would do the same.
Munkhchimeg Davaasharav is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. She currently works as an Independent Consultant at the Media Council of Mongolia, Global Press, and other media organizations.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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