Bhutanese are not all happy people

From ‘Bhutan is not Shangri-La on Earth’, 20 Oct 2011, article in ST

(Khaw Boon Wan, National Development Minister): ‘BHUTAN was mentioned several times in this House. I visited Bhutan a few years ago, and met a good cross-section of the people, from the prime minister, the chief monk, to civil servants and ordinary folks. I am not an expert on Bhutan, but the Westerners’ romanticised version of this ancient kingdom does not fit the reality of what I saw. Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth.

…I saw Bhutan children enjoying the river like all children do. They had no sandals in their hands for they could not afford any. They seemed happy, with angelic innocence, without any worry. I met and heard about foreigners who volunteered in Bhutan: Singaporean retired teachers (taking) IT to the schools, doctors providing immunisation and eye care for the villagers. They were happy as they found meaning in what they were doing. But most of the time, I saw unhappy people, toiling in the field, worried about the next harvest and whether there would be buyers for their products. The health minister asked me to help get ambulances and medicine for their villagers.

The happiest king, maybe even MAN, in the world right now

The only places that are truly heaven on earth are, alas, those without people. Khaw’s Bhutan anectode was in response to Sylvia Lim’s Parliamentary curve-ball for the ruling party to consider the ‘happiness’ of Singaporeans when drafting policies, even throwing up the idea of making it a national index. I don’t know if Sylvia has been to Bhutan herself but  as dampening as Khaw’s remarks are, they could also very well be true. And it’s not just Bhutan though, we city people are prone to regard not just nomadic yak-rearing mountain people as ‘happier’ than us, but even kampong folks of our own past, basically anyone with a more intimate relationship with the earth and live among a community who sing and dance around campfires playing handmade instruments. And then they wake up at 5 am the next morning to shovel ox manure. It’s the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ effect at work, or perhaps it’s all ‘Eat, Pray, Love”s fault.

This romantic mystique of the ‘Enchanted Third World’ has blinded us to the harsh everyday realities that rural Bhutanese or anyone like them have to face that we urban folk have long taken for granted, like a reliable water and electricity supply, an internet connection or a 24 hour convenience store for all your urgent, personal needs. Happiness, of course, is a concept few of us can really hope to master, with what ‘happy’ people claim to be feeling most of the time really more like a temporary emotion, or expression of ‘joy’, ‘pleasure’ or ‘contentment’. What’s happiness to the Bhutanese could very well be tedious monotony to most Singaporeans, like a monk tending to flowers in a temple for example. It also ties in to the kind of expectations that each country has of its government. For one with a formidable track record and constantly pats itself on the back for providing its citizens with an enviable standard of living, I would expect a whole lot more from the PAP than the Bhutan cabinet i.e it’s harder, and more costly, to make a typical Singaporean happy than please a Bhutanese. For instance, if the government gives us a bonus handout which was less than previous years’ most people would be probably less than ‘happy’ about it, even complain if need be, but for the Bhutanese any handout is manna from heaven (Oh wait, they ARE already in heaven). You also can’t make some people ‘happy’ without upsetting others, say, granting a 4 month paternity leave (bosses), or even extended year-end holidays (shift workers), which means dealing with dicey utilitarianism issues about calculating the ‘greatest good’ for the ‘greatest number’. So before you cast a ‘happiness index’ in stone, it’s probably prudent to first define what happiness means to a Singaporean. And that itself would take up the whole proceedings of Parliament already. If there’s anything we should learn from Bhutan it’s how they keep their carbon footprint low, or maybe eco-tourism,  not merely what puts a smile on our faces. Otherwise, time to move on.

Bhutan is not the first, and won’t be the last, of a list of countries that Singaporeans have sought to emulate, a case of fumbling around in the dark for what we really envision ourselves to be. Japan probably ranks near the top of the list, with the most citations picked up from my quick research.

1. Japan (1978, Ong Teng Cheong) for her rich culture. Earlier this year in the wake of the tsunami, Goh Chok Tong also wished we were as stoic as the Japanese. Recent ST Forum letters have also compared our toilets to those in Tokyo.

2. Switzerland (1970), for her ‘standard of living’

3. Bangalore (2005, LKY), for it’s Silicon-Vally-ness

4. Greece (2004), for winning the Euro cup.

5. Australia/New Zealand (1966), in reference to cross-straits ties and ‘neighbourliness’. 20 years later, Lee Hsien Loong urged us to be more like the Japanese again, and NOT to follow the Australian model.

6. South Korea (1979), as an ‘economic miracle’

7. West Germany (1977, NTUC) for technology, what else. It was even suggested that German be studied in schools.

8. America (2006, LKY), for her spirit of ‘self-help’. More recently, LKY urged us to speak and write American English too.

9. Hong Kong (2006), for her service standards

It’s cold comfort to know that in our green-eyed pursuit to be like everyone else at the same time, we end up being like none of the above at all. Or, as Lim Swee Say would say if he had the chance to speak on this matter of copying philosophies of good governance from other countries – Utter ‘rojak’. Not to say that Singapore has nothing worth emulating herself (some developing African and Middle Eastern nations are particularly interested) with our education system, multiracial harmony and infrastructure to brag about, but countries seeking to make their citizens ‘happier’ and more ‘civic conscious’ might as well dump antidepressants and mind-control drugs into their reservoirs than waste time looking this way.

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4 Responses

  1. We Sgreans r uncomfortable in our own skin. That’s why we are forever remaking ourselves n try to be the Switzerland of Asia when no titchy European country wld ever dream of aspiring to be the Sg of Europe. Sad really!

  2. […] – Singapore 2025: Maiden Parliamentary Speech [Thanks for the mention!] – Everything Also Complain: Bhutanese are not all happy people – Political Writings : PAP: Stay Arrogant, Stay Clueless – Blogging for Myself: PAP vs WP: Your […]

  3. wrong index lah. It should be whether they have more values and humanity than us. if governance produces pseudo values and blind followers who are easily manipulated and can’t even think, than we are worse off despite our wealth

    • Hmm thought of a few more ‘practical’ indices as surrogate for our nation’s ‘spiritual and mental well being’

      1. Psychiatric burden index: no of ppl with mental disorders
      2. Suicide index
      3. Charity index: how much ppl give or volunteer
      4. Divorce index
      5. MC index: no of ppl reporting sick for work
      6. Cleanliness index: a clean nation is a happy nation
      7. Walking speed index: sgreans once rated fastest walkers on earth,related to stress levels

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