Monday, January 9, 2012

Great Comments

On 2nd November, 2011, I posted an article on this Blog titled “Shangri-la, GNH and Chewing Gum”. Of the 9 comments, I am so impressed by one comment posted by a Singaporean that I want to reproduce it below for the benefit of other fellow Bhutanese. I totally agree with the comments and I have been meaning to post it on the main page so that others may benefit from it.


Disclosure: I'm a Singaporean but I've spent significantly more time in Bhutan than our Development minister.

While I do not necessarily agree that Singapore is the Shangri-la that Bhutan wants to emulate, I am somewhat amused by his very public assertion that Bhutan is not the Shangri-la on earth.

What is a Shangri-la? "Shangri-la" has always been a western invention. It originated in a work of fiction, but has evolved into a term used to describe anything that fits the Western romantic notion of an exotic eastern isolated haven. I always found it very annoying that Bhutan is tagged as the Last Shangri-la. Like you said, Shangri-la is a mythical construct, like Zeus or even Snow White. From some of the responses I've read online, it seems that this silly Shangri-la notion has gone into the heads of some.

I too am often bewildered by this abstract concept of GNH and it's relevance to the common people. K5's premise that GNH is "development with values" is enough of a definition for me. Coming from a former colony that was also invaded by an imperial power, I assure you that I'm not a fan of any monarchy, benevolent or not. However, I see in his words an undertone of pragmatic recognition that the long-term happiness of his people must lie in development, and not as an isolated Shangri-la.

Speaking of development, I understand the sentiment behind why Passu wrote "If we start mining our mountains and lumbering our forests, we can become Singapore in a year...". Passu is as guilty of being presumptuous as much as our minister. Even if Bhutan were to dam every river, mine every mountain, and cut down every tree, it will not be Singapore in even a decade.

Beneath the sparkling veneer, much much work and societal engineering takes place. Not all policies were gold (and many, such as the stop-at-two policy, would come to haunt us later), but almost all were implemented to the letter. That's what Bhutan lacks... execution. Too much said of abstract concepts and grandiose plans, but too little done in concrete matters. Bhutan is more than half-way past its first parliamentary term and the next general elections looms on the horizon. Will the government be held to account for its campaign promises? How will the people vote the second time round, based on the party or the representative?

A footnote. The hoopla about the chewing gum was really a storm in a teapot. I disagree with the spirit of the legislation but in day-to-day terms, banning chewing gum has had little impact. That said, I must confess. When I was living in Bhutan, every time I walked passed a pillar or on a red-stained pavement, I would wish that there was a ban on doma!

November 3, 2011 6:50 PM


  1. This comment was there in my blog as well, and I liked it, though I find him as guilty as me when it comes to being presumptuous:
    "Even if Bhutan were to dam every river, mine every mountain, and cut down every tree, it will not be Singapore in even a decade."
    Who knows?


  3. Mr. Yeshey,
    In the very first place, i wonder if you take pride in this comment of an outsider, or is just mesmerized by the way he has made his point. i hope it is the latter for i want to think of you as a true Bhutanese[ever since i heard you in the Media Nomads Camp 2011)
    Lately, i wrote an essay on the same topic, (Bhutan is a Shangri-La)which i further elaborated as the Last Shangri-La,(as it always had been).
    i don't see any reason why we should hang on to the definition it was coined with, as late as 1933.
    Shangri-La means heaven and Bhutan is no less. While i accept that there are things and situations that doesn't support Bhutan to be a heaven, people thinks it is, be it a blind faith.
    So, it's my earnest request that you don't take away the pride people take in to be Bhutanese, inhabitants of the heaven. moreover, who has seen the real heaven. so, let what is in sight be the heaven.
    and as obama said, "don't say that the words don't matter'. in the intial stage everything is just hopes and words, which comes true after much faith and perseverance.
    and to the outsider, i say to hell with your judgement on the way our country works.
    this is no land of hitler where you can say -bold in planning and weak in execution.
    this is the land of thunder dragon where the noblest monarchs reign and every step is taken with much thought. we might not be the richest but we are the happiest in Asia.
    passu's presumption can come true if we want but we dont head towards just development but towards the true happiness that i hope to show you practically sooner or later.

  4. Hi Yeshi, thanks for featuring my comment. It is a pleasant surprise.


    Hi Passu, thanks for responding. I should have replied earlier, but I wanted to make my reply a little more thoughtful.

    Singapore has no mountains, one small river and our forests are tiny (even before development). So in a technical sense, I cannot compare our development model with yours.

    But let's put things into perspective, and allow me to back up my presumptions with some hard numbers.

    Bhutan's 2010 per capita GDP roughly approximates to Singapore's per capita GDP in 1973 (comparison chart, which is almost 40 years ago. The math for a head-on-head comparison for the 2010 per capita GDP figures shows a 20x differential (and national GDP figures, if you're interested, can be found at

    10 years is not a long time. Look at China who arguably is closer to the "dam every river, mine every moutain" model, and their per capita GDP growth in the past decade - 4.5x growth in 10 years, and that is considered astounding. How much faster must Bhutan grow to bridge a 20x gap?

    Putting the crass GDP numbers aside, Singapore is alot more than the physical concrete, steel and glass you see on the surface. I'm talking about the country as a whole, its bureaucratic, legal and education systems, transport and commerce infrastructure, etc. And other measures like it's literacy, health standards, etc.

    All that in 10 years? "Who knows?" indeed, but we can make some reasonable deductions based on the facts. :)

    I cannot say enough to assure you that I'm not "thumbing down" Bhutan's achievements and current progress. I look upon your country like an aunt upon her favourite niece/nephew. With some distance, and hence a critical eye, but with only good intentions. I keep a close eye on Bhutan's developments only because I have a number of friends in your country. The progress of your country directly affects these friends, of whom I'm very fond of, and their families.

    Hence my rather strongly-worded comment previously about Bhutan's failures in execution.

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for another wonderfully educated comment. I can see that you have an astute understanding of why Bhutan suffers stagnation. Talking of China, like Singapore, that is another success story I marvel at. When I went to Shanghai to cover the Tennis Masters, I stopped by Beijing and what they have achieved there – it is simply mind boggling. They couldn’t have achieved what they did - unless some hard decisions were made and …. executed to the letter!

    As you have understood, Bhutan is great at legislating great laws and rules and regulations, even making some hard and difficult decisions. What we lack is execution and implementation. It is heart breaking and we are getting too late to get back on track.

    To illustrate a simply example of how we are capable of taking progressive and meaningful decisions – but failing to execute or implement them is that of the modern incinerator installed at the cemetery in Thimphu. That modern system of disposing of the dead was installed over a decade back. The logic behind its installation is that the traditional method of burning the dead body causes too much pollution and consumes few thousand tons of wood every year. However, since its installation, not a single body has been incinerated using that modern and efficient method.

    The reason given out is that the machine is faulty and cannot be rectified. Do you believe that? I mean how plausible is it that the entire government and its resources cannot fix a mechanical failure in a simple incinerator? Do you expect us to believe that the manufacturer of the machine is under no obligation to rectify the fault under their mandatory warranty obligations? I have got to be bloody stupid to believe that!

    Dear Passu and Tenzin,

    I think the first step to solving our problems is recognizing the fact that we have a problem. We cannot forever remain deluded in the belief that we are a Shangri-La. We are not – no single country is. As we all know, Shangri-La is a land of fiction.

    Consider that Singapore is a land without any natural resources - even their drinking water use to be piped in from neighboring Malaysia. Even their sand stone requirement for construction is imported. But they are very rich in one critical resource - human resource. That human recourse was nurtured and developed as a result of being ruled by one tough nut – LEE KWAN YEW. He made some tough decisions and made sure that every one of those decisions was implemented.

    Our Prime Minister is a tough nut too and he is trying. But to be sure, he is not even as half tough as Lee Kwan Yew. Perhaps he will be tougher in his second term.

  6. You know the quality of internet discussion has made a sharp turn southwards when someone brings out Hitler.

    Tenzin, I implore you to read up and understand the historical and cultural baggage that is invoked when you bring up Hitler. It is not something you can just throw out there trivially, without insulting the memory of the millions in Germany and around the world who suffered unspeakable horrors during the war.


    Thank you Yeshey (and I apologise for my previous spelling mistake) for your insights.

    Privately, I'm a much harsher critic of my country and our failings. A close friend of mine, after a lengthy discussion about the problems in our country and the deficiencies of the ruling government, once asked, do you not love your country?

    I looked at her in deep surprise. It is precisely because of the love I have for this little island state of mine that prompts me to be its harshest critic. If we love blindly, we do ourselves and the country a disservice. The price of citizenship must be active citizenship. It is our responsibility, even as ordinary citizens, to not only celebrate the successes of our country, but to also reflect and ponder the areas where we have fallen short.


    I'm not as pessimistic about the state of affairs in your country. I do not think that is "too late to get back on track". What worries me though is the seeming lack of a national consciousness of how precarious the road ahead can be.

    Life in the capital is booming and yet the economy is exceedingly fragile. Your largest development aid donor is also your largest creditor AND also your largest (unbalanced) trade partner. To say that Bhutan has many of its eggs in a single basket may be understating it severely.

    When Bhutan graduates from LDC status, and I am pretty sure that it will happen well within the next 10 years, it will be a true litmus test of her long-term viability. I am sure that the country's topmost leadership are well aware of this. As for the rest of the leadership and the country, I'm not so positive.

    Truthfully, I am tempted to blame the failures in implementation equally on both the leadership and the people on the ground. If every civil servant knows the important role they play in the long-term survival of the country, I'd wager that alot of these toothless policies will start sprouting incisors.

    Incidentally, it is my personal belief that Bhutan needs an Albert Winsemius, rather than an LKY. Winsemius, a Dutch economist with remarkable foresight and practical visions, was instrumental in framing the economic and development policies of early post-independence Singapore. Google him. You may be surprised to read just how many of our successes today have their roots from advice given by this foreigner who served for 25 years as an unpaid economic advisor. Contrast this with the US$9m tab from McKinsey!

  7. Mr. Yeshey,I may not be well qualified to comment on this discussion but i believe myself matured enough to understand where this discussion is heading and it's repercussion in the long run.And if you have not read about what GNH is, please for god's sake refrain from ruining it's noble essence. By the way you talk about it and bring out the GPH, it seems you have not understood the concept properly. So, lets be a responsible person not to say something baseless about the concept that the world leaders have accepted and is today honoured by great nations abroad.
    Perhaps, this quote from the third annual report of H.E. Jigme Y Thinley on The State of The Nation would lift your self esteem as a Bhutanese. And i hope you might also understand the difference in the road Singapore and Bhutan travels(if any exists, for i don't know anything about Singapore).
    "...we have reasons to be proud to belong to this country.Bhutan’s standing in the international community continues to rise to the extent that we are now seriously engaged in a bid for a non permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Not the least of the reasons is the leadership role played by Bhutan in the search for a more meaningful development paradigm for human society. In
    various measures and under different nomenclatures, many countries including the OECD have incorporated happiness or well being in their public policies. Lord Richard Layard, advisor to the British Government wrote to me just the other day to convey that “over 14,000 members from 110 countries have pledged to “try to
    create more happiness in the world and less misery”. Numerous happiness indices published each year accord to Bhutan a very high ranking. In the process, we have
    become an inspiration for many communities and nations alike.
    While our standing in the region has been enhanced by the successful hosting of the SAARC Summit, we were ranked the 34th most peaceful country on the Global Peace Index in 2011 and likewise, the 36th least corrupt country on the Corruption Perception Index. Although we are still an emerging democracy, our
    progress in promoting a democratic culture is noted by the World Press Freedom Index which ranked Bhutan as the 64th among 176 countries. UK’s Overseas
    Development Institute (ODI) in its 2011 report, has placed Bhutan among the 9 “star emerging countries” together with Bangladesh, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Mauritius, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam. It attributes the consistent “remarkable progress” of these countries to “four building blocks–smart leadership, smart policies, smart institutions and smart friends”.
    The citation of such heart warming reports is not to be construed as implying that we have no problems. It is not to be understood as indicating a complacent attitude on the part of the government or the increasingly active civil society." "Despite the many challenges faced by our country and the government, the report has never been about apology
    for failures and shortfalls. Rather, it is about strides we have taken forward as communities and as one family in pursuit of happiness. Thus, in keeping with what has become a tradition, this year’s report too, should not fail to give us reasons for satisfaction and confidence in ourselves and in our future as a democracy".
    So, Mr. Yeshey, don't you feel we have always been on the road quite different from other nations. During schooling, i had a teacher who always said, "Compare you with yourself and if you defeat the Past You, you are developing. But, if you compare yourself with somebody else, you may progress but at not at the same pace you compare with Past You." I believe same should and is happening with our nation. ... to be continued

  8. Continued...
    and before i forget, let me remind you about my fear out of this conversation. While it is right for you to express what you have observed outside Bhutan, it may not be wise to let people think Bhutan is not a place worth inhabiting. we already have a problem of Rural-Urban migration. let's not pave way further more.
    Bhutan may not qualify to be a Shangri-La by it's actual meaning but word meaning changes over time. and today, i believe it is referred to a place of happiness. and an outsider cannot understand this nor feel it.
    Just ask yourself, "Am i not happy in my nation?" and you will get the answer.
    Today, the word Shanrgri-la means a land of happiness, and our nation is no less. Actually, what other nations were searching (not even knowing what it was) through their development has been made clear by this small nation, Bhutan.
    (To the one who commented on my say about Hitler)... You have understood it the way you wanted and not the way i expressed. So, i can't rectify you.

  9. Dear Tenzin,

    Don’t worry, I will ensure that the discussion here will not head the way you suspect it will . Over the years, I have understood that one is capable of understanding only to the extent that one is capable of – not beyond that.

    But before you get your panties in a bind, let me remind you that both our monarchs – the 4th as well as the 5th Druk Gyalpos - never said that Bhutan is the land of GNH or that our country is the last Shangri-La on this earth. Neither did our Prime Minister. Bhutan is not known as the land of the happiness - it is known the “country that propounded the concept of GNH”.

    Let me also give you something to chew on: By definition, “Gross National” means “the cumulative total” of every one of the population that make up the nation. Please think about it.

  10. Yeshey, glad you don't want to take this conversation further because we all know "You can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink". I have learnt through heavy mistakes not to be critical of Bhutan because there are many people who are happy to label you as "anti-Bhutanese". Very sad :(

  11. Just for you Tenzin,'s_law

    Quite incredible. Being critical means being unpatriotic? Does a mother who rebukes her son for stealing sweets hate her child?

    It is perhaps time to expound the value of civil discourse. Silence does not equate acquiescence.

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