Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Shangri-la, GNH and Chewing Gum

Did the National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan of Singapore say something erroneous when he said; “Bhutan is not the Shangri-la on earth?” Some think so. Now, I have this question for those of you who have taken offense at the remark: Do you believe that Bhutan is truly Shangri-la? Do you believe the Bhutanese people had true GNH in the past and, more importantly, do we have it now? Will we ever attain it and, if we do, will we be happy as a result?

From what little I know about GNH, I get the feeling that we cannot achieve it unless we go the Singapore way. In that respect, I fully agree with the Singapore Minister that; “In their (Bhutanese) minds, Singapore could well be the Shangri-la and they want Bhutan to emulate Singapore."

But Shangri-la was/is a mythical land and the people who lived in that valley were from a mythical era that didn’t have to battle the effects of climate change and global warming. Their realities were far removed from ours in which we have to face disparity of wealth, injustices, food shortages, polluted atmosphere, irrational wants and greed, depleting resources, diminishing water supplies and host of other problems that alter the very way we look at what constitutes happiness. We have to be suffering delirium to think that there is one country in this world that can be called a Shangri-la. Thus, I think, the conditions that are supposed to prevail in a Shangri-la must remain in the realm of the surreal.

GNH, GNH. GNH - Oh God, it is so confusing. This GNH has me totally baffled. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the principles of GNH are the antithesis to GPH - Gross Personal Happiness.

At one point soon, we must all calmly sit down and debate on the issue: Can GNH contribute to GPH; if not, what is the point? Can GNH be achieved without usurping GPH? Is GNH more important than GPH?

I think there is a serious paradox here. If ever we achieve our GNH, we may have to do so following in the footsteps of the great achiever - Singapore. They have a few thousand billion dollars in reserve, their city sparkle and shimmer; everything there works like a well-oiled Rolls-Royce engine.

Paradoxically, all that has been possible because they have been ruthless in imposing prohibitions on their citizens - such as the law on chewing gums - a starling example of how to achieve GNH at the cost of GPH.


  1. 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!

  2. I am a Bhutanese and I don't understand why we are so enamoured with this myth of Shangri-la. to the extent that now we have become nationalistic about it. It's a western concept born out of the nostalgia of what the westerners have lost tinged with a sense of regret. I want Bhutan, no doubt, to pursue Happiness, but with deeper understanding of our own sense of reality and keeping a discerning eye on the abstracts. GNH partly works because the "dream of happiness is important then the happiness". Yes, Mr. Khaw's remark on Bhutan seem little unfounded but I think there's nothing to be frenzied about.

  3. It's sooner the better if we get de-addicted from this mythical Shangri-la, of course without suffering nationalistic withdrawal symptoms. Why are we so enthralled with the myth of Shangri-la?

  4. It was the foreigners that claimed Bhutan to be the last Shangrila. Bhutanese did not know what Shangrila was. Most of us still do not know Bhutan is the so called Shangri-la, including my parents and grand parents. Well, it's not surprising that another foreigner comes along and says Bhutan is not the Shangrila on earth. Do I sound confused?

    The purpose of GNH is not the result of the purpose, but rather a journey of that purpose. Like any theory and philosophy, it sounds good and true. It's more like the concept of Shangri-la itself. Vague and exaggeratedly good.

    Gakyid Pelzom is not something that can be achieved, but rather lived everyday of our life. And at the direction Bhutan is heading towards, Bhutan can neither be Shangri-la nor a GNH country because our leaders are busy shoveling GNH down the throats of international forums. That confuse our people and we ask, why? followed by what? or vice-versa. Have you seen our leaders, including our Lyonchen, visit their constituencies? Sometimes, PM just visit Bhutan to do number one and number two...

    GNH? Shangri-la? Pelela, Thrumshingla, Chelela...lalala...

  5. I think I have realized the real reason why the Singapore minister said that the Bhutanese people are unhappy. It is because he was disappointed that he could not find the Happiness he sought when he went to Bhutan a few years ago in his personal capacity(who makes a trip all the way to Bhutan not to seek its Happiness?). So his failure to find Happiness in Bhutan could have led him to think that Bhutan's focus on Gross National Happiness is a scam/lie, which he later expressed this in his disparaging remarks made in parliament that the Bhutanese people don't look happy to him.

    Bhutan is actually a place where people can find real Happiness/Liberation, but only if they look from the right perspective, otherwise they would fail to find it.

    I hope one day he can find the right perspective to perceive and appreciate Bhutan's true Happiness.

    I have wrote a spiritual article of the 5 core factors of Happiness in my Spiritual Facebook group

  6. On what the Singaporean MP said in his Parliament, I really don't think the Bhutanese people care much (including me), it's just that the attention was forced on us by the media; saw it on our BBS too. Roll back a few years and we would have been oblivious to the remark. But then, this MP must be one disgruntled person and who must have visited Bhutan with a lot of illusions and pre-conceived notions and thus must have been totally mystified by our country with all its wonders. I believe happiness is individualistic as it depends on where one finds it. Anon.

  7. www.pemazing09.blogspot.comNovember 11, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Hi Yeshi,
    I urge you not to say GNH as confusing and no to create GPH. It is like going against our Fourth King la.
    I appreciated your ideas by bringing the perception about GNH.Rather Bhutanese have strong responsibilities to preach GNH to others!!!

  8. I think the RGOB should take a leaf out of the Singapore Governments book and ban the use of doma in public. Just see how much more cleaner our streets would then be.

  9. I always thought "Shangri-la" is a bakery, because I saw a bread called 'Shangri-la', but over time I heard it often and knew the vague meaning but I still didn't check the dictionary.
    If Bhutan could maintain its simplicity happiness is in the air, but some urgent desire to be Shangri-la or Singapore is forcing happiness out.
    People in Thimphu are living comfortable life with little lesser happiness than those in villages, but we can never make out because we seek happiness elsewhere...