Food for thought


Khaw Boon Wan, a Singaporean minister, recently declared that “Bhutan is not the Shangri-la on earth”, and that the Bhutanese are an “unhappy people” for who “Singapore could well be the Shangri-la!”

Mr Khaw’s remarks, which were made in Singapore’s parliament, have upset a lot of people in our country. That is natural. He has attacked our image. He has challenged GNH. And he has insulted our people. So, many of us are angry.

Even so, we should listen to him. And if what he has said carries even a grain of truth, we should listen carefully. We should, for instance, listen very carefully when he says that we are a tiny nation sandwiched between giants and that, as such, self-determination and self-reliance are difficult to achieve, especially when we can barely eke out an economy for ourselves.

And we should listen very, very carefully when he points out that our people are “toiling in the field, worried about the next harvest and whether there would be buyers for their products.”

We’ve become used to lapping up international praise, and without even pausing to consider whether or not we deserve that adulation. But on the other hand, we are quick to condemn the occasional criticism. We shouldn’t. If critical remarks are insightful and constructive, we should, as Business Bhutan put it, receive them as valuable “food for thought.”


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  1. I saw this on bhutantoday news and the responses by Bhutanese people made me laugh, I am sure the Singaporean minister was laughing too. We Bhutanese are so used to praises that a slight hint of criticism, even if there is truth to it upsets everyone. We act like frogs from small pond, who thinks his pond is the biggest, only to die of heart attack when he discovers the ocean. We are close minded, egoistic, and cannot take a minor criticism.

    For me I take the minister’s comment as constructive criticism. We have to reflect on it and try to improve instead of denouncing it right away. I would rather hear the truth than sugar coated fake praises.

  2. I guess it’s time we crack open the gold coated shell. GNH is indeed a very beautiful dream and the bhutanese perspectives are often not the same as those of the people outside.our world is smaller and our Bhutanese concept of happiness is an uninterrupted supply of 3 square meals daily and a cloth on your back. that was an earlier standard which now doesnt really stand the same. many Bhutansese have not known the comforts or technological materailism which now many Bhutanese are getting exposed to. Basic home appliances such as laundry machines,LED/LCD screens for almost each member of the house the watch whatever they please without hassals over the remote control,a fancy set of crockeries, a car at ur door, i can just go on and on these are becoming an indispensable part of our developing community.This changing lifestyles of an ordinairy Bhutanese leads to much comparison among the peers and over increasing exposure to the outside culture being one main factor for cravings materism and promoting comsumerism in our small society. this brings out eveident changes in the economy and the way people want to live lives. the concepts are changing and GNH is futher challanged. these are just facts on the domestic front that I can see at that level. we do have bigger ventures that that pushes GNH further over the horizon. Thus GNH would only be a philoshphy of a great mind that has to face trials and tribunals of the metamorphosizing society where the gratitude of going to bed well fed goes unnoticed rather overlooked by the unsatiable desires to build impires.

  3. This is my feeling after listening to his speech and observing the reaction of fellow Bhutanese:

    ‎Tenzing Lamsang: Finally you brought up the crux of the issue that apparently outraged many Bhutanese – wittingly or unwittingly. Thank you. The discussion should have objectively initiated with these main points. My personal opinion on the points most of you found objectionable are:

    1) On importance of self-reliance of a buffer state: I couldn’t agree more with the Minister. Our government realizes it. Indo-Bhutan’s treaties have been revising towards this goal. The latest one was signed in 2007 that superseded the treaty of 1949. And subsequently we have been establishing our embassies abroad.

    2) On electricity tariff arrangement: many of us are not privy to such information. We simply don’t have enough information to conclude either for or against the statement of the Minister. Our sources are only newspapers. I feel the Minister simply echoed the feeling of some section of Bhutanese populace, if not the popular view. I would hesitate to dwell on his intentions or what he indicated because the interpretation depends on our preconception which is very much subjective and vary from person to person or from time to time.

    3) On media accusing Bhutan of backing the ULFA and Bodo militants: with all types of media and characters of media personnel supported by all sorts of groups, I think such accusations are inevitable. I don’t know if your criticism was made in hindsight or instant :). Either way that’s not jingoism. But at that point in time there were many theories. Media’s accusations are understandable in that context.

    4) On happiness referendum: despite many happiness surveys I still feel the wellness (happiness plus wellbeing) of our people is not fully explored, let alone confirm it. We imported happiness conditions known as happiness indicators from abroad and I feel HAPPINESS TAG IS FORCIBLY LABELLED AGAINEST US WHETHER WE ARE HAPPY OR NOT. I don’t think ordinary folks care about it. Desperate are those who market our king, country and people at exorbitant rate with this fake label called happiness for their own benefits!

    BTW you’re one Bhutanese journalist I respect. Your unprecedented investigative reports have never been refuted or challenged. Nor have I heard of your inclination towards power, money, and privilege. There goes your reputation, I salute you.

    ‎Tashi Jyatsho: I sympathize with you on unconditional love and support for our parents but I wouldn’t go to the extend of equating that with our support for a section of politicians and thier agenda. There’s a clear distinction between politicains and country, national goal and political agenda. Unfortunately, this distinction, howsoever clear it may be, seems blurring to some people — thus mixing up everything and confusing everyone. I would like to think every son of a country is a patriot and that his love for his country and parents is unconditional. But this doesn’t extend to every political party or politicians or to their fancy campaign slogans. Thus your and the likes frustrations on this thread are unwarranted.

    I don’t mean to undermine your knowledge about our culture, tradition, language and other values that we are so fond of. But at times in its fondness we remain complete oblivious of its value and worth. It is in this context that it’s important to reflect and introspect on our own first…:)

    I think every Bhutanese from a lay man to a civil servant to an enlightened monk is attracted by what you call this “filthy money.” In our value laden and tradition rich villages we no longer find a caring mother nursing her own child. We find her baby sitting someone else’s children in the U.S. We no longer climb up the Himalaya to get blessing from our enlightened saints. They have all drifted towards Taiwan, Singapore, and the U.S. You call it “filthy money, ” I say “holy money.” 🙂

    In our culture of hypocrisy if you are not a hypocrite, you are lacking manner or plain rebellion or sometimes eccentric 🙂

    As far as I know intolerance and outright condemnation of those with a different view aren’t Bhutanese values, or for that matter that of any nationality or society.

    I concur with Francoise Pommaret so that viewers will make their own assessment. As for me I listened to his speech and I find it nothing wrong. I don’t know why some of you are rattled by his speech beyond civil discussion. If you think he isn’t serious, then don’t take him seriously. If you think he has indeed made undeserving comments on our country and people, then let’s counter those comments in civil and democratic fashion 🙂

    The Singaporean minister interacted with our PM, his cabinet, and the people from all walks of life. I think he knows our country more than those who flaunt GNH. Let me make one clarification, i.e. Bhutan is not the happiest country in the world. Happiness has been the utmost desire of every human being since the birth of humanity. The only difference is that our government made it public to categorically include happiness in public policy. This doesn’t mean the policies of the rest of countries are devoid of human feelings. But then there is the heaven and earth deviation between our policy documents and implementation status!

    With the enactment and enforcement of stringent tobacco law people suspected if Talibanism (not literally) was taking place in our country. Now with a barrage of attacks, wittingly or otherwise, on the Minister only shows how intolerant we have become! I am afraid that this confirms the people’s doubt. 🙁

    A reaction to the speech of a Singaporean minister with the PM of Bhutan in mind?

    Such unfounded jingoism will not get us anywhere.

    Who is being civil or unruly on this matter is quite evident from one’s tone of a language. So there is no need to point the finger at somebody.

    I think the clarity of issues depends on one’s conscience 🙂
    When double standard and hypocrisy is the order of the day, naturally everything becomes ambiguous or gray.

    I’ve also listened to his speech and I find his reference to Bhutan appropriate, and comparison with Singapore fitting. Contextualize it, you would understand better. Where is Bhutan, and Singapore on all social, economic, and political indicators? Let’s not live in denial or in fool’s paradise – don’t we try to emulate Singaporean model? Isn’t it worth it? I am a proud unjingoistic Bhutanese 🙂

    Sangay Johann Maurer and Tashi Jyatsho: I hope this excerpt helps two of you to introspect if we were ever colonized (directly or indirectly) or if we have had total freedom (in whatever sense you meant…)

    “…to the outside world, namely India and before that the British Raj, Bhutan was viewed as less than sovereign for their own geopolitical interests. Bhutan was treated as a suzerainty by the British Raj, during which time the present monarchy was established. Foreign and defence policy was to be decided by the British according to the 1910 Treaty of Punakha. This did not mean so much to the Bhutanese however due to their policy of self-imposed isolation. In 1949, after Indian independence, Bhutan and India agreed to a ten-article, perpetual treaty which effectively continued the relationship, but with India taking the place of the United Kingdom”

    “suzerainty” is a key word here.

    flaunt it or deprecate it, but please don’t flaunt or deprecate your ignorance!

  4. GNH – What is GNH? Going abroad and singing GNH doesn’t make us a GNH country. GNH is just a source of attracting funds from foreign countries. We can never attain GNH and this is guaranteed.

    Bhutanese backing ULFA and BODO – This is truth and 100% truth, coz i was then studying in a remote eastern school where i saw our own Bhutanese supplying rations. And later building houses and hotels from the money they made.

    Self Reliance- Are you kidding? We can never be self reliant, especially when the external debts are shooting day by day. Not a single Bhutanese individual has what it takes to be self reliant.


  5. minister khaw is spot on..bhutan is not shangri la.. & the bhutanese are an unhappy lot indeed..reality check !!!
    his views are nothing to be unsettled is a fact..log on to any online forum or listen to any casual conversation – all you hear are bhutanese complaining endlessly on just about everything to do with their daily lives..
    gnh was something to aspire for when introduced by our 4th druk gyalpo, it was romantic & magical..karma ura jumped on it & made it complicated..jigmi thinley then hijacked it from karma ura & the rot set in..
    gnh will only happen when public servants “serve” the public; when government ensures equitable development as opposed to vested interests; when mps put the peoples welfare at the forefront rather than grabbing as much incentives for themselves; when the pm & ministers do not engage in hypocrisy; when our roads are maintained better; when ordinary folk do not have to wait for hours or days in a hospital only to head to the pharmacy to fill their prescription; when children are given a decent education; when taxes are actually rationalized to reduce inequities; when those in power stop looking out for ways to enrich themselves; when public officials actually practice the oaths they take; when policies are framed keeping the larger interests of the public as a whole; when rule of law is enforced uniformly rather than on a selective basis; when bhutanese society is made egalitarian; when people actually trust their representatives; when one doesn’t have to resort to connections to get things done; when gnh is actually practiced, rather than preached..    

  6. Dear OL,

    Well done. We all know it, but who will accept??? It is good to see that people are responding POSITIVELY to your views.

    The views expressed by the Singaporean minister are his personal beliefs. I understand that rather then unthoughful reaction, we should read his view with an open mind.

    We need to learn to accept…Accept the facts. Some of the facts might not be suiting us as a nation, on other hand there might be some other facts which would have helped our country reach where it is today (and believe me compared to any Country of any size any location in the world, Bhutan is undoubtedly doing very well).

    First Acceptance
    Yes, we are locked between two giant nations. It is a fact beyond anyone’s control unless someone decides or allows the country to be part of one of the Giants. Horrific thought. But it could have been a reality. Our Kings accepted the facts on its face and opted to chose a well treaded path in choosing the friends. The acceptance of the facts and selfless foresight of our Kings brought Bhutan where it is today (we can always look back at the history and realize that the nation (Buffer nation) bigger than us have disappeared because of lack of leadership and selfish politics).

    Second Acceptance
    The world is fast shrinking as a village and we cannot remain isolated forever. Whether we like or not, we have to get into the mad race. Economic growth for the country is going to be the Priority. However, while we gear up ourselves to shoulder the new responsibilities in the modern world, we should always have firm faith in our strengths. Our country was never known to the outside world as an Economy, still every nation around the world envied us. They envied us Not for the Shopping Malls or Expressways, but they envied us for the purity of our souls, simplicity of our people and the perfect bond that our leaders of yesteryears had with the common men. We are at crossroads and the path we chose today is going to decide the fate of our country and the people. This responsibility is now entrusted on the new breed of leaders (powered and controlled by us). The history is being made and each and every choices that the leaders/government make today will be recorded and tested with time.

    There are many other facts which we need to accept and analyze and use for the betterment of our nation. My appeal to all countrymen…Don’t be reactive. Let people say anything to you, we all know the truth in our hearts. If the truth is Good then take it as a blessing and if the truth is Not Good then contribute your bit to rewrite the History…

    Just a thought…

  7. His remarks is just a piece of information where bhutansese should take it positively. All the Asian nations are very good at praising and love to hear the praises. That is why behind the western nations. It is good that Singapore minister is caring bhutanese people rather than criticising because a parents will alway find the faults of the children to bring into the right path. Three cheers to singaporean minister.

  8. Wow! Looks like, we were living in a fool’s paradise and suddenly awaken when Singaporean minister made such a sweeping comments. Well, in my understanding, i think, we never said or claimed that we live in utopian place, and all are happy without any problem! What we are saying or doing is, unlike other countries, our policies and plans are ultimately directed to making happy instead of making rich. In other words, sustainable and balanced development approach which maybe more conducive to create happiness. As of today, we may be more happy or less but i don’t think we have ever said we are happier…as far as i know, it is some tourist, academicians and some organization did some survey and commented we are this much or that much happier…..
    In my view, it is not about whether someone’s comments should be taken positively or negatively but whether someone is qualified to make such a sweeping comments after visiting few days in Bhutan. And that too in their parliament! If he has made casual comment to media, i don’t mind but he made in their parliament without any basis. Happiness is abstract and complex subject and even with numerous surveys and studies, it is very difficult to understand and conclude, but he made such a big comment “bhutan is not happy” without any basis…..And, we have started saying, it should be taken positively! But what is there to take positively or negatively? The comment is as good as my three year old son saying we are happy or not!

  9. Exactly Jigs; I have made a comment that Singaporeans are the most miserable lot, but this does not mean all Singaporeans are miserable. In a similar note, Singapore Minister saying that Bhutanese are unhappy lot does not necessarily mean we are all unhappy people. People tend to make frivolous off the cuff remarks about other culture and state of affairs without any basis. For example, I am a Bhutanese and have been born, brought up and schooled in Bhutan, yet i have little understanding whether we are really happy or otherwise lot. These comments of Singapore Minister is unscientific remarks without proof or evidence. Therefore, let us forget it and mind our own business.


  10. we know wheather we are happy or not, why he have to comment in his parliament..

  11. It just means that we have to grow up and face reality with matured and informed analysis instead of feeling hurt! Bhutanese will keep on doing what Bhutanese think is best for the Bhutanese. That is not to say we should not listen to others beyond our borders. It’s an opportunity for Bhutanese thinkers, planners and policy makers. Policies must not only be seen to be good on papers but must be seen to be doable and affordable with the strictest regard to our ground realities.

  12. Straight drive says

    some facts to support the singaporean minister:
    1. Suicide rate in bhutan is comparatively high. is it consistent with happiness.
    2. death investigation system is one of the poorest in the world. most suspicious deaths are not properly carried out due to lack of man power and legislation.
    3. crime investigation system is unsatisfactory. police are given the sole authority in regards to investigation of crime. in other countries magistrates and police share the responsibility to have check and balance. crimes involving police are taken as special cases. equity in justice should have been the main pillar in our development philosophy

  13. I support the view that suicide cases in Bhutan are either poorly documented or reported as like any other news. As a GNH society, i personally think that suicide cases should not be treated as just news. It should be investigated properly and corrective measures must be put in place to prevent such sad happenings. The reasons for suicide could be complex, simple or accidental, and in most cases young people are involved. As a caring society we must pay great attention to such preventable maladies.


  14. A reaffirmation or validation of the statement of a Singaporean minister on Bhutan.

    Human Development Index (HDI) – 2011 is divided into four broad categories: ‘very high’, ‘high’, ‘medium’, and ‘low.’ Bhutan (GNH country) appears at the bottom of the third category whereas Singapore appears somewhere in the middle of the first category.

    Bhutan is ranked 141 whereas Singapore is ranked 26 out of 187 countries.

    I thought GNH and HDI were synonymous. Where have my perception gone wrong? We shall still live in denial or acknowledge the reality and work on it…

  15. It seems that in a fervent debate with the opposition while defending all his actions, the minister got overzealous, crossed his limits and landed up talking more like a parrot. Hope, with this incident he realizes that debates are best done with balanced mind and equal respect for opposition view point. This is also true for all of us.


    As Jonathan put it “small countries are supposed to know when to shut up and simply do as they are told”.


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