Impressions of Bhutan

Visiting Bhutan is quite an experience. This landlocked country high up in Himalayas has been a mystery to me for a long time. I have heard of it being the happiest place of earth and the king being concerned about the happiness of his subjects that he designed a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index while other countries are preoccupied with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP).

I finally made the trip there from 13-18 March 2011 with a team of educators, ex-educators and education practitioners on an education exchange with the Armed Forces Special School. We did two workshops for school leaders and preschool teachers in Thimphu, followed by visits to a village school in Punakha and a private school in Thimphu. We toured famous places in Bhutan such as the Tiger’s Nest and partake in the Paro Tsechu spring celebrations, where we met and spoke with the King by chance. And by chance, I met members of both Singapore families living permanently in Bhutan (I was told only 2 Singaporean women are currently married and living in Bhutan). It was a tiring and action-packed 5 days.

A few things struck me about Bhutan:

1. The challenging geographical terrains of winding mountain roads, occasional landslides during summer monsoon rains and rolling valleys. The country is mostly agricultural in nature and the kingdom is committed to maintaining at least 60% of its land in its natural state. The love for and protection of the environment is a big thing in Bhutan, and one of the core four pillars of its Gross National Happiness philosophy.

2. The peace and genuine happiness of people here, despite the relative lack of monetary wealth. Happinesss is a function of contentment, not of absolute wealth. There’s relative peace all around with low crime rate. Actually, Bhutan is not as backwards as I had in mind, as I had been to remote villages in Cambodia, Sumatra and West Kalimantan (Indonesia), where conditions are much worse.

3. People speak English well. English is taught in school as the main language. Even at the village school, we took a look at essays written by grade 7 students and the standard of the language is good. This augurs well for the country, as its people will be able to plug into the world through English.

4. The quaint buildings and clothing styles of the people are from centuries ago, but Bhutan is undergoing change that is hitting just about every country in the world. They get access to Internet and international television. A visit to a local pub with our tour guide drove home the point. The modern Bhutanese songs have strong western and Bollywood influence. Many young Bhutanese love to hang out in pubs, dancing and listening to live music.

5. The people have strong respect for the king (see my other blog posting), respect and interest in the political process (see other blog posting) and for one another.

6. Strong influence from India. India supports Bhutan in its army, in infrastructure development and in business. This is inevitable given that India is neighbour with Bhutan and both see each other as a good way to keep China in check, especially after neighbouring Tibet became part of China. It is wonderful then to see that despite being so far away, Singapore too has started to make its presence felt in Bhutan by supporting actively in education and community projects.

7. Many people are deeply religious in this strongly Buddhist country. It’s Buddhism is the same as that of Tibet. Its unique culture and beliefs have been transmitted down for centuries.

8. Bhutanese are deeply loyal and connected with their country. While many Bhutanese now study and work abroad, they aim to be back to Bhutan rather than migrate permanently. In today’s highly open and mobile world, such deep attachment to country and culture is something many places including Singapore need to learn from Bhutan.


2 comments on “Impressions of Bhutan

  1. Yee Jen,

    Totally agreed with what you said. Hope you will win in the coming elections. Few days ago, I wrote something and sent to the website of various opposition parties and hope they can focus on the core issues to fight this election if they want to achieve some major breakthroughs or inroads. Below is a copy of what I wrote.

    The Issues That Matter In Singapore’s General Election 2011

    As a Singaporean, I’m very concerned about the affairs of Singapore. I must say I’m very dissatisfied and want changes for the better. For any candidate who is running for the coming General Election and who wants to capture the hearts of people, I hope every much he/she can focus on the following issues for the benefit of all Singaporeans

    (1) Is our CPF money saved?

    I must say I’m very disappointed with the oppositions who kept quiet on an important matter during the 2006 General Election. Just a while before 2006, the government bought over ex-Thai Premier Thaksin’s assets which were subsequently confiscated by the Thai military rulers who overthrown Thaksin. To me, it was a real serious matter. Every year the Temasek Holding will issue some low interest bonds to the CPF Board which it uses our CPF money to subscribe for these Temasek bonds. What we have here was the Temasek lost heavily by using our CPF money to make such foolish and reckless investments but the opposition at that time kept quiet. Actually Temasek also incurred some other high profile investment failures. I could recall one of them was a kindergarten group in Australia. In the financial sector, the Temasek Holding is a laughing stock because it is well-known for over-paying on its investments. The problem we have here is Temasek Holding’s operation is not transparent. It is run very much like a private family asset and the key people calling the shots are the father and son team plus the daughter-in-law. This whole operation is a black box, where we clearly do not have any idea how good or bad it is managing our CPF money. I’m of the view that since Temasek is using our CPF money to invest; it should come clean to let us know of the whole picture. Lately, the government put up some excuses to delay the drawing out of our CPF money. With Temasek being not transparent and the government further delaying the withdrawal money, I can’t help feeling suspicious – Is it if a lot of us withdraw our CPF money at the same time, the CPF Board will not have enough money to return to us because of the lousy performance of Temasek’s investment? So, if the allowable age to withdraw CPF money is further pushed forward and hopefully by the time, most of us have already been dead, this problem of not having enough money in the CPF money to give back to us is no longer a problem?! I think the government owes all of us a good explanation and the opposition should make an effort to pursue this matter aggressively for the benefit of all Singaporeans whether in the coming political rallies or in future parliamentary sessions!

    The main issue I’m talking here is ACCOUNTABILITY. What is lacking here is accountability of the government towards the people! I honestly think our political system is broken because of this failing accountability issue! You see, because of the GRC system, we have over half of the MPs going into parliament unelected. The problem here is if an MP is not elected by the people, this MP will not feel obliged to serve its people. This MP will be more loyal to his/her political masters who ‘shoo’ him/her into the parliament than to the people he/she is supposed to represent.

    (2) Population Policy – Need The Setting Up Of Proper Child Care Facilities

    As a country, we are gradually becoming like an Old Folks Home with people living longer and birth rate declining every year. Till now, the way the government approaches this matter is by way of tax incentives and extending the maternity leave to encourage people to have more babies. By now, we all already know this is not working because the government is neglecting one critical factor – The lack of a well-developed child care system. I think it is time Singaporeans need to seriously think of the possibility of a universal, subsidized, good quality child-care system. Of course, the ruling party will tell us this kind of western practice is not suitable for Singapore. But if we do not address the problem of helping couples to take care of their babies when they are working, people will not want to have babies despite those tax incentives.

    I have no illusion that this is going to be easy to solve and of course there is always some costs involved. But you consider the social cost of an aging population, the social cost of letting in too many foreigners into Singapore at a very quick pace in a very short period of time and the social cost of heavy dependence on foreign maids. We just have to ask ourselves – which kind of costs are bearable and the amount and type of costs we have to bear? Of course, you can say, what is the big deal here, since we can employ foreign maids to take care of our babies. As you know the 1st few years of a kid are the most crucial period in child development and let me ask you – do you as parents feel safe or confident to let your babies be handled by total strangers – who hold different values system from us? During a child’s formative years, do you want your kids to take in the value system of foreign maids if you feel such value system does not match with our society?

    I have heard of incidents when women are being wrongfully retrenched after they are pregnant. I have the feeling that this kind of incident may happen more often in the future with the government’s extension of maternity leave. One of my friends who is the boss of a small and medium enterprises told me it is very troublesome to employ women. This leads me to believe the extension of maternity leave can end up hurting the employment opportunities of women who are of child-bearing age. What we really need here is good quality child-care support for couples and I believe it is most crucial in helping to reverse the trend of declining birth rate. I seriously urge the opposition candidates to talk more of this issue in your political rallies and in parliamentary sessions after you are elected.

    (3) Unhealthy Manipulation of The Property Sector

    Because the government is the biggest landowner, it is therefore has big vested interests in seeing property prices going higher so that it can get property developers to bid at high prices during public auction of state lands. I have seen 2 incidents when the government is “playing with fire” by creating property bubbles to jack up property prices. The 1st incident was before the 1997/8 Asian Financial Crisis when the government liberalized its housing policy to allow people to speculate on HDB flats in order to push up private property prices. The 2nd incident was the government used the IR (integrated resort) to jack up land prices in 2005 so that it could sell the land at high prices to casino operators and now we are witnessing a real property bubble happening in Singapore now. As you know all bubbles have only one destiny – they will burst in the end! We have already seen how the bursting of the property bubble has brought a super power (USA) economy to its knees, should we allow this to happen to Singapore?

    Under normal circumstance, we usually experience the normal economic cycle of ups and downs every few years which is unavoidable but manageable. Not sure when it started, we are starting to see major economic/financial crisis which seems to happen very often in recent years and this is external and out of our control. Now with this “additional help” from the government in “playing fire” with the property sector, this can make the economic cycles in Singapore becoming very volatile. Our lives will be like going for a roller-coaster ride in Genting Casino, which means our jobs or economic well-being will always be very shaky! I find the government’s policy of manipulating with the property prices being very irresponsible!

    (4) We need better quality decision-making or policies

    We pay our ministers million dollars salaries. I think we are not asking too much if we require our ministers to come out with million dollars quality type of decision-making. Let me point out 2 incidents of our ministers coming out with “cheap skate” type of decision-making or policies. The way the ministers arriving at those decisions give me the impression that they are not trying or are not interested to solve out problems but to “make money” out of our problems. For example, the government’s recent increase of foreign workers levies is not meant to help businesses who are facing problems of recruiting workers but just to “make money” out of their problems. Another example is the road-toll collection system. Instead of trying to solve traffic congestion problem, the easy response the government uses is simply just to install more toll-collection points.

    (5) High jobless rate among the over-40s

    The government wants us to work as long as we can and to force us to do so, it delays the age when we can take out our CPF. It also comes out with regulations to get employers to hire workers who are beyond the official retirement age. What we have here is there is a lot of age discrimination against the over-40s people who are looking for jobs after they have been laid off and the huge availability of “foreign talents” complicates matter because employers can afford to be very choosy. What we have here is a very serious social problem. Many of these over-40s are the so-called sandwich group, means they have aged parents and wives and kids to take care off. With our population aging and you have employers practicing age discrimination, this is going to get more and more serious. This has to be stopped before it gets worst. I advocate coming out with more incentives to be offered to employers who are willing to hire the over-40s. I urge the opposition parties to take this matter very seriously to fight for the rights of the over-40s to have a job to take care of our aged parents and wives and kids.

    (6) Hidden agenda behind those election “ang pows”

    Politicians usually tell lies but sometimes they tell the truth. When our government repeatedly tells us there is no free lunch, I think we need to take their words seriously. When you say no free lunch, it means those “election ang pows” are not free and eventually we will have to pay for them out of our own pockets and on top of that we will have to pay more out more. I do not think I’m exaggerating if I say for every $1 we get, we will be paying out at least $2. Wow! This is even more expensive than borrowing from the banks. Worse still, it looks like borrowing from the loan sharks.

    I’m very fearful of the ‘tsunami of policies” that we are going to get after the election, with the government trying ways and means to tax us heavily to get back all those “ang pows” from us. It is preferable that we do not have these “ang pows” at all but we have no choice and out fate is almost sealed. If this 2011 election result is the same as the 2006 election result, I think we are in for a big trouble because right after the 2006 election, the government did desperately take back all the election “ang pows” that they gave out before the election. How to stop this “poisonous ang pows”? Maybe, we vote in more opposition candidates to show the government that their “ang pow” trick is not working! Hopefully this can break the vicious circle of giving us “ang pows” first and then tax us heavily later! It is time we say NO to all such nonsense!

    To the opposition: Please do not be afraid of mud slinging or any savage personal attacks against any of you. If you happen to be the subject of this, pat yourself on the back. It means the ruling party is treating you very seriously as an opponent and you must be doing something right that is gaining ground and they feel very threaten. In order to distract attention from their weakness and panic, the ruling party will harass you and will wear you down with these exaggerated personal attacks. Don’t fall into such trap this time. Remember 2006 Gomez incident! Just simply brush this away and do not treat this too seriously. Since the ruling party tries to divert attention from their weakness, you put the main core issues back to the focus in your political rallies and keep talking about them. Don’t waste too much precious time in defending against such personal attacks. In some matters, the more you talk, the worst it gets and especially you have this government-controlled media adding ‘salt and pepper’ to make things worst for the person being attacked. Just keep cool and keep talking about the key issues that I listed above here which are very important for Singaporeans. If you can show enthusiasm and interests in our issues, this personal attack will have little effect and you should perform in the coming election.

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