Is Singapore the real Shangri-la?

The Straits Times, 2 July 2011

Depending on who you ask, Shangri-La could be Bhutan, or Singapore, or a little of both. The question of which country is a land of happiness was sparked after last week’s parliamentary debate on whether Singapore should focus on happiness as a national goal.

Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim called on the Government to learn from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) approach to policy-making in charting Singapore’s growth.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, however, responded that Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth, its people are not all happy and, instead, Singapore could well be the Shangri-La that the remote country sandwiched between India and China wants to emulate.

Shangri-La is a mythical place, described in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, that has become synonymous with an earthly paradise.

Bhutanese and Singaporeans whom The Sunday Times interviewed were divided on which country is happier.

For public policy observers and analysts, the more significant issue raised is the need to study the well-being of Singaporeans and incorporate it in policy-making.

Bhutanese Sonam Younten, 24, a project executive living here since 2008, said that the happiness of Bhutan’s people is never compromised in the name of development, and that allows even the less well-off to lead a ‘simple and happy life’.

Similarly, Miss Yeshey Chowden, 18, who started a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the National University of Singapore in July, said Bhutan is Shangri-La to her even though Singapore offers more creature comforts. For her, having grown up in an environment that places great emphasis on familial interaction and the observance of Bhutanese traditions, the place that allows her to enjoy these pleasures counts as paradise.

Civil servant Karma Galay, 40, and artist Ringchen Wangdi, 32, who recently visited Singapore, share the sentiment that while Bhutan, with its own set of socio-economic challenges, is not Shangri-La, the people are generally happy.

Mr Galay, who had previously carried out GNH surveys, said: ‘In Bhutan, a person’s income matters but it is seen as a means to the goal, which is a holistic sense of well-being.’

He added: ‘The Singaporeans that I’ve met are very hardworking, and when people work so hard, they usually don’t find time to do much else, like enjoy family life or socialise.’

On the other hand, businessman Sandrup Norbu, 45, who visits Singapore about twice a year, said Bhutan faces various challenges as a developing nation and is no idyllic paradise. An admirer of Singapore’s efficiency and sound business infrastructure, he said: ‘Hopefully, in 20 years, Bhutan will become like Singapore.’

Of the comparison, sociologist Paulin Straughan of the National University of Singapore, said: ‘What is someone’s Shangri-La may be hell to another.’

She said: ‘People from Bhutan are accustomed to a certain way and quality of life that may not encompass the same values as Singaporeans’. So although a Bhutanese may be happy in his home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you transport a Singaporean to Bhutan, the Singaporean will be happy.’

But she concedes that Singapore needs a more holistic evaluation of the well-being of its people, a sentiment echoed by Professor David Chan, director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute at the Singapore Management University.

Professor Chan said that by conceptualising and measuring Singaporeans’ well-being, the Government can infer what really matters to the people and in turn develop more effective policies that better engage the public and address their needs.

Singapore-born Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, who is director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy in Bhutan, said now would be an opportune time for Singapore to consider a vision that goes beyond economic growth, given how global developments, such as the latest protests on Wall Street, are a sign that societies are crumbling under the pressure of rampant capitalism.

Professor Straughan said that while aspects of Singaporeans’ well-being are measured, for example, through statistics compiled on marriages and divorces, or work-life balance, having a single index that brings it all together would help Singapore take stock of how far it has come, and where the social gaps are that need to be plugged.


The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was introduced in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was concerned about problems affecting other countries that focused only on economic growth and chose not to make the calculation of gross domestic product (GDP) his country’s priority.

So he decided that the country’s guiding philosophy on development was to ensure that the government was responsive to the people’s needs, prosperity was shared across society, and progress was balanced against preserving cultural traditions and protecting the environment.

Over the decades, the approach was further refined into nine categories including psychological well-being, community vitality, health and education, plus 72 indicators, which made it possible to calculate a GNH Index.

Other countries have warmed up to adopting an alternative to GDP to measure a nation’s progress.

Britain recently announced plans for a happiness index and China is considering a similar index.

In May, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development launched a Your Better Life Index that encompasses 11 areas, from housing to work-life balance, deemed essential to a people’s well-being.


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