Rethinking the idea of Shangri-la


Singaporean minister Khaw Boon Wan’s statement that Bhutan is not the ‘Shangri-La on earth’ has ruffled a few feathers, hurt sentiments and sparked a public debate. Adding fuel to fire, he also called Bhutanese people an ‘unhappy’ lot.

Earlier a contemplative essay written by a prominent Buddhist master on the idea of Shangri-la also aroused similar reactions.

Such public uproar is natural. It has piqued the national pride and demeaned our incessant efforts at promoting Bhutan as a country of Gross National Happiness. It is born out of a deep sense of nationalism.

And besides that, no country likes to be lambasted or blatantly criticized especially by an outsider who does not possess the knowledge and expertise to jump to sweeping conclusions.

However, comments of this kind must be taken as food for thought. Instead of stubbornly sticking to our guns, trying to justify what makes us a Shangri-la or a GNH country, we must rather engage in fruitful discourse on our own shortcomings.

This must also come with the understanding that not everyone who visits our ‘fabled’ country would leave completely enthralled – by the beauty of our environment, rich cultural heritage, and warm hospitality, among others.

Let’s keep aside some room for feedbacks.

We know where we stand. Bhutan’s unique development philosophy has won many an admirer across the globe. Even developed countries in the west are emulating GNH as an alternate development paradigm.

For a small country trying to be the moral voice of a world on the brink of collapse, apparently caused by excessive greed and materialism, such step is a big success. Plus, we have also been successful in projecting ourselves as a country of happy people.

To a large extent, we have proved to the world that by toeing a middle path to development, both sustainable growth and conservation of environment can be achieved.

The remarkable progress our country has made in a short span of time is also widely appreciated. The recent historical transition to democracy, that grabbed international headlines, has also been highly commended by the world community.

We bask in the glory of such laurels. And often tend to be insulted when told otherwise.

But are we truly a Shangri-la? Or should we ever be portraying Bhutan as the Shangri-la? And by the way, what is a Shangri-la? Are we really the ‘mythical Himalayan utopia’ that has the elixir to solve the problems faced by the world? If at all, are we doing justice to our claim?

Reality check!

Let’s face it. We aren’t a perfect nation. There are problems, both old and emerging. As a country in transition, our established values are fast losing touch with a generation growing up with the exposure to the world outside. Modernization is often misunderstood with the values of the west. Substance abuse is on the rise and so is the number of suicides.

Social structures and relations are falling apart, gradually. Now, aren’t we debating whether we should have old-age homes or not as the young do not necessarily seem to feel that they have the obligation to look after their aging parents?

There are brutal crimes happening every other day. Gang culture. Rapes. Murders. Name it.

Materialism has corrupted people to take up extreme measures to the point of desecrating old age Buddhist symbols and monuments.

And there is a yawning economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Just to name a few.

Not all seems to be well in the last Shangri-la. Yet not everything is lost either. Despite all these, we are a happy people, generally.

It’s time we tried to match the image that we are portraying of ourselves with the reality that we exist in. Perhaps then, we can draw some conclusions whether Bhutan is a Shangri-la battling against the destructive forces of change, or aspire to be one. There is nothing wrong in that.

Conscious decisions must be taken – not just to portray the country as the land of happiness – but to truly make it one.

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  • Ugyen

    I totally agree with the editorial here that there was nothing to rant about the Minister’s comments.
    We do have a great potential to be the “Shangri-La” but as you said our value systems are fast degrading. His comments were a kind of reality check for not only our policy makers but also for all of us as individuals.

    What we need is a “Focus” and highly motivated and dedicated captains/pilots leading the rest of the crew. Examples are best emulated when it is TOP-DOWN, most effective examples are those shown by the people at the TOP.