By Bhavan Jaipragas

The original story was written for GO-FAR, an overseas journalism programme organised by the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

Landlocked and aid-dependent Bhutan may be worlds apart from Singapore and its globalised, advanced economy, but the Himalayan kingdom's unique people-centric growth model could still teach the city-state a thing or two, say two leading Singapore economists.

Bhutan embraces a development philosophy that it calls "Gross National Happiness" (GNH), which focuses on 72 "happiness indicators" including the mental health of its citizens, pollution levels, the crime rate, and income distribution. 

According to Yeoh Lam Keong and Manu Bhaskaran, this principle of looking beyond economic growth and setting meaningful targets is one that should apply in Singapore, even though the two countries' challenges and circumstances are entirely different.

"Whatever your level of opportunity, you can always raise the level of well-being if you focus on the indicators that matter," said Yeoh. "The development options that Bhutan has are completely different from ours. But what they do which we don't is to focus on key indicators."

Bhaskaran said Singapore should not view GDP growth "as the be all and end all".

"Are we really building the kind of economy that really services the needs of the citizens?," he added. "At the end of the day economics…is all about whether you can deliver things to the average guy and make his life meaningful."

Yeoh and Bhaskaran are adjunct senior research fellows at the Institute of Policy Studies, and were part of the team that penned a groundbreaking policy paper on the need for a new social compact in Singapore.

They were speaking earlier this month to a team of student journalists who are on their way to Bhutan to report on various aspects of life in the Kingdom. The trip is part of the annual Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting (GO-FAR) programme of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.

The once-isolated Himalayan kingdom has become a prominent case study in international discussions about sustainable development. Bhutan was even debated in Singapore's Parliament last year, after opposition MP Sylvia Lim asked if the government would create its own GNH index after co-sponsoring a Bhutan-led UN resolution to make happiness a key development goal.

In response, national development minister Khaw Boon Wan — who had previously visited Bhutan — cautioned against viewing the kingdom as "Shangri-La on earth". He remarked that the only "happy" people he saw were wealthy tourists, children with "angelic innocence" and foreign volunteers who found meaning in helping the less privileged.

"Most of time, I saw unhappy people, toiling in the field, worried about the next harvest and whether there would be buyers for their products," he said.

Yeoh and Bhaskaran agreed that Bhutan was a poor country whose people probably aspired to many of the comforts enjoyed in Singapore. Bhutan has a per capita income of US$6,000, compared with Singapore's US$49,700. Unlike Singapore's open and globalised economy, landlocked Bhutan is forced to depend heavily on neighbouring India.

Nevertheless, Bhutan's approach of measuring progress with relevant yardsticks is something that Singapore can learn from, the economists said.

In healthcare for example, possible indicators could be the proportion of citizens' "out of pocket" expenses compared with other developed countries, and the breadth of outreach of public hospitals. Yeoh noted that such targets – instead of looking solely at costs and facilities — would result in more people benefitting from a higher standard of care.

Income inequality was also a relevant measure, he said. A widening wealth gap was known to lead to various social ills including higher juvenile delinquency, diminished social mobility and shorter life expectancy. "Singapore is not focusing on the key indicators," he said.

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