“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.”
Yeoh and Bhaskaran were speaking at the Institute of Policy Studies to a team of Nanyang Technological University journalism students who are heading to Bhutan to report on its economy and society.
The two economists are adjunct senior research fellows at IPS, and were part of the team that penned a groundbreaking policy paper on the need for a new social compact in Singapore.
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 asked. He said that an overreliance on multi-national companies (MNCs) had thwarted the development of a homegrown private sector and led to excessive gains from Singapore’s growth leaving the republic’s shores.
“At the end of the day economics…is all about whether you can deliver things to the average guy and make his life meaningful,” he added.
Yeoh refuted criticism that Bhutan’s focus on economic well-being is “romanticised” and impractical for a developed country like Singapore. “Once upon a time in Singapore we had socialised medicine, we had affordable housing, we had an egalitarian education system,” he said. “We had it in Singapore but we lost it in the last twenty years.”
The economists stressed, though, that Bhutan’s specific policies could not be imported wholesale to a developed country like Singapore.
Bhutan has a per capita income of US$6,000, compared with Singapore’s US$49,700.
Perched in the foothills of the inaccessible Himalayas, the kingdom is forced to depend heavily on neighbouring India as an export market and for investments. Yeoh said: “They would like to have a lot of things that we have, they would like to have the MNCs that we have, but maybe they can’t get them”.
Thus, it is the idea of measuring progress with relevant yardsticks that Singapore can learn from Bhutan, according to Yeoh and Bhaskaran.
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. Citing The Spirit Level – a book about the social impact of income inequality – he noted that 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.
Comparisons between the two countries are not new. The example of Bhutan was debated in 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.
Find out more about the GO-FAR trip to Bhutan at http://www.gofar.sg