Small Nation's Karma

My Bhutan visit left some deep impressions.

First, the plight of a tiny nation. How do you make yourself relevant in the harsh world of big nation politics? Or simply making your voice heard? ST's Europe correspondent, Jonathan Eyal, wrote a perceptive piece just today on the plight of small countries, quoting the example of how tiny Slovakia, with a population of 5.5 million, was currently being unfairly treated by their big EU allies. They are being told to contribute to the bailout fund, "to bail out countries which are far richer, and which have only themselves to blame for their current predicament". As Jonathan put it "small countries are supposed to know when to shut up and simply do as they are told".

Second, the hard reality of living next to giant neighbours. I spoke to the Cabinet Secretary to understand their economic structure: what were their revenue sources, how did they make a living? Most of the Government income was aid and handouts from a giant neighbour next door. The second largest income item was sale of hydroelectric power to the neighbour. I asked if they were paid international market rate. From his body language, I gathered that altruism or even fairness did not feature much in Government-to-Government relations.

Third, the challenge of making yourself relevant in a globalised world. Being landlocked between India and China, they know their options are limited. The talented are leaving for opportunities elsewhere. The economic opportunities at home are few. The tradition is for the first son in the family to be a monk and the second son, a civil servant. The rest of the children will just have to fend for themselves, mostly in the farms. Tourism is a possible engine of growth. But they have seen how mass tourism has ruined their neighbouring country environmentally and culturally. They are determined not to go that route.

Fourth, self-determination and self-reliance bring dignity and pride. If survival means pandering to the wishes of others, it is no fun at all, let alone, happiness. This is so at the national level; it is equally true at the personal level.

They have studied us because Singapore is also a tiny nation, living next to big neighbours. We have successfully transited from Third World to First and managed to create a functioning and harmonious society for our people. In their mind, Singapore could well be the Shangri-la and they want Bhutan to emulate Singapore.

Just last month, I hosted a meal for the Chief Monk and the Home Affairs Minister who was visiting. The latter was keen to get some help from our Home Team on security issues. We also spoke about the Royal Wedding and how happy the King was. Indeed, we often spoke about happiness and the foundation for it. I recall an ancient Japanese poem on happiness by Yosa Buson. The full beauty of this haiku has to be appreciated in Japanese. Let me try it in English:

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