• 2019
  • Bhutan's happiness mantra and values-based education

Bhutan's happiness mantra and values-based education

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Opinion - New Straits Times
July 26, 2019


“OBEY the speed limit!” which is 50km/h, reads one road sign. “No hurrying. No worrying”, reads another. Welcome to Bhutan — the last Shangri-La on Earth. The only “carbon negative” country ‎in the world which is evident enough as to how serious the country is attempting to preserve and ensure that it remains “happy”.

This notion can be traced way back to 1629, when the concept of “happiness” was first mooted. According to sources, one Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel said: “If the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for the government to exist.”.

How true! If taken strictly to the letter, many governments will have to close down given the widespread high level of confidence deficit that exists against a whole range of governments to date. How sad (pun intended).

Hence, Bhutan — small and unknown as it was, stepped forward in early 1970s with the bold statement: “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product (GNP)”. It shocked many. Oblivious to such profound principles, the rest of the world were (most still are) fixated with the latter.

Some even dismissed the idea of GNH as “impractical” if not “dubious”. While some labelled it ridiculous, Bhutan remains firm and committed. For example, in 2008, it stood tall when Article 9 of the Consitution proudly read: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”

The year 2008 marked Bhutan’s first democratic election when the newly-elected Bhutan government solemnly promised to maintain GNH and protect the country “against the worst aspects of globalisation” — one being the erosion of cultural values and heritage.

This is well demonstrated in the way they dress, be they the royalty or ordinary citizens in the remotest of areas. Plus, no one is allowed to soar over the Himalayan mountains, which are regarded as naturally sacred.

According to the youngish 39- year-old, fifth and reigning King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck,  “GNH measures the quality of a co‎untry in a more holistic way and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other”.

In other words, it is about paving the “middle path” that is so prevalent in eastern philosophy and as a way of life (think yin yang, sejahtera, mizan).

This was made clear by the first prime minister who professed that GNH implies “a balanced and holistic approach to development” — a statement that intimately‎ mirrors the aspirations of Sustainable Development Goals. It now stands side by side with GNH, acting as the “national conscience guiding us (the Bhutanese) towards making wise decisions for a better future”, to quote the enlightened king yet again.

Hence, educating for GNH based on the research at the Royal University of Bhutan’s Paro College of Education is aimed at bridging material development to that of the spiritual values of kindness, equality, compassion and humanity.

It is embodied in a holistic values-based educational system in aligning principles, practices and values to produce “genuine human beings” realising their full and true potential. Not human capital.

These aspirations no doubt reflect closely that of the National Education Philosophy that emphasises on nurturing balanced and harmonic human beings. More specifically, GNH produces humans who are contemplative and analytical in their understanding of the world, free of greed and without excessive desires. Again, this can be read as similar to realising an individual who is endowed with intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual traits as clearly stated in the philosophy.

GNH further states that “knowing, understanding and appreciating completely that are not separate from the natural world and from others, that is, in sum manifesting their humanity fully” seems to be the ultimate as far as realising their full and true potential. It entails caring for others (including other species); and being ecologically literate as well as responsible.

It is no wonder then that more than 70 per cent of the country is covered by beautiful green landscape that helps absorb most of the carbon emissions. What more with clear water elements meandering through the green environment and gushing from high up in the Himalayas. 

It is a sight to behold, not only enabled by the so-called intelligences (natural or artificial, like the Fourth Industrial Revolution), but more so the state of mindfulness that ably balances the spread of “happiness”throughout its receptive population.

This is possible because “happiness” is embraced at a very early stage in life right to the ageing days beyond empty rhetoric.

Indeed, the practice of mindfulness is the mantra that keeps Bhutan awakened and modest as it figuratively rises above the peaks of the Himalayas in being uniquely exemplary in the crisis-laden globalised world.

The writer is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia, and rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia