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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bengal Tales

Dear All,
 
Greetings from Dhaka, Bangladesh!  Just returned here after a journey to the southwest via 28 hours on Mahsud, an 89 year old "rocket" steam boat through the many waterways of this country located on the largest and most densely populated delta in the world. 
 
Bangladesh, Land of the Bengalis, should theoretically be a country we Singaporeans are familiar with, given the proximity and historical links.  However, few of us have any notion of this country except for hunger, natural disasters or political instability.  In a perverse way, many Bangladeshis, whose relatives work in the construction grounds and clean the streets of Singapore, know so much more about Singapore than we know about their country.
The first meaningful conversation I had with a local was with Bashar, who is the "Canteen Manager" of a café I stepped into my first morning in Dhaka.  Upon learning I was from Singapore, he exclaimed using the most classic Singaporean Hokkien expletives that expressed the speaker's desire to do something nasty to the addressee's mother, "Kan Ni Na Chao Ji Bai, Welcome to Dhaka!"  Bashar said he missed Singapore where he worked for 4 years in the 1990s – he liked the orderliness, the law and order, safe environment, clean air and the opportunity to make good money.  He would love to return to Singapore if he could.  He asked if my company needed any staff, be it a foreman, a clerk, a cleaner, anything.  Thrusting into my palm his name card, he asked me to contact him once I return to Singapore.
 
Poor Bangladesh…since independence after a bloody war against oppressive Pakistanis in 1971, the country has remained poor.  More than 10 million Bangladeshis work overseas, and millions of rural people are underemployed and poverty drive more and more of them to the cities.  Dhaka, a city of merely 1 million in 1971, is today a crowded, polluted metropolis of at least 12 million.  Motor vehicles driving wildly as if there is no tomorrow, loud relentless horning, countless rickshaws – all the madness of this city almost me crazy on my first full day in Bangladesh.
 
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I visited the Liberation War Museum, a fascinating place about the long forgotten conflict that led to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, a state formed from the Muslim parts of the British Indian Empire.  Driven by the desire for equal recognition of Bengali, also the language of choice of Tagore, the great 19th century Bengali poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Bangladeshi people struggled against their West Pakistani rulers.  Despite being more than 50% of the Pakistani population, the Bangladeshis never quite command their own destiny as a province of Pakistanis.  In fact, whenever a Bangladeshi party wins the elections, the Pakistani Army would stage a coup to set aside any electoral result.
 
 It was 1971's electoral victory by Rahman, Father of the Bangladeshis, that sparked off a massive genocidal crackdown by the Pakistani Army.  Intellectuals and the academia were arrested and murdered in cold blood, while whole massacres were committed at the halls and dorms of Dhaka University.  A guerilla war began and before long, the Indian Army and the Bangladeshi guerillas drove Pakistani forces into surrender, but not before many – some say as high as 3 million people, died in this bloody conflict.  It was amazing how power thirsty and greed drives people to commit atrocities.  It is also mind-boggling how the generals of Pakistanis could ever imagine they could lord over what was not a small minority group but the largest ethnic group of their country. 
 
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The Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, are the pride of Bangladesh.  They were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, for their success in pioneering microcredit in Bangladesh and elsewhere.  By lending small sums of money to desperately poor people and encouraging repayment through innovative loan structures, such as lending to people who are members of a small group that forms a social support as well as behavior pressure group, Grameen Bank has succeeded in improving the standards of living of social groups once deemed unbankable.  The Bank also draws up social codes of bahaviour and principles designed to be pro-growth.  Here are some of them:
16 Decisions
We shall follow and advance the four principles of Grameen Bank: Discipline, Unity, Courage and Hard work – in all walks of our lives.
Prosperity we shall bring to our families.
We shall not live in dilapidated houses. We shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses at the earliest.
We shall grow vegetables all the year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.
During the plantation seasons, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible.
We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health.
We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.
We shall always keep our children and the environment clean.
We shall build and use pit-latrines.
We shall drink water from tubewells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.
We shall not take any dowry at our sons' weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughter's wedding. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.
We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so.
We shall collectively undertake bigger investments for higher incomes.
We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.
If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any centre, we shall all go there and help restore discipline.
We shall take part in all social activities collectively.
 
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I got onto an ancient wheel steamer through the waterways of Bangladesh.  This is a different world away from the madness that was Dhaka.  This was the land of peaceful farmers and fishermen, green paddy fields, serene villages and the timelessness that define this land.  There was even the occasional pink Ganges dolphin leaping out of the river, which to me was all the more remarkable as I recalled recent reports confirming the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin of China, the victim of overfishing, poaching and pollution. 
 
However, one should not forget, that it was the lack of economic prosperity that had preserved this land in a time wrap.  Corruption, economic mismanagement and misrule meant that the country continues to rely on a fleet of 1920's steamers to connect some of its many towns and villages scattered across the delta land, in an era where many Asian countries have built modern airports, multiple lane motorways and huge bridges to bring together disparate parts.  (OK, yes, there are a number of motorways, but a country of this size needs many more).
 
In the last one year, the military had intervened in this country to steer the country away from the military stalemate caused by the country's corrupt politicians.  The politicians are now in jail awaiting trial, whilst a technocrat caretaker government is in power.  It remains to be seen if they would be successful but I wish them luck.  Bangladesh obviously deserves better.
 
That's all today.  I will write more.
 

Wee Cheng

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