by Tan Wah Piow

When I told friends that I was visiting Bangladesh, eyebrows were raised. It’s not a holiday destination on anyone’s wish list.

That makes it more appealing, hence I am here to see, understand and unlearn.

Like everyone else, I am exposed to adverse reports and prejudice about the community, viewing Bangladeshis as hungry migrants to one’s pastures. Bangladesh is often seen as the recipient of charity. If ever reported in the Western media, it is as the destination country of the Burmese Rohingya refugees. In Malaysia, they were known as Phantom Voters, a scheme allegedly devised by the former notoriously corrupt Prime Minister Najib to steal the last General Elections.

Notwithstanding that, Bangladesh is a country in the deep recesses of my mind. In 1974, as a young 23-year-old, I was instrumental in launching a Help Bangladesh Flood Relief campaign in my capacity as the President of the University of Singapore Students’ Union. It was a joint campaign with the Singapore Polytechnic Students Union. At the time I knew nothing about the country other than its perennial misfortunes with floods, arising from its geographical position.

Before landing in Dhaka airport, I was curious to know if the diaspora would soon decline in the light of the US-China trade war, and the rising costs of Chinese labour. After all, it is a country with over 160 million people.

As we drove through the Center of town, my host recalled that in 1962 when he was a young lad, he once asked his dad why there was such a long queue outside the building we had passed. He was told that it was a labour exchange office for those seeking employment opportunities abroad. At the time it was part of Pakistan.

On my flight to Dhaka were two Bangladeshis who are labour recruiting agents targeting experienced Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia for the Singapore market. They are part of the migration ecosystem in an unfair world where people are treated as commodities.

Despite Bangladesh Economic growth of 6-8 per cent, massive infrastructure projects (MRT), new job opportunities from Chinese or Japanese investors, there are not enough jobs and opportunities, and/or the wages are too low, to stop people from seeking greener pastures through whatever means.

Unlike the poor, those with capital and entrepreneur skills are bullish despite interest rates for commercial loans at a high 14 per cent.

There are clear signs of foreign-investment led growth in the Capital even though wages are miserably low. The number of big Chinese restaurants is indicative of the trend. I came across signs advertising ‘Study in China’. Within my first 48 hours in Dhaka, I had met three Bangladeshis who found employment immediately after a stint in China studying Mandarin as a second language.

In one Chinese restaurant, I encountered a number of young Chinese customers who are working for Chinese enterprises in the capital.

My overall impression is that there is tremendous zeal for self-advancement amongst the young, and Bangladeshis are no different from others, such as the Chinese. All are chasing for a better life, the difference is that the majority at the bottom rung has limited prospect to climb any higher. As my professor friend remarked as we surveyed the busy night market, ’this is positive development and sign of growth, there will be slight improvements at the edges, but nothing major can be expected to change people’s lives.’ As long as social mobility remains a myth, the more adventurous will continue to venture abroad to earn hard currency.

Poverty aside. Bangladeshis are proud people, let down by the governing elites. My imagery of Dhaka as just a flooded city of helpless people is now erased after my exchanges with several very smart and forward-looking Bangladeshi professionals and entrepreneurs. ’Though poor’, my professor friend commented, ’no Bangladeshi has to die of starvation’.

In Dhaka, people are dashing around, many on their motorised bikes. But unlike Vietnam, I have yet to come across a female motorcyclist even though the past and current prime ministers are female.

Interestingly, on the 20th Jan, I encountered a large group of mostly middle-aged, intellectual looking and highly politicised individuals at a political gathering. This reminded me of my ignorance about this country, which is only four hours flying time away from where I was born.

The crowd, gathered alongside the pavement and spilt into the road leaving only enough space for buses and cars to squeeze pass, was commemorating the 51st anniversary of the assassination of their hero Amanullah Mohammad Asaduzzaman. Known as Asad, he was just 26 years old when shot and killed on the 20 January 1969. Asad was a student leader advocating seld determination, social progress and independence for what was then East Pakistan.

Asad’s death helped crystallised the struggle for independence, which was eventually achieved in 1972. A monument now stands in one part of the city renamed Asad Gate in recognition of his contribution.

Interestingly, the memorial was held outside the premises of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, and the speakers included the Party’s past and present leaders.

Just as I was about to leave, the crowd stood to attention, many with a clenched fist, sang ইন্টার্নেশনাল . Although I could not understand the lyrics in Bengali, the tune was familiar. It was an old favourite for those seeking to change the world – The Internationale.

The short extract of the English version of The Internationale, originally in French is as follows:

’Tis the final conflict,
Let us unite and tomorrow,
The International
Will be the human race

Arise, the damned of the earth!
Arise, prisoners of hunger!
Reason thunders in its crater,
’Tis the eruption of the end.
Let’s make a clean slate of the past,
Enslaved mass, arise, arise!
The world’s foundation will change,
We are nothing, now let’s be all!

What I like about this anthem is the optimism that ”The Internationale will one day unite the human race”.

This short encounter changes my view of Bangladeshis. Even if those who are familiar with The Internationale is just a very tiny minority, I can now see them not as migrants, but masters of their own destiny.

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