He was the former deputy governor of Bangladesh Bank
On the morning of June 2, Shah Abdul Hannan died at age 82. His life should be an inspiration for all of us as he lived by principle and dedication to others. I have known Shah Hannan since 1993 and had the honour to work with him when he was Deputy Governor Bangladesh Bank. Subsequently, we met regularly to share our lives, for intellectually stimulating conversations on so many things from science and Islam to all aspects of American politics. Shah had a wide-ranging intellectual interest and his knowledge was like an iceberg, you saw a lot but he kept hidden from view immense learning revelling his ideas slowly and carefully.
He was a career civil servant joining the Pakistan Civil Service in 1963. He was Director-General of the Anti-corruption Commission moving on to become Deputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank [93-94], Banking Secretary in the Ministry of Finance [94-95], Chairman NBR [96-97], Secretary Social Welfare [95-. He retired from the service to become Chairman of Islami Bank, the largest and one of the most successful private commercial banks. He was also Chairman of the Ibn Sinha Foundation.
Shah accomplished many things in his life but I will discuss a few of his ideas as I came to know them.
First, he served in the Customs service and later in senior positions in the National Board of Revenue. He believed that it was urgent to collect more taxes to support the growing needs of the Government to provide services. When the concept of introducing the Value added tax to Bangladesh Shah worked on this with various experts that came to draft a law. In 1990 preparation of an accelerated development strategy was going forward under Ershad’s presidency and one aspect of this was to redirect trade policy to a more open export oriented economizing requiring reduction of the very high import duties and administrative restriction. Reduction of such import taxes was necessary to encourage a more competitive open economy with strong export growth. To reduce these import taxes required new taxes neutral on their impact on exports and imports. The VAT was the ideal candidate.
When Saifur Rahman became Finance Minister one of the first items that he had to deal with was passing the VAT law and starting the implementation. The business community was strongly opposed to the VAT. Shah Hannan almost single handed fought for the VAT law and convinced the Finance Minister that this was the best path forward. Eventually Shah was successful and the VAT came into law. Almost immediately the Government’s fiscal position improved enabling easing of restrictions and taxes on imports and exports.
Shah’s administrative approach was simple enough: Try to find a just but reasonable solution. In banking and in taxation there are always conflicts. Too often these end up in rigid positions both sides refusing to negotiate usually ending up without successful resolution. Shah understood very well why the rigid approach applied to overdue loans or taxes would fail. In the practical world of dealing with actual conflict he sought workable solutions rather than stalemates where nothing was accomplished. Because of his universally admired and accepted integrity Shah could get away with compromise and seeking settlements when others dare not. His ethical and religious teaching seemed to me to focus not so much on general principles but on the real turmoil and pain that humans feel from loss or loss of direction. Shah dealt with the particular, the real soul in distress not so much the general principles.
Shah had a very strong Muslim faith that he took as the most important thing in his life. In the continuing struggle for relevance and meaning in the Islamic World Shah told me that he thought the correct view was to build good Islamic institutions on a foundation of right behaviour. The power of his faith would arise not from violence but from living institutions that served people in a principled way. He realized he told me that the evil of corruption lurked everywhere ready to distort our societies. In Bangladesh, he personally worked on the establishment of good banking practices. Bangladesh Islami Bank was established and grew into a successful bank with a very high rate of loan recovery. Islami Bank was for many years a financial institution where Muslims were comfortable to place their money or to take loans. Deposit growth was strong and the loan recovery rate very high.
Similarly, Shah worked to build up medical care facilities that were comfortable for Muslims, that provided care of good quality at reasonable cost regardless of the patient’s income or status. He also worked to build and improve Islamic education institutions. He was particularly focused on the university level where he served as Vice Chancellor of Darul Ishan University and a Board member of North South University. He worked to make the curriculum of the madrassas more inclusive of practical information so graduates could find better jobs.
Many persons wondered about Shah’s religious views and his association with Jamaat I Islam. As a good civil servant, his political views were his own and not public knowledge and it was not appropriate for him to be a member of a political party. Nevertheless, he would give his views when asked. He believed in non-violence, persuasion, good organization, and working within a democratic framework. He recognized that the Islamic parties were not going to gain political power. He hoped leading by example more would come to see the benefits of a real, strict Islamic life. He despaired of the fake Muslims.
But he did seek a stronger position for Islam in Bangladesh. I believe he was the author of the political alliance between the BNP and the Jamaat. The 1991 and 1996 elections showed clearly that there were two large parties in Bangladesh and the smaller parties had limited influence. The election alliance between the BNP and Jamaat changed the political position in Bangladesh leading to the 2001 BNP government.
Shah’s life is an inspiration of how to live: Humility, service, honour, integrity, and simplicity. He lived consistently with his faith. He was always teaching young people about Islam and its meaning in their lives. He took such great joy in bringing Islam’s true views on life to young men and women. He was a real Bangladesh patriot who sought in his life to bring a better life to all.
Many times I visited him when he was Chairman of Islami Bank. He was in a real sense the most important banker in Bangladesh. His office was very small, perhaps 25% the size of most bank Chairman’s offices. I asked him once how he had such a tiny office. He laughed, pointed to his bookcase with his books, his chair, the space for saying his prayers and the wonderful sight from high over the city. What more do I need he asked.
His beloved daughter Samina Akhter and son Shah Mustafa Faisal remain with us.