‘Amar Shonar Bangladesh” - iconic words from the first days of our independence. Bangabandhu spoke these words from his heart. In those three simple words, I believe, he expressed a vision of what he thought Bangladesh could become: A country that could fulfil its potential through the expression of a historic culture.
The vigorous uprisings across Bangladesh these last few months, (Shahbag, Jamaat, Hefazat, and even the Banani lungi march) got me thinking: Is there a clear vision of what “Amar Shonar Bangladesh” might look like? How do we make Bangladesh into a country of opportunities?
Most importantly, just where do we start and in what direction should the country aim?
When I speak with Bangladeshis or foreigners about Bangladesh and ask them to describe it, those with an opinion use words such as disaster zone, corrupt, untrustworthy, bureaucratic, uneducated, illiterate, backward and poverty stricken.
If we are honest, there is some truth to this perception. But surely that can’t be the “Shonar Bangladesh” that millions of patriotic freedom fighters died for?
When you travel the country and experience everyday life, as it exists for the majority of people in Bangladesh (outside metro Dhaka), another equally true and more magical and beautiful reality exists.
Bangladeshis are possibly the most patriotic people on the planet, first demonstrated before 1971 by those Bangladeshis who were inspired by the love of their language in the war for independence.
According to a recent global study, Bangladeshis are amongst the happiest people in the world. When Bangladeshis go abroad they are incredibly entrepreneurial, best evidenced by the business-savvy Sylhetis who dominate the lucrative curry restaurant industry in the UK, due in part to their incredible hospitality.
There are thousands of examples of world-class professionals from Bangladesh or of Bangladeshi origin who have reached the pinnacle of their respective professions, exemplified by the achievements of Irene Khan, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International, for instance.
Additionally, no one comments on how Bangladeshis regularly overcome natural calamities because of their amazing resilience.
Bangladeshis have also shown how hardworking they can be through the advances of the ready-to-wear garments industry, as well as their innate creativity, evidenced by the beautiful saris and handicrafts sold in shops across the country.
Likewise, through the brilliance of Noble Laureate Professor Yunus, Bangladesh created the microcredit banking business model that, despite some flaws, continues to help millions escape poverty.
On top of this, Bangladesh itself possesses some unique natural beauty like its tea estates in Sylhet, the world’s longest uninterrupted beach at Cox’s bazaar, the tropical beauty of the Sundarbans and the rich tribal cultures that exist within the Chittagong Hill Tracts area.
Lastly, Bangladesh boasts one of the world’s most diverse and sophisticated cuisines, absorbing all of North India’s culinary virtues into our own unique staple cuisine which makes use of over 4000 types of fish, such as hilsa, and our vast array of tropical vegetables, many of which are only grown within the country (for example, Sylhet’s shatkura).
There is no doubt that Bangladesh possesses a split personality and has two sides to her national identity. Despite this, for some reason, it seems that it is the negative aspect that people choose to see. I would contend that it is the second set of values that genuinely articulate the unique features of the Bangladeshi people.
Hence, imagine a Bangladesh that is famous only for these values. Imagine if people around the world thought of these things when they thought of our country.
Imagine, close your eyes and imagine – it is without a doubt one of the most amazing and wonderful countries in the world.
If we could create a country that reflected these values and behaviours, and most critically deliver upon them each and every time, there would be many dramatic benefits to our economy and way of life.
Not only would it inspire a hugely profitable tourism industry, it would also allow many Bangladeshi exports to command a greater premium on the international market.
“Made in Bangladesh” today contains many of the negative stereotypes that I mentioned earlier. But if we could dispose of the negative side of the Bangladeshi coin, then “Made in Bangladesh” suddenly becomes much more desirable.
My frustration lies in that none of these values fall into the realm of fantasy, nor do they require cultivation: tens of millions of Bangladeshis exhibit these traits each and every day.
I was at Doha airport recently and saw the Bangladesh under-13 football team who had participated in an Asian football tournament and were waiting for their flight back to Dhaka. They were the best-behaved people in the entire airport, had joyful smiles on their faces and were a beautiful representation of their nation.
Everybody has a role to play just like these young boys. Every single foreigner I have brought to Bangladesh arrives with negative assumptions and leaves with wonderfully positive memories.
But for perceptions to change, we first have to change ourselves.
Each of us has to consistently behave in a way that reflects the true nature of the country as I believe it to be, to only talk about the wonderful positive stories that happen every day, to celebrate what is good in society and culture. Only then will perceptions change.
If that can happen, I’m convinced that Bangladesh can, in an extremely short period of time, unleash its enormous potential and change its destiny, maybe even within a generation!
Toffael Rashid is a global marketing professional.