Catching up with visiting chair of the ISAS management board, Dr Gopinath Pillai, on his penultimate day in Dhaka.
A visiting delegation of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies – a powerhouse of research in its field – has served notice that Bangladesh is in their crosshairs for top-notch analysis and insight.
Gopinath Pillai, ambassador-at-large for the Singapore government, and chair of the management board of ISAS, spoke of how ISAS is pursuing possible avenues of cooperation with local think-tanks and other learned institutes, for an anticipated widening of its focus on Bangladesh, during a reception hosted by Cosmos Group Managing Director Enayetullah Khan.
Yet this timely and potentially noteworthy initiative could not have seen the light of day, were it not for the man who has acted as the driving force behind the sterling reputation ISAS has earnt in a relatively short period of time – a man we recently lamented on these pages as perhaps the very last of Bangladesh’s dying breed of scholar-diplomats.
He is none other than the adviser on foreign affairs, in effect the foreign minister, to Bangladesh’s last caretaker government in 2007-8, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury. Since wrapping up that last assignment in service to his nation, Dr Chowdhury has kept busy imparting the same knack for excellence to ISAS, as its principal research fellow.
According to Ambassador Pillai, their interest is rooted in Bangladesh’s remarkably consistent growth story over the last decade-and-a-half, that has averaged in excess of 6 percent. It rose a tad over 7 percent in the last fiscal (2015-16), before being slated to hit “a very impressive 8 percent” as the ambassador puts it, quoting the government’s projection.
“The purpose of ISAS, as the name suggests, is to study South Asia,” Mr Pillai says, measuring his words carefully. “Till now a very substantial part of our attention has been on India. We have got something on Sri Lanka as well. Now we have done some research on Bangladesh, and the purpose of our visit has been to have a deeper look at what can be done“
“As we go forward, we will do some special programs, probably a collaborative effort with local think-tanks,” reveals the ambassador-at-large, who actually started his career as a journalist, at one stage serving as SE Asia correspondent for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based journal.
Although the growth of the economy remains “the most attractive topic”, the focus of any ISAS research on Bangladesh would of course be narrower, delving into aspects such as intra-regional trade, the Bangladeshi perspective on issues outside its region (such as Asean), and even on the India-China relationship that ISAS is keen to promote.
So the present government in Dhaka’s very delicate balancing of ties with New Delhi and Beijing would seem to have caught the attention of experts such as Mr Pillai. Dhaka Courier has already advocated a Bangladesh foreign policy built around bridging the gap between the two Asian behemoths. It may sound far-fetched, but the genial ISAS chair confirms he can see a role for Bangladesh “as an interlocutor”, before qualifying it by adding “to an extent”.
The problem as Amb. Pillai sees it, is that countries grow apart, as India and China have done, on the strength and intensity of ‘fundamental differences’, leading to issues that prove beyond the reach of any interlocutor to resolve. That is when they must be left to their own devices, for only they can then forge the way to peace.
When he launches into an anecdote from his days as ambassador to Pakistan, it emerges how even the great Lee Kuan Yew, the revered founder of the modern Singaporean state, refused to take on the India-Pakistan conflict in the role of an interlocutor, when asked by then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during a visit to Islamabad.
Putting a hand up in resignation to signal his intent, LKY, as he was affectionately known, simply told the late Ms Bhutto that he was ‘unqualified’ for the enormity of the task, and excused himself on tha simple pretext. What forced the formidably brilliant Singaporean leader to balk, could not possibly hold much hope for success for too many others.
The conversation does turn to the city-state that Lee helmed, on its journey from a rejected confederation with Malaysia that lasted just two years, to one that now boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. Bereft of the natural resources (even water, famously) that abound in its neighbouring states of Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore today is home to an estimated 5.8 million people whose per capita income places them firmly above any other Asian country, and in the very top bracket of world league tables. Surely there are lessons here to be learnt for any country striving to bring prosperity to its people, let alone Bangladesh?
With endearing humility, the silver-haired leader of the ISAS delegation asks a colleague in mock self-deprecation “From us ordinary people?”
The brand of humour is revealing of a man secure in his own skin, and before he starts his answer, he drives home the importance of accounting for the characteristics unique to each country’s situation, as well as a general discomfort with ‘models’, particularly the one-size-fits-all kind. He then proceeds to provide an almost forensic analysis of how Singapore over the years arrived at its famed meritocracy, that yet leaves room for those at the lower rungs. Over time, they too can compete and even thrive – perhaps making use of an extensive vocational education stream – in a society that values order as much as it prizes excellence, and forges ahead on the strength of a very human endeavour.