THE Protestant work ethic fuelled industrialisation in Europe and the USA in the nineteenth-century while the Confucian work ethic powered Japan's entry into the elite club of the rich and economically dominant nations in the early twentieth-century. The same work ethic catapulted the economies of many East and South East Asian countries like China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand in the recent past.
Many Indians also speak about an Indian work ethic that has given this massive South-Asian country a near double digit growth rate. What about Bangladesh in this scenario of growth and prosperity? Do we have a work ethic worthy enough to help us reach the goal of uplifting the nation to a middle-income country?
Bengalis were once viewed as idle, uneducated, and lacking in entrepreneurship skills. They were thought to be at best capable of working as clerks and farmers. This colonial attitude was in wide circulation during the days of permanent settlement in East Bengal, when the few lucky zamindars spent their time in exploiting the labour of the peasants and acting as sycophants of the empire.
Forgotten were the days, in earlier centuries, when Bengalis were engaged in trade and commerce, the weaving industry produced muslin, a fabric that earned fame throughout the world. Also suppressed was the fact that Bengal was affluent, where people worked hard and were content with what they produced on the land and netted from their ponds and rivers. Fish and rice were in abundance because the people were industrious and followed the right ethic that left them happy at the end of the day.
Following the independence of Bangladesh, Bengalis for the very first time got real opportunities in all sectors to work hard and prosper in whatever activities they were engaged in. There were newer openings in business and commerce, politics, civil service and the professions. After nearly forty years of freedom we can now be proud indeed of the achievements, particularly in the private sector, in spite of widespread corruption that began to spread out after the assassination of Bangabandhu and the subsequent extra-constitutional usurping of state power.
There is indeed a Bengali work ethic that creates real hope among us for the country's prosperity. At the turn of the twentieth century, men who jumped ship in London taught Bengalis at home how hard work could, over the years, bring fortune. Eventually thousands of their relatives, close and distant, settled in London in a big way and bought Brick Lane from its Jewish owners.
It makes us all proud to watch the achievements of Bengalis in the UK who have come up to their present level because of determination, hard work, and loyalty to their family and community.
Today, about 80,000 Bengalis work in New York City alone, proving that they are capable of doing their very best in order to prosper. In other cities of the USA, you hear the same stories of Bengalis working hard and succeeding in their vocations and professions. Think also of the hundreds of thousands of wage-earning Bengalis sweating it out in the Persian Gulf countries. Their contribution has helped our Forex reserve to shoot up in a way that has never happened before.
In whichever country Bengalis were employed, they earned recognition for their honesty, determination and hard work. They abided by the law of those lands and brightened the image of Bangladesh.
Back home, consider the resilience of our common people, who have always turned around after every natural calamity! They have never given up their fight to make life better through sheer determination and the ability to face any kind of challenge. Let us also not forget the thousands of girls who work more than eight hours a day, sometimes without a break at the weekends, to make our garments industry flourish even in these days of stagflation in the developed countries.
If we look at our contemporary entrepreneurs, no amount of praise is sufficient for what they have done to our economy over the last twenty years. I personally know at least five top-ranking industrialists who began with virtually nothing. Today, they are among the first fifty investors and employers in the country because of their unwavering faith in success. They have reached the zenith again through hard work, honesty, and belief in their own capacity to bring about a change.
I must also speak about many of my students, friends and relatives who are now placed at the highest tiers in administration. They have gone up by virtue of their innate sense of integrity and honesty, and the attendant commitment to make it to the top.
The Bengali work ethic can thus be defined as a belief system that provides the energy to work hard, remain honest, adapt when required, be resilient in times of disaster, relate to the family and community and envision a prosperous future for the entire nation.
Golam Sarwar Chowdhury is Professor of English at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).