As much as I travel, and enjoy travelling around the world, I know that I should document some of the many wonderful experiences I have had.
One that I often tell is my experience at the Sheraton in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2005. One of the poorest countries in the world, you would imagine, but the source of one of my richest experience.
It was my first, and thus far, my only trip to Bangladesh. I was invited to chair the opening session of a global microcredit conference in 2005, featuring such industry luminaries as Mohammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank; Jacque Atali, the former first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and founder of the non-profit PlaNet Finance; the people who run BRAC, the lesser known but no less successful poverty alleviation programme originating from Bangladesh and others who were pioneering the world’s ability to create wealth at the bottom of the pyramid.
The flight from Singapore to Dhaka on Singapore Airlines on 27 November 2005, appeared predictable enough. It was a Sunday evening, I remember clearly. I usually dress in my suit if I am flying on the day before a meeting, and not check in my business wear as luggage, just in case the bags don't arrive at the other end. But this Sunday, I was so relaxed and laid back that I went to the airport in the jeans and T-shirt I was wearing all day, and checked in my suit in the luggage.
I met with several senior bankers and government officials from Sri Lanka and India on the flight. The propensity of the bankers and business people from South Asia to use Singapore Airlines, is very interesting. There are people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh prefer to take the longer flight with a layover in far away Singapore or Dubai, even when they fly between destinations in each other's countries in the Indian sub-continent.
Some because they have children studying in Singapore schools, others to meet their private bankers and yet others just for a day trip to Singapore to shop en route. So it was that the CEO of one of the largest banks in Sri Lanka was on this flight. He was going to the same conference and we struck a conversation that went on until we arrived at the hotel.
It transpired that after the plane landed in Dhaka, not all passengers were to receive their luggage. Interestingly enough, 27 November 2005 was also the one day in the history of Singapore’s Changi Airport that its entire baggage system went haywire because of a systems upgrade they had put in place on the high speed conveyors to transport bags quickly to the latest terminal 3, which had opened recently. So, these things do happen in Singapore as well.
After a long one hour wait, the business class passengers were given, in cash, US$250 by the staff as compensation for delayed baggage, which was promised to arrive on the next available flight. That would be the next day on this one-flight-a-day destination for Singapore Airlines. This of course did not solve my problem as I needed a business suit for the opening session of this global conference the next morning at 8.30am.
The CEO of the Sri Lankan bank waited with me for that hour while we determined that my bag did not arrive. It was a no-stress evening for both us, as we talked shop at the baggage counter and then in the mini-bus we were put on by the organisers to the hotel. He offered to lend me his suit, if I wanted. We surveyed each other’s height and weight and figured it may fit, and I reluctantly accepted his offer if nothing else could be found.
After we checked in at the hotel past midnight, I went over to the concierge to ask if they could help me with my problem. Was there a tailor whom they could call at this time of the night? No. Cost is not the issue. No. Is there a shop in their gallery that I could visit first thing in the morning? No. Is there something in the laundry department that I could borrow. No. All avenues were met with a straight but empty-faced response which made me despair that I was faced with a brick wall.
In my room, I received a call from the CEO of the Sri Lankan bank, which helped me overcome my embarrassment of having to resort to wearing someone else’s clothes. He had checked the agenda for the conference and he was a panellist in the afternoon, so I could use his suit for my role in the opening session and return the suit to him for his afternoon session. This gesture alone was a giant one, and I was going to remember this trip for this kindness from someone who was obviously a wonderful man. But more wonderful things were going to happen to me in this trip.
I returned to my room with his suit, pants and business shirt, tried it on, it fit well, with several obvious tight spots, but was going to help me survive the morning session, as long as I did not do anything theatrical on stage. Just after I called him to say that I will use his suit, the doorbell rang again. A young bell boy was at the door, and he said, “Sir, we will have a suit for you in the morning. What time would you like to have it?” he asked. I said “How about 7am?” without believing anything. He said, “yes sir, no problem,” and I asked him again if he knew what he was talking about. His reply was “yes sir, tomorrow morning 7am.”
The next morning at exactly 7am, the door bell rang. I had showered and opened the door wrapped in a towel. Outside stood two men, one with a full suit – jacket, pants and a white shirt – on a hanger in his hand. “Good morning Mr Daniel,” the well dressed one greeted me, and proceeded to give me his name and introduced himself as the duty manager. “And this is the tailor, please try on the suit and if there is any alterations required, he will do it for you straight away.” I was flabbergasted.
I thanked him, took the suit into my room, tried it on, took it off, and returned just the pants to the waiting tailor outside my room, saying that a small alteration was all that was required on the hemline and the suit fitted perfectly. When the tailor went away to do the alteration, I called the CEO of the Sri Lankan bank and told him about this rescue effort and that he could have his suit back.
When the tailor returned with the small alteration done, I presented a US$20 tip to him. He took a look at the US$20 bill, and the reply he gave me will always reverberate in my mind forever. “It is too much, sir,” were his exact words. In my head, I started screaming, “how in the world is this too much? Do you realise how much you have saved me today? I was ready to BUY an entire suit from you for ten times that price today. If this was the Sheraton New York or London or Paris or any of the wealthiest cities in the world, they would not even begin to feel thanked. This is Bangladesh, the poorest country in the world, and I was being told that that $20 was too much. The humble tailor already looked like a giant in my eyes. But I said nothing to him, except to keep pressing the money into his hand and telling him to go.
I felt good in the borrowed suit. It was double-breasted, which for some reason is tailored well in Bangladesh. I chaired the opening session with distinction. There were about 100 foreign delegates, from what I could see, and more than 2000 representatives of local grassroot organisations in what was obviously the city’s largest auditorium. The opening speeches were predictable enough, but when I opened the question-and-answer session, the hands going up from the grassroot leaders in the audience and the noise of many voices wanting to be heard all at once, turned the session into a huge marketplace.
I was experiencing the full wave of the Bengali’s propensity to debate passionately. The full onslaught of the practical issues around the microfinance business that the recipient villagers themselves wanted to have address, was the most overwhelming and still wonderful conference experience I have ever had.
After the session, I visited some of the exhibitions of micro-finance projects, and at each booth, I was met by enthusiastic leaders of projects who wanted me to know more about work they were leading in the most remote part s of the country. One that particular caught my attention was a woman, obviously well educated, who gave up a very stable senior government job, to go back into university to do an MBA in finance, with the specific goal of starting a “financial literacy” programme for illiterate women in Bangladesh.
She shared with me some of the books she had published, all pictorial guides to teach village women that they should save more than they earn, that their business should generate more income than it costs, that both sides of the balance sheet should balance and so on. Much has been written about the power of women as the foundation of the success of micro-finance programmes, and the role of women as trusted custodians in building rural economies. It stops their husbands from abusing them, their mostly male customers from tricking them and gives them a financial destiny to work towards for their children. It is this simple act of educating the illiterate ones on the very basics of income and expense, using pictures and pluses and minuses, that transforms their lives forever.
This woman, like the tailor at the hotel, was very unassuming and yet obviously very passionate about what she does. She wanted me to know. She did an MBA in finance so that she could teach illiterate women how to manage their finances? Try telling that to the millions of MBA students around the world, who graduate only to make a beeline to the financial institutions of the world to fulfil their sense of purpose.
That evening, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Muhammad Yunus. that giant of the micro-finance world, personally at the speakers dinner. This was a full year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, of course, but I already knew a lot about his work and was fully cognizant of the profound dent he had made into the world’s idea of poor people. His Grameen Bank, today a not-for-profit movement with several billion dollars in assets (including other related businesses), was founded on the simple idea that if you lent money to a group of 5-6 women in a village to start or build on a business, the chances of getting your money back was 99 percent, as opposed to 70-80 percent if you lent to a large corporation.
These groups of women took the money seriously. Not a lot of money, mind you. A $25 loan to a family to purchase a bicycle, resulted in the family’s ability to raise its income 11 times, just by being able to purchase fresh fish from the wholesale market, while reducing the cost of transporting fresh produce by a similar magnitude. The interest on such loans may appear usury, but the cost and the risk of the business is factored in to keep it viable, and benchmarked against the compounded rate the villagers were paying the money lenders. The risk of forever being black listed was a strong deterrent against defaulting.
If this was so compelling a business, then why did the banks not get into it? Well, the reason was right there in Bangladesh. It is so evident in this country, that the banking system is clearly designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor. But because there was this crying need to enfranchise the masses in Bangladesh, that the micro-finance business succeeded like wild fire and eventually became larger than the banks themselves.
So, it was that at this conference, the Bangladeshi bankers attending were agitating for the micro-finance industry to be regulated by the central bank together with the banks, like a bank, which would meant certain death to the industry. The industry itself was lobbying to be regulated under a different mechanism. The government did implement the Microcredit Regulatory Authority Act the following year, based on the issues raised in this very conference.
Muhammad Yunus is not tall but mild mannered and handsome in his traditional Bangladeshi farmers national dress. That meeting, during the speakers dinner in the evening, was a good two years before his Nobel Prize. But even then and to this day, I wondered how he kept and continues to keep his humble demeanour when he had gained such global recognition. He has kept his feet firmly on the ground, given that the franchise he had built was something that required him to be in the villages of Bangladesh while being courted by the kings and queens of the major developed cities of the world. Bill Clinton, Bono, Queen Elizabeth, the United Nations, the anchors in CNN. Every time, Very few leaders I know have that sense of perspective about themselves, and I found this an admirable quality about him.
The conference was thoroughly enjoyable and I took the time out to observe other qualities about Bangladesh and Bangladeshi people. I did notice that indeed the women were much more hardworking, and competent than the men. In fact, the organisation of the conference and the logistics, was world class, and it was heartening to find talent amongst the upper middle class community in Dhaka.
Although my bag arrived on the evening of the first day, and was promptly deposited into my room without fuss, I continued wearing the borrowed double-breasted suit on the second day of the conference as well. I was hosted by some bankers to a dinner in an area of town that had many large bungalow houses, some converted into chic restaurants. Very interesting part of town, given the abject poverty all around it. There was even a Japanese restaurant, for the large numbers of Japanese engineers who come through on projects.
On the morning of the third day, as I was checking out to go to the airport, I hung the suit on a clothes hangar and carried it with me downstairs. I handed it over to the bell boy. Just as he was taking it from my hands, I noticed that the suits that the hotel managers were wearing had exactly the same stripes on them. In fact, they were made from the same heavy material. Why, it dawned on me only then that they had exactly the same suite on, except that the gold-plated Sheraton name badge made theirs look like a uniform. I smiled quietly to myself.
I tipped the ever courteous bell boy well, looking for every excuse to express my gratitude for a memorable experience. But the best was still yet to be. Just as I was getting into the car that was taking me to the airport, the bell boy came running to me, calling out, “Sir, sir.” I waited at the door of the car. As soon as he reached me he held out $150 in crisp US dollar bills. “Sir, you had left this in your jacket pocket,” he said, handing the money over to me.
I took the money and got into the car, completely flabbergasted. I have had some of the most memorable experiences in hotels in exotic places like Capetown in South Africa, Cannes in France, Cusco in Peru and places like that. I have obviously done all the major cities like Tokyo, New York, London and the rest. The deep bouts of human kindness that I experienced in this trip, not once, not twice, but again and again and again, put that trip to Bangladesh, and the Sheraton Dhaka, over and above the best of experiences I have ever had anywhere in the world.
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