“I am the master of my fate.”
Vice-Chancellor and President
Orientation Fall 2022
2 October 2022
Students, guests, and colleagues, good afternoon and welcome to Brac University.
This is the 11th time that I speak in our orientation. This is the biggest orientation gathering ever in Brac University’s history.
Last summer, there were 3,500 prospective students applying to study in Brac University. This summer, in your cohort, we received 9,000 applications. Every one of you here today has passed the stiff competition to become a Brac University student. Congratulations!
But before I go on, I am going to play a brief piece of music.
<Play O Fortuna by Carl Orff> Song link: https://youtu.be/lh1kOyvBcLg
This piece of music I just played is called ‘O Fortuna,’ meaning ‘O Fate.’ Its lyrics are based on an 800-year-old manuscript, which expresses sorrow of the fate of individuals – being uncertain, unpredictable and changeable. In fact, we may find such kind of lyrics, poems, or novels in any civilization since the beginning of history.
Today, we know more about life and the world than we did 800 years ago. Any yet, fundamentally, not much has changed. Physically and philosophically, at an individual level, there are still full of uncertainty and unpredictability. The small-scale world seems random. And ‘fate’ plays a role, as lamented by the lyrics of O Fortuna. So even if we set a goal, it may still be subject to the play of fate. So we pray for good luck.
Paradoxically, things happening at a big-picture level are actually less uncertain, less random, and more predictable. They can be more understood and predicted. So we can manage a goal at a country level, regardless of individuals’ luck.
In the last two and a half years during the pandemic, like in O Fortuna, I have emphasized on the nature of uncertainty and unpredictability of life’s journey, and on how to navigate it. I have urged our students to find your calling and, if possible, to follow it through.
Today, we are at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic. So I’d like to talk about something different – something beyond individuals, something bigger, something less uncertain and more predictable. In particular, I am going to talk about the Three Big Pictures about Bangladesh.
Big Picture #1: Economy
Everyone knows that Bangladesh has an objective to become a developed nation by the year of 2041.
First, let’s do the math.
Assume that to become a developed nation, the average income per person per year has to reach at least US$10,000. Now Bangladesh’s income per person per year is about US$2,000. So to get there, an average Bangladeshi will have to earn five times as much as he or she does today.
Is it possible? If yes, what should be do? It is clear that we should not depend on fate or good luck.
Next, let’s do economics.
What makes an economy grow? What can a country like Bangladesh grow five times as big as it is today 20 years from now?
Answer: there are three most important factors -- money, technology, and people. It’s based on the Solow’s growth model. Robert Solow is a Nobel laureate and an economics professor at MIT.
Did the model work? Yes. It did well on the US and European economies. And yes, it did well on the Eastern Asian economies after WW2, starting from Japan, then the Four Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), and later China.
To grow their economies, they all have something in common. For Money, they borrow initially. For Technology, they buy or copy initially and even currently. For People, ah, this is the key ingredient. They get their people from their quality education. So they have all the three factors in place – money, technology and people. And their economies take off.
Economists have called their economic performances miracles. But, there are no miracles. There are no good lucks. There are only commitment and hard work. And there is a macroeconomic model that makes sense.
There is one more factor -- that’s the market. Initially, Japan and the Four Tigers use America as their markets. Later, China uses America and the rest of world as its market.
Lastly, let’s go back to the math.
Is it possible that Bangladeshi economy 20 years later can be five times as big as it is today?
Perhaps it’ll be easier to understand with a case. I met a Mr. Wang in China over 10 years ago. He moved from his hometown to the city of Shenzhen to work for a company assembling iPhones for Apple. He used to make less than US$100 a month in today’s value, in his hometown. Immediately after he got the iPhone assembly job, he made US$500 a month in today’s value. That is a five-time increase in income almost overnight. Mr. Wang today makes about US$2,000 a month. His income has increased more than 20 times in slightly over 10 years.
The company that Mr. Wang works for is a Taiwanese company that employs a total of 1.3 million workers in China. There may be 1.3 million stories similar to that of Mr. Wang.
So, if we can duplicate a journey similar to that of Mr. Wang for Bangladeshis, then it may be possible that Bangladeshi economy can grow five times in 20 years.
However, there is a challenge. Remember the three factors for economic growth: Money – we can borrow, so no problem; Technology – we can copy, so no problem; but People – I’m not sure. Our education system has not delivered what East Asian countries’ education did when they were at our economic state. Unless, starting from now on, we put education at the top of the national agenda. I shall come back to it later.
Although today, Bangladesh enjoys a 7-8% growth, thanks to the garment industry. But there is no assurance that we will be able to continue at such a pace. What can Bangladesh offer besides the garment industry? What can Bangladesh offer after the garment industry leaves Bangladesh?
Big Picture #2: Social Mobility
Since I came to Dhaka three years ago, I have been eager to meet those who rise from poverty to become a business owner, a professor, an engineer, a lawyer, or a medical doctor. How many have I found in the last three years? Answer: Almost none. Perhaps I have not met enough people. But statistically speaking, there is no difference from zero.
Based on World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Report for 2020, Bangladesh ranks at the bottom 5% in the world. Low social mobility means -- the possibility that the son or daughter of a rickshaw puller can become a banker or lawyer is small; the possibility that the son or daughter of a fisherman can become a professor or a doctor is hard to realize; and the possibility that the son or daughter from a slum can become a scientist or an astronaut is impossible to dream.
It’s a strong consensus in social sciences and among educators that education is one of the most important factors that can improve social mobility. In this sense, it may take some time for education in Bangladesh to go.
I grew up in a slum-like place in Taiwan. I did not have a desk for study until I was in high school. Several families had to share the same toilet. To get a basket of fresh water, my brother and I must queue for hours to fetch it from the only well in the area.
Many years later, when I worked for a multinational management consulting firm, I traveled frequently around the world. When I went back to Taiwan, instead of staying in a hotel, I would stay in my parents’ place. The company’s driver would come to pick me up at the airport and take me to my parents’ place and vice versa. My father was a serious person. One morning, he told me, “Whatever you do, you must abide by the law.” It’s hard for him to imagine what business I was doing around the world.
My mother was a proud person. In my early 40s, when my company suggested and sponsored me to study my second PhD with a full-scale salary, my mother never shared the news with her friends or relatives. “Because no one would believe me,” she told me. It’s also difficult for her to believe.
What changed? Education changed me. And I was not a sole case. Education changed many sons and daughters from the bottom of the society of my generation. Education worked. And perhaps it worked better than any social programs.
Big Picture #3: Education
On my first day at Brac University, I was asked to write the ‘Message from the Vice-Chancellor’ to be published on our website. It took me 30 minutes. This morning I read it again on our website. I will not change a single word.
Basically what I said are: We, Brac University and the entire Bangladesh’s higher education, are behind the world in standards. We need to close the gap. We require the commitment of the entire community of stakeholders. This is not an easy journey, and we shall take the first step now.
In a country of 165 million people, our best universities are not visible on the map of the world’s higher education. And our best private universities are not even qualified to be ranked globally by some standards. I don’t know how you feel. I do not feel proud.
A good university is an indication of a country’s global competitiveness. And a good university shall be the source of national pride.
I used to teach at Peking University (or Beijing University); most Chinese people think Peking University is bigger than China. My English friends have told me that although England may be in decline, they are proud that Oxford and Cambridge are still going strong.
As a source of nation’s pride, Bangladesh’s universities may still have a long way to go.
Three years ago upon my arrival in Dhaka, I proposed the vision and mission and the three pillars for the next milestones to define Brac University 2.0. The purpose was simple and clear. The existence of Brac University shall be nothing but for the nation’s needs, for global competitiveness, and for lasting forever.
Let me summarize. First of all, education is a key factor for economic development. We can borrow money, copy technology, but we must develop our own people through quality education. Furthermore, education is a key diver for social mobility. Education is an effective instrument for improving social mobility, perhaps more effective and long-lasting than any social program. Lastly, education is a source of national pride. A business may come and go, a dynasty may rise and fall, but a university may last forever.
Global Top 100 by 2041
Bangladesh aims to become a developed nation by 2041. This is a great economic aspiration. I would like to suggest an additional goal for 2041 that is educational:
‘To have at least one Bangladeshi university among the Global Top 100 by 2041.’
Is this possible? Yes. I have seen it. There is a Korean university reaching Global Top 100 in 30 years. There is a Hong Kong university reaching Global Top 100 in 20 years. And there is the school that I jump-started in China. Two of its degree programs are ranked Asia’s #1 and Global Top 20, in just 15 years. They have never prayed for good luck. They have never just talked. There have been only strategy, commitment, investments, and actions.
So, I urge all stakeholders of this country -- Put education at the top of the national agenda. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t be just a critic. Don’t just talk. Be in the arena, roll up your sleeves, take actions, punch, get punched, and by 2041 stand tall as a Global Top 100.
“I am the master of my fate”
Many people, myself included, may shed tears while listening to O Fortuna and comprehending its lyrics. But the world as a whole is unmoved by tears. To take Bangladesh forward, we cannot count on luck or fate. Only our commitments and actions can help us.
I have attempted to reconcile the dichotomy between an individual’s seeming randomness of luck and a country’s apparent predictability of its future. I have found enlightenment of reconciliation from a William Ernest Henley’s poem named ‘Invictus’ that Nelson Mandela often recited during his 27 years of imprisonment. The poem ends with:
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
On that, welcome to Brac University, where you may learn to master your fate and the fate of the country.