Saturday, September 05, 2009

RIP M Saifur Rahman

The country's longest serving finance minister M Saifur Rahman who steered the Bangladesh economy toward a free market path and presided over series of economic reforms died yesterday in a car crash.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s(BNP) one of the worthy politicians was travelling to the capital when his car spun out of control after the driver tried to skirt a cow on the busy Dhaka-Sylhet highway.

Instead, it fell into a five-feet deep ditch with the 77-year-old leader tied up under a seat belt. Local people rescued the ailing leader unconscious but he was declared dead as his body was rushed to Brahmanbaria Sadar Hospital at 3.00pm. He apparently failed to untie his seat belt as he was already in ill health due to prostrate cancer.

The United States lauded the late leader's "critical role in improving the lives and bringing prosperity to millions of Bangladeshis by opening Bangladesh's economy and promoting free market reforms".

A professional chartered accountant who completed his higher study in London, Saifur Rahman was hurled in politics by the late president Ziaur Rahman during the crucial rebuilding period of the nation in late 1970s.

Mr. Rahman was a partner of the famed accountancy firm Rahman Rahman Haque KPMG and placed 12 national budgets during his three separate tenures at the helm of the finance ministry.

A BNP standing committee member, he served president Zia as an adviser and then served his cabinet first as commerce and later as finance minister.

After Zia's death, he served as finance minister in justice Abdus Sattar and to Khaleda Zia, who was prime minister when BNP returned to power between 1991-96 and again between 2001-06.

His reforms during his first tenure under Khaleda Zia are widely credited with putting the country on the free market path and stabilising the country's macro economic health in the ensuing decades.

The country's percentage of poverty dropped to below 40 per cent in 2006 from a staggering 59 per cent in 1991, thanks in large part to the market economy he championed.

According to ex finance adviser Mirza Azizul Islam, "The reforms he initiated during his time as finance minister led the country towards higher growth path. He brought down inflation, fiscal deficit and stabilised macro economy. The country is still reaping the benefits of his economic reforms. If his policies are continued, I am sure the growth will be accelerated further."

Mr Rahman was the first to introduce VAT (value added tax) in Bangladesh in 1992 as part of expanding the tax net and orchestrated major banking reform in early 1990s.

He sought to divest all four state-owned banks including the largest Sonali Bank and privatized scores of loss making state-owned enterprises that have been a big drag on the government’s expenditure.

A deft economic policy planner, Mr Saifur Rahman was elected to parliament for four times, serving both Sylhet and his Moulvibazar constituencies.

Mr. Rahman was born in Bahar Mordon village of Moulvibazar district in 1932 to an illustrious Muslim family.

He joined politics in the early 1950s when as a vice president of Salimullah Muslim Hall he took part in the Language Movement of 1952, for which he was awarded the prestigious Ekushey Padak in 2005.

After graduating from Dhaka Univeristy in 1953, he moved to the United Kingdom to pursue higher studies in accountancy and qualified as a Chartered Accountatnt in 1958.

In his colourful career, Mr. Rahman served scores of local and international organisations, including the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh (ICAB), the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA) and Bangladesh Jatishangha Samiti.

He presided over the golden jubilee conference of the World Bank and IMF as elected governor in 1994 held at the Spanish capital of Madrid.

Although I have always been the first one to criticise the Bangladeshi politicians, the contributions of Saifur Rahman to Bangladeshi economy cannot be ignored. I am deeply saddened by the loss of the architect of Bangladesh’s financial reform and pray that he is granted paradise.