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Jul 06

Syed Humayun Kabir: A Monumental Man

When one writes about a monumental personality who shaped the world of commerce and philanthropy in Bangladesh, it is natural to expect that the public would be aware of what the individual has achieved over his lifetime. For Mr. Syed Humayun Kabir, it is a completely different scenario. A person who had always avoided the spotlight, much of Mr. Kabir’s vast achievements and remarkable character traits are left unknown to this generation. 

Today marks the 6th year since he has left us; to celebrate him, his work, and to honor all the good he has left behind in the form of his ideals set in us and the organization dedicated to improving the lives of the most vulnerable, I decided to take on the monumental duty of discovering Mr. Kabir’s life and works. Who better to recollect all that the man was than the individuals who had known him from close quarters.

I sat down with a few of the most prominent personalities of this nation: Professor Rehman Sobhan, Ms. Rokia Afzal, Mr. Manzur Elahi, Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya, Dr. Sarwar Ali, Mr. Muyeed Chowdhury, and many more. Through their recollections, I have attempted to create a portrait of what the man was.

In a discussion with his friends
A man at peace with himself

“It was 1987, I  would regularly drop by at Humayun Bhai’s home, we used to have “addas.” reminisced an ever-eloquent Professor Rehman Sobhan, recounting his time spent with the late Syed Humayun Kabir. “Interesting thing about the “addas” was that he was a person with a wide range of interests. He would read all my books, although he would not always share the same views,  our conversations on the books would always span for several days.”

“Humayun Bhai was a very rare person among the business elite in Bangladesh.” Prof. Rehman remarked, “He did not enjoy going to cocktail parties, so after a long day’s work, and perhaps a round of golf, his only recreation. He’d always be available for conversation for whoever dropped in. I enjoyed these intelligent conversations so much that I thought that here was a perfect format, which could be institutionalized.”

Prof. Rehman continued with a spark in his eyes, “ What we (the nation) needed was civilized, reasoned conversations, where one did not abuse each other but spoke with knowledge and understanding, so my conversations with Humayun Bhai was one of the inspirations in setting up the pioneering Centre For Policy Dialogue (CPD).”

“He’d always be available for conversation for whoever dropped in. I enjoyed these intelligent conversations so much that I thought that here was a perfect format, which could be institutionalized.”

A special moment with his grandson

A family man

To the outside world, much has been left unknown about Mr. Kabir, take the fact that he was a deeply pious man as an example. Mr. Kabir’s unshakable faith undeniably shaped his work “His practice of faith was deep-rooted and not a matter of mere ritual, which is a commonplace” said Prof. Rehman Sobhan.“His belief in a just and more egalitarian society; where people don’t have to face deprivation, eventually inspired him to create the SAJIDA Foundation.” A unique organization that he created as a gift to his wife, Sajida Humayun Kabir on their 25th marriage anniversary.

Distributing relief to the children of plant workers, early 1960’s

The true testament of his contribution to corporate philanthropy in Bangladesh comes from Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya, “He began practicing corporate social responsibility even before there was a theory about it.” Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya continued, “When SAJIDA Foundation reaches out to the far-flung regions of our nation to work for the marginalized population, that is the greatest homage we can pay to the late Mr. Syed Humayun Kabir.” A romantic testament of a man’s faith being practiced in real life to provide safety nets for millions. Dr. Bhattacharya added,“ He was a man who decided to give away his private wealth for the public good.” Is it not the embodiment of all that is good in us?

“He began practicing corporate social responsibility even before there was a theory about it.”

The man was monumental, in his work, in his heart, in his life.

From the founding days of CPD, to his role as the founding Chairman of TIB, as the Chairman and President of MCCI to his immense tenure as the Chairperson for BRAC, Mr. Kabir was the guiding voice that shaped the direction of these pioneering institutions. Dr. Sarwar Ali, sheds light on a lesser-known fact about Mr. Kabir’s life, “Bangladesh was a small market for Pfizer, but still, because of his personality and his immense knowledge, Pfizer’s top officials would often consult him for advice. So, in the world empire of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Syed Humayun Kabir is a shining name.”

Mr. Kabir delivering his speech at an MCCI event
With BRAC board members

“So, in the world empire of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Syed Humayun Kabir is a shining name.”

“He was a great man, a family man.” Prof. Rehman added. The phrase “great man” has lost its essence, the tendency to throw out this accolade to anyone and everyone has become a norm in this age of social media and advertisement, where none misses the slightest opportunity to gloat in their own glory. Perhaps Mr. Rehman Sobhan aptly describes in two words all that Syed Humayun Kabir was, “A Saint…”. In her interview, Ms. Rokia Afzal recalls the night when her first grandchild was born. “This one memory has been etched in my mind forever. That night, Humayun Bhai sat in a staircase of the hospital and prayed till dawn.”

Mr. Kabir and Prof. Rehman Sobhan sharing a precious moment

Although massive in his physique, this immense human being glowed with an aura of warmth, love, and empathy. In every interview I had conducted, be it with Ms. Rokia Afzal or Professor Rehman Sobhan, Mr. Muyeed Chowdhury, or Mr. Manzur Elahi, when reminiscing about Mr. Kabir, their faces would immediately radiate with a glow of happiness, albeit overshadowing the traces of unmistakable sorrows. The sadness of losing an incredible role model, a dear friend, a brother, a tree that provided shade to any who sought so.

“A role model for budding entrepreneurs”

Mr. Kabir would often say,“ We have to understand poverty, we have to be transparent in everything we do”. Is it not an example that we should all strive to follow? We, the younger generation, have missed out; missed out on getting to know this man, a man who is described by Mr. Manzur Elahi as “a role model for budding entrepreneurs”, a thoughtful, soul. Salute to you Sir, as a member of our SAJIDA Family once said “He has taken his leave from our eyes, but he lives in our soul.”

The author Samayel Shahid, is an Executive of SAJIDA Foundation’s Communication Team.

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