03 November 2023Back
'What I am, my conscience, my wealth, everything is given to me by the society'
In an interview with The Business Standard, Muhammed Aziz Khan, Chairman of Summit Group, spoke about his background and about the human conscience that drives him to help others
From the 12th floor of the Summit Centre in Kawran Bazar, you get a beautiful view of Dhaka city. The sound of traffic is almost inaudible from here, but occasionally, you can hear the whistle of a train.
Chairman of Summit Group, Muhammed Aziz Khan greeted us in his room at this very floor for an interview. Dark mahogany furniture glimmered under a soft, beige light. An original painting by Rabindranath Tagore donned one of the cream-coloured walls.
This year in September, he was named the 41st richest man in Singapore. Yet he spoke humbly about his background, his student days in Armanitola Government High School and Notre Dame College. He later went on to complete his MBA from Dhaka University's IBA.
His eyes lit up as he spoke about his family – his wife, three daughters and five grandchildren, all of whom inspire him every day to do better.
Aziz Khan established Summit in 1985 and today, Summit Group holds more than 20 businesses in power, ports, fibre optics and real estate sectors. Bangladesh's first independent power plant – Khulna Power Company Limited – was set up by Summit in 1998.
In fact, Summit Power International (SPI) is the largest independent power producer in the country, holding 19% of Bangladesh's total privately installed capacity.
The country's first private off-dock port facility was also established by Summit – Summit Alliance Ports handles about 25% of the country's export volume and about 7% of import volume.
However, beyond his business persona, Muhammed Aziz Khan is a philanthropist who has contributed to causes in education, social welfare and healthcare for decades. He is also an art collector and an avid fan of Rabindranath Tagore.
The Trustees of the Anjuman and Aziz Charitable Trust (AACT), Mrs. and Mr Muhammed Aziz Khan, Dr Hanns Kendel, and Dr Christian Prokopp, meet with UNICEF Executive Director Ms. Catherine Russell, UNICEF Director of Private Fundraising and Partnerships Ms. Carla Haddad Mardini, UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh Mr. Sheldon Yett and the Chair of UNICEF International Council Ms Maria Ahlström-Bondestam to mark the launch of AACT-UNICEF partnership in Copenhagen. © UNICEF/UN0722708/Brown
The Anjuman (his wife's name) and Aziz Charitable Trust (AACT) is known for engaging in various philanthropic activities, notably helping children who were forced to drop out of school during the pandemic.
A partnership between the trust and Unicef's Ability Based Accelerated Learning (ABAL) programme supports 3,000 out of school children in 67 learning centres in Dhaka South City Corporation.
The plight of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore during Covid-19 did not go unnoticed by Aziz Khan and he provided them with financial support. The Singaporean Prime Minister's Office recognised his contribution by giving him 'The Public Service Medal (Covid-19)' on 26 October, 2023.
During the interview with The Business Standard, the successful entrepreneur and a renowned figure in Bangladesh's business arena spoke about the human conscience, which drives him to help others and why he believes in these words from Tagore's famous novel Shesher Kobita: Tomare ja diyechinu shey tomari daan, grohon korecho joto rini toto korecho amay (what I give to you is but your gift, the more you accept the more indebted I am) when it comes to supporting those in need.
Please tell us a bit about your childhood: where you grew up, your parents, schooling etc. Can you share a few anecdotes from your younger days, which may have influenced the philanthropic decisions later in your life?
The motivation comes from humanity, human consciousness and especially the Bangali race as a whole because we are the world's largest delta, we are very giving and supportive of each other. From the Indus Valley civilisation till date, we have shown what supporting each other is.
Aziz Khan visited UNICEF's Ability Based Accelerated Learning Centre (ABAL) located in Kamrangirchar earlier this August, 2023. ©UNICEF Bangladesh/2023/Himu
I grew up with five brothers and our house was always filled with relatives coming from the village. Some would come to study in Dhaka and stay at our place. So, I have grown up sharing, like all Bangladeshis.
Even today, the biggest motivation for me is the social safety net that Bangladesh has: you look after your parents, your grandparents, your relatives, people from your village etc.
This is not the case in Europe or the US or even Japan, where human beings do not look after each other, the state does.
My schoolmates in Armanitola Government High School came from different backgrounds: some were rich, some were poor, but we had a wonderful time growing up together.
When I was in Notre Dame College, my friends and I would volunteer to support poor people. All these created a lasting consciousness of trying to help humanity as a whole.
During the pandemic, you financially helped out Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, for which the Prime Minister's Office Singapore has awarded you the Public Service Medal (Covid-19). You and your wife, Anjuman Aziz Khan, have been nominated as the first Bangladeshis as Unicef's International Council Member for supporting out of school children after the pandemic. How do you view these recognitions?
Who does not like appreciation? But what also matters is who is appreciating.
Aziz Khan enjoying the activities with the children of Prothom Alor Char Alor Pathshala in 2011 at Kurigram.
Alfred Nobel is not known for the dynamite he made, but the prize that he established. So, I am really happy about these recognitions.
As for Unicef, among all the UN agencies, I think, in terms of what it does, it is the best, supporting children. In Bangladesh, as you know, the Meena cartoon made a huge impact on women's education.
Why do I support Unicef? Because it has changed the world, women's education, children's education and now, they are coming up with projects on reducing child marriages.
It has been a great honour and pleasure to be able to support. And they have supported me by making me their International Council Member. I am very happy that I can represent Bangladesh.
You became the founder Chairman of Prothom Alo Trust in 2012. For 12 years, Summit Group has been fully funding seven schools under Alor Pathshala in hard-to-reach areas across the country. Since 2023, AACT has also been substantially contributing to teaching 1,350 students. Summit has also supported Jaago Foundation's Internet based schools. How do you think helping underprivileged children with access to education affects our country's economy, and future?
Country's future and economy is a large question, I would be afraid to answer it. But we have a thought, if not a philosophy. Summit generates electricity, almost more than 10% of the country's electricity, we provide more than 60% of telecommunication, and 22% of the country's exports through our ports.
The children of SEID Trust came bearing with their hand made gifts for Aziz Khan along with Dilara Mitu, Executive Director, SEID Trust in December, 2022.
So, in each of the business sectors, whoever is in business or the economic field, Summit provides infrastructure for their development, hopefully.
But for marginalised people, those who are in the char (riverine islands) areas and cannot get formal education or those who are not in business and our reach does not support them, we try to help them.
While talking to Mr Matiur Rahman, the editor of Prothom Alo, I mentioned to him that we could make a Trust, which people would trust [because of their trust in Prothom Alo] and through this Trust, we could support many people.
My thought was how to support the most underprivileged and we found char areas at that time in Kurigram, and that is how Alor Pathshala started. I am happy that we have continued to support the Trust although I have left the chairmanship. Our very good friend and colleague, Rupali Chowdhury of Berger Paints Bangladesh Ltd, is currently the chairman.
The excellent work of Jaago in using web-based learning for 4,000 poorer students all over Bangladesh is perhaps a model of education in the future. Summit is committed to eradicate poverty and thus is privileged to support Jaago's internet based schools.
I am the past, but children are the future. It is a huge attempt to make sure the world becomes a better place and continues to be a better place for them.
For 14 years, Summit has been supporting SEID (Society for Education and Inclusion of the Disabled) Trust to provide a daycare-cum-school service for children and adolescents with neuro-development disabilities (NDD) in Kamrangirchar. Artworks by SEID's children have won prize money from the Office of the Honourable Prime Minister 13 times. How do you feel when you see these children do better in life, or when they are valued more than their disabilities?
I have seen firsthand the pain of children with NDD. Once, in Mirpur, I saw a child tied to a furniture piece with a chain, with bread and water left on the ground. The parents could not stay and look after the child, they had to go to work.
SEID Trust continues to look after them and create a humane living condition for them. It gives me great satisfaction to see the children do better but it also saddens me to see how meagre facilities we have to help them.
Here I must mention that the plight of people with autism has been brought to our attention by Saima Wazed, daughter of the honourable Prime Minister. She has helped raise awareness on this issue.
I am glad to be able to support SEID Trust but I hope one day, we won't have to support anyone. They will all be well established.
Summit Group also helps children at Shurer Dhara (singer Rezwana Choudhury Bannya's institution) under the Music for Development programme. These children receive books, stationery, medical health checkups, mental health services and much more. What made you or rather, inspired you, to extend your help to this particular area?
Music is like the medicine for the mind, it is also like the philosophies of the world. Shurer Dhara is primarily focused on Tagore's songs, and these are philosophies. These children were not getting the opportunity to study these philosophies. I was excited when Shadhinata Padak recipient Prof Dr Rezwana Choudhury Bannya approached me to support the Music for Development (MfD) programme for very poor children with extraordinary musical abilities.
The financial support was needed because otherwise the poor parents would not send their children for musical education. I am very happy that this programme has come about.
Finally, how important is it to give back to society? Should it be a conscious decision, or should it stem simply from, say, religious belief?
You don't give back to society, you receive from society. For all that matters, what I am, my conscience, my wealth, my health, each and everything is given to me by the society in some form or another – whether by my parents, my teachers, or from being born in Bangladesh, witnessing the Liberation War, or perhaps seeing the near famine in 1974.
Aziz Khan has been acknowledged for his continued support for Shurer Dhara by the-then Honorable Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith and prominent Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya in April, 2018.
It is a natural process, it is not something forced and, in my opinion, everybody is giving. Teachers are giving something by teaching, even businesses are giving; a garment owner is employing so many people and we may be thinking s/he is giving less salary to the workers, but he is giving something at least.