Interview: M Allama Siddiki
We aim to expand the market for Bangladeshi products in Australia
M Allama Siddiki, Bangladesh's high commissioner to Australia, is a career diplomat of the BCS foreign cadre 10th batch. He has served in various posts at the Bangladesh missions in London, Islamabad, Kolkata and Tokyo. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo in Sydney, he talks about Asia-Pacific geopolitics and relations between Bangladesh and Australia.
The Asia Pacific Regional Peace Conference was recently held in Sydney. A high-powered delegation joined from Bangladesh too. What was the objective of the event?
The Asia and Pacific regional construct that is being formed began in the eighties. It was then known as the Asia Pacific Economic Community. Over the past decade, outside of trade and economic cooperation, it has been taking on political dimensions as well. The area of cooperation is expanding. Bangladesh is also invited to the joint naval exercise initiated by the four Quad members -- the US, India, Japan and Australia. Bangladesh's geopolitical significance became even clearer at these conferences. The member countries are also on alert so that any authoritarianism is not established in the region.
How far will Bangladesh be able to benefit from this conference or coalition?
Bangladesh is a very connected country, internationally. It is a country with a multilateral mindset. There is democracy here, that is, the practice of multidimensional views. People of various religions and cultures live in Bangladesh. The emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country was in the same process. It is clearer now as to what we want in the Indo-Pacific, how we want to see the Indo-Pacific. In February this year the government declared its Indo-Pacific Outlook. This was praised by all countries. Bangladesh wants free and open trade to be ensured. It does not want this free trade to be obstructed by any power or superpower. If we can become self-reliant, then Bangladesh will benefit more from such coalitions.
Australia was the first among developed countries to recognise Bangladesh as an independent country. That was in January 1972. But it is said that bilateral relations with Australia haven't flourished in the manner that such relations have with other countries that recognised Bangladesh later.
Bangladesh's relations with Australia have flourished considerably. Australia is an economically developed country, rather isolated geographically from other regions of the world. They like to live peaceful lives. In the past, Australia had less connectivity with Bangladesh and other countries. They gradually opened up and their relations with Asian countries are strengthening. Australia's foreign policy now is not the same as it was in the nineties.
In recent times large numbers of Bangladeshi students have been going to Australia to study. Why is this?
The education sector is a large source of revenue for Australia. There are at least eight universities among all the universities in Australia that are unquestionably of top international standard. Even the other universities maintain a good standard. Australia encourages students to come from abroad to study there.
Students from our country go to various countries to study. In view of the number of our students studying abroad, Australia is still not their main destination. Last week I visited four universities of Australia along with a few officials of the high commission. We asked the officials of these educational institutions to pay more attention to Bangladesh. There are over 40,000 Bangladeshi students in Malaysia. If they came to Australia, they would get a comparatively higher standard of education. Most of the students here can become permanent residents and get jobs here.
These students and the expatriates here send remittance back home to Bangladesh.
The remittance sent to Bangladesh from expatriates in Australia is not much. It could be around 115 million dollars a year. There are around 100,000 Bangladeshis in Australia, mostly living here along with their families. Their relatives in Bangladesh are mostly financially stable and are hardly dependent on remittance.
But Australia plays a significant role in long-term human resource development, determining a future for educated Bangladeshis. I appeal to the Bangladeshis who have settled in Australia permanently, not to forget Bangladesh. When they join the mainstream here in Australia, they can reach out to extend their assistance to Bangladesh from their respective positions. I hope they play a positive role in Bangladesh's trade and commerce, investment and culture.
How does the high commission address the problems of the Bangladeshis here and help them use their potential?
It is a good thing that given the process by which Bangladeshis come to Australia, they do not have to face too many problems. There are no Bangladeshis coming here illegally. There are almost no lesser educated Bangladeshis here. Almost all the Bangladeshis living in Australia are qualified. It is almost impossible to find Bangladeshis here who are unable to pay their house rent, or are being dragged away by the police, face accidents while working in a factory and so on. There may be a few isolated accidents here and there. Secondly, there are no unemployed Bangladeshis here. Everyone is more or less doing well here.
There are complaints that expatriate Bangladeshis face problems in availing services from the high commission or the consulate office.
That is not true. The expatriates would have problems in getting their National ID cards. Even when they went to Bangladesh, they had to face all sort of problems to get an NID and it would take inordinately long. So we appealed in writing to the Bangladesh government so that they could get the NID through the high commission, just like they can get their passports. The government has taken that into cognizance and hopefully that service will be provided from next year.
We also recommended that the Bangladeshis here get the same facilities as the second, third generations of Bangladeshis in the US who get Bangladeshi passports too.
Recently a report was published in Prothom Alo that a ring was resorting to all sorts of fraud in the name of Australia working visa. Did you receive any specific allegations in this regard?
Yes, I did. We informed the concerned authorities of the government about the matter in writing. When anyone goes outside Bangladesh as a worker legally, he has to get a BMET card from the government's Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training. This recognised the persons as a worker. When the card is being issued, his visa is checked through the high commission of the concerned country. So if there is any fraud involved, he will be apprised of this by the government.
How can the scope be increased for Bangladeshi workers to come to Australia?
If a citizen of any country has the skill and efficiency, and meets the visa requirements, then it is easy to get an Australian visa through the immigration process. The government really has nothing to do here. The Australian immigration department has drawn up a policy from way back to meet its shortfall in various skills. As a result, skilled professionals do not need any extra assistance from the government. And we are trying to increase the scope for the lesser skilled professions. But our unskilled population is the problem. Almost none of the technical training institutions in Bangladesh have the capacity to meet the standard of skills required in Australia. We must pay more attention to this area.
Is there scope to increase bilateral ties between the two countries?
Bilateral trade is increasing between Australia and Bangladesh. The Australian is the ninth or tenth export market for Bangladesh. We are similarly the 32nd trade partner. While Australia is a relatively new trade partner for Bangladesh, it is playing an important role in garment imports. Our exports have gone up by 42 per cent compared to how it was in 2021. In the readymade garment sector, Bangladesh exports products of around 10 million to 12 million dollars. We have captured 12 per cent of their market. Our objective is to increase this to 20 per cent. Trade is such a matter that businesses will go on their own accord to where they can buy products at lower prices. We would take part in a trade fair in Australia before. We could take part in two trade fairs here this year. A total of 22 companies under government and private management took part in the Sydney fair. We hope that around 32 firms will join the event in Melbourne.
We can import products from Australia too. This includes coal, wool, wheat, liquefied natural gas, etc. We will be able to get many quality products in this manner. It will take a shorter time to import goods from Australia than from the US or Europe and it will cost less too. Bangladesh will stand to gain. And because Australia is surrounded by sea, there is no fear of any outbreak or war which would hamper trade.
Thank you too.