By Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times
All rights reserved with The New York Times Company
Syed Babar Ali, a businessman and philanthropist, is two decades older than his country, Pakistan. He has witnessed every turn in its tumultuous history. Now, at 83, he feels he has earned the right to give it a bit of advice.
Mr. Ali is an institution in Pakistan. He has started some of the country’s most successful companies. But perhaps his most important contribution has been his role in creating the Lahore University of Management and Sciences, or L.U.M.S., begun as a business school but now evolved into the approximate equivalent of Harvard University in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s biggest problem, he believes, is one of leadership. A corrosive system of privilege and patronage has eaten away at merit, degrading the fabric of society and making it more difficult for poor people to rise. The growing tendency to see government positions as chances to profit, together with the explosion in the country’s population, has led to a sharp decline in the services that Pakistan’s government offers its people.
“Nobody is bothered about the masses,” Mr. Ali said.
It did not start that way, he says. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s visionary founder, criticized Pakistan’s system of feudal power, in which rich landowners reaped profits from land worked by impoverished peasants, calling the system “vicious” and saying it made the rich “so selfish that it is difficult to reason with them.”
Pakistan was created as a haven for the Muslim minority of the Indian subcontinent, but Mr. Jinnah was adamant that the country should protect all faiths and be a fair society, where the poor, through hard work, could advance themselves.
But 62 years later, many of those ideals seem just as distant. Attempts at dismantling the feudal system were halfhearted, and decades later it is still more or less intact and landowners still form the bulk of the political elite. Other powerful groups that have governed, the military and wealthy industrialists, fared no better.
“You can’t build a country if you’re not thinking beyond your own lifetime,” Mr. Ali said.
Pakistan’s education system has been one of the casualties. Good public education can create opportunity in societies, but in Pakistan it has been underfinanced and ignored, in part because the political class that runs the country does not consume its services. Fewer than 40 percent of children are enrolled in school here, far below the South Asian average of 58 percent. As a result, Pakistan’s literacy rate is a grim 54 percent.
For Mr. Ali, education was the country’s most urgent need, and in 1986 he helped create L.U.M.S. Founded as a business school, it later added a rigorous liberal arts program, one of the strongest in Pakistan. Breaking with the tradition of rote learning, the school encourages its professors, many recruited from abroad, to foster debate in classes, and its graduates tend to be critical thinkers with open minds.
These days the university attracts many offspring of wealthy Pakistanis, who would otherwise have gone to the United States or the United Kingdom for their undergraduate studies.
THAT was the case for Mr. Ali, who was studying at the University of Michigan in 1947, the year Pakistan became a state. He returned to Pakistan in December of that year, ultimately earning his bachelor’s degree from Punjab University in Pakistan, but he kept his ties with the United States. His brother later became Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, and Mr. Ali’s wedding was held in the embassy there — benefits bestowed by a system he now criticizes. The ceremony was attended by Richard M. Nixon, then the vice president, and was photographed for Life magazine.
Back in Pakistan, he began to set up joint ventures with multinational companies, including Tetra Pak of Sweden, Coca-Cola of the United States, Nestlé of Switzerland and Mitsubishi of Japan.
Meanwhile, the country was growing, though its politics remained volatile. A charismatic politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, became president in 1971, appealing to the masses with the slogan “food, clothing and shelter for the poor,” and nationalizing private companies, including four belonging to Mr. Ali’s family. A flawed leader, Mr. Bhutto was deeply threatening to Pakistan’s elite, and was executed in 1979.
“He became a dictator and forgot about the roti, kapra and makaan,” Mr. Ali said, using the Urdu words for Mr. Bhutto’s slogan. Mr. Ali had a brief stint in government during that decade, running a fertilizer plant.
The next decade was one of the country’s darkest, with an American-supported general, Zia ul-Haq, crushing the country’s progressives, giving broad state support to a hard-line form of Islam and rewriting textbooks to offer an ultra-nationalist worldview and a sanitized version of history.
“Zia did more damage than any other leader,” Mr. Ali said. “He sowed the seeds of this fundamentalism that has raised its ugly head.”
As early as 1973, Mr. Ali began thinking that Pakistan needed more graduates with leadership skills. He was studying at Harvard Business School at the time. Pakistan’s growing economy needed managers, and its political class needed creative thinkers. That mission became all the more urgent after the changes brought by General Haq in the 1980s, which were narrowing the worldview of Pakistan’s youth.
Pakistan’s young people, Mr. Ali said, should be “citizens of the world, not narrow-minded or intolerant.”
L.U.M.S. has produced about 4,000 graduates since 1986. Of those, a large number are in graduate programs abroad. Almost all are employed, many with lucrative careers in the West.
While L.U.M.S. is an elite institution, largely inaccessible to most Pakistanis, it does have a program for underprivileged students and is currently offering full scholarships and admissions help to about 250 students, Mr. Ali said.
One hope is that the university will help inculcate a sense of merit and fairness that has all but disappeared from Pakistani society, crippling its growth.
“Merit and fairness are gone,” he said. “The whole system is getting bogged down.”
Admission to L.U.M.S. is strictly on merit, he said, and Pakistanis who try to use connections to get in are turned away.
Mr. Ali notes that Pakistan is still young and needs more time to create a system that places the central value on merit and punishes corruption. In the early 20th century in the United States, he said, powerful robber barons ignored the law and openly flouted authorities.
“It took 200 years for you to clean your system,” Mr. Ali said.
Pakistan may still have a long way to go, but that does not get Mr. Ali down. What is most urgently needed, he said, is “a good leader who will not think of himself first.”
His university gives him some hope.
“One of these people might one day deliver,” he said.