Washington Sycip adds real depth to the phrase “a man of the world.” Our planet has changed at a faster pace than ever before in his lifetime. The IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) population counter at the fascinating Rice Museum in Los Baños says that during the last 86 years, which is how long Sycip’s been around, the population of this planet has increased 230 percent to nearly 6.5 billion people. Here, indeed, is not only a man who has been privileged to see vast changes at incredible speeds, but a man whom the world has been privileged to embrace at many levels.
He recalls catching a jeepney in the days when Makati land was for sale at P6 per square metre; and it was a ride through rice fields and open country to the Polo Club, today hemmed in entirely by the vastness of Manila’s urban sprawl that stretches for 35 miles from north to south. “Wash” to his colleagues and friends, Sycip is physically a small man; but once he gets into conversation, it dawns on you that here is a true mountain of a man. Unassuming and unabashed, full of punch lines and as bright as a button, he stands tall on the deck of many important issues.
All of 60 years ago he pioneered what was to become the most respected accounting and consultancy firm in the Philippines, SGV & Co, at one time engaged by some 65 of the top 100 companies in the Philippines. In 1968 he assisted in the founding of the Asian Institute of Management, which specialises in advanced courses in finance and marketing, and to this day this diminutive figure is highly respected Asia-wide. In fact, he is known by influential people worldwide, and is no stranger to awards from Europe, the Americas and Asia, which are continuously bestowed on him like flowing water, recognising his high standards, valued insights, professional expertise, international understanding and superb intellect.
These are values, among others, that he deliberately nurtures and encourages in all those that surround him. His success has been founded on a strong belief in a business system of opportunity and progress based on the recognition of talent gained purely through merit, hard work and dedication to produce the best results available for all clients, as well as to support valued colleagues.
Born of Chinese parents, educated in a government school in Manila, sent to New York for further studies at Columbia University, he decoded complicated Japanese messages in India during World War II, snapped up for his language talents and razor-sharp mind, by the Second Philippine Regiment of the US Army.
Returning to his beloved Philippines at the end of the war, he took what he saw as “the best from the West” in business practices, and quickly adapted these methods and improved them definitively for the Asian business arena.
He soon established professional links with local firms in countries around the region. His business acumen was recognised by many, and over the years Asians, Americans and Europeans were quick to key in to the valued resources he laid at their fingertips. He began to stand at the helm of critical development trends in business practices that became a boon to his Philippines, rubbed off on South-East Asia and have been absorbed beyond boundaries.
He is not shy to talk about his country’s shortcomings. He painfully recognises the debilitating influences of corruption that can drag down and ensnare rising business talent in a country where the vast majority of the people are honest, hard-working and incredibly warm-hearted and hospitable. He is adamant that without full stomachs, it is impossible to build fruitful and productive democracy, pointing out that this democracy must not be born of the West, but must grow from within the country with its own people.
He believes that the future strength of the Philippines will grow out of the eradication of poverty, investment in teacher education, improvement in health care for everyone and the provision of housing for the less privileged in the burgeoning urban areas.
Sycip is not impressed with the high political election spending which he sees as a clear waste of good money. Here he points to the absurdity of using the word “democracy” in a country that uses “vote-buying” as a way to the top. He condones the evidence of a rising middle class who, he hopes, will completely dilute the semifeudal political system. Here again he has the vision of a country run by those who have gained their authority through a defined system of merit. After all it is a system he pioneered in the business world.
Sycip is enthusiastic about the rising evidence and business success of microfinancing projects. He sees the inevitable quashing of the 5/6 system in the country where a person might have to pay 1000 percent interest over one year for cash loans. “Nobody can get out of debt, let alone out of poverty, based on such a system,” he insists.
Population growth is a delicate subject in a Catholic country, where the birth rate is impressively above all other countries in Asia. But even on this subject Sycip is vocal. He questions the availability of family planning where the choice is between many children supported by a small income and fewer children with greater income for improved education. He backs it up with his pet association with the Irish model of proven success. He met the Irish Prime Minister in 2005, and was impressed with the fact that in Ireland the business groups, politicians, church and labour leaders agreed on national objectives. As a result, investments increased, per capita income surged past that of other European countries, and this growth has been sustained. Irish people from abroad are returning to feed on this prosperity.
It is typical of Sycip to take the best of what he sees from around the world. Overseas Filipinos might well remit billions of US dollars each year, but he hopes to see them return to apply their expertise in their home country. His strongest war cry is for “National Unity.” He knows that this will nurture prosperity, productivity, economic strength and a fair and honest lifestyle for the people, who will then be privileged to embrace a new era of peace and order.
He is encouraged by the current state of the nation, which shows signs of strength and economic growth. He looks forward to the day when the country achieves its deserved National Unity—a unity based on talent gained purely through merit, hard work and dedication, to produce the best results available for the people of the nation. After all, Sycip pioneered such a system in the business world, and it worked!
Photography by Tom Epperson