Washington SyCip kept long hours in his office, not so much to work as to pursue his vision for the nation’s economic emancipation. In a series of interviews back in 2009, he talked to Asian Dragon’s Linda C. Limpe and Lito Gutierrez about his passions — education and governance.

Photographs by Wig Tysmans

Business luminary Washington SyCip

Slumped in a chair, Washington SyCip apparently did not mind being fussed over by Asian Dragon publisher Olivia Limpe-Aw who was prepping him for the interview photos. It was

past six in the evening and he had been in his office, receiving a steady stream of visitors, since 6:30 in the morning. He seemed tired; at 86, he should be tired. In fact, as most people his age, he should not have been in the office at all. But here he was, in his 14th-floor office at the SGV Building on Ayala Ave., his white tailored barong as crisp as when he put it on that morning.

To get the conversation rolling we threw him a softball. How, we asked, do you keep yourself healthy? He stirred and in slow motion reminiscent of the character Yoda in the classic Star Wars movies, he straightened himself up from his hunch, turned his face to look up at Olive and with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that lit up his porcelain-smooth face said, “You have to treat ladies well.”

Thus did we begin our talk with one of the smartest men the Philippines has ever begotten. It must be the genes; while Washington Sycip is considered the father of modern Philippine accounting, his father Albino is regarded the patriarch of modern Philippine banking.

Washington SyCip: Democracy will never work where there is widespread poverty

Wash, as he is fondly called with no small measure of affection by friends and acquaintances, founded the accounting firm now just known by its initials, SGV (for Sycip, Gorres & Velayo), arguably the top accounting and management consulting firm in the Philippines. Early on he had decided none of his offspring would be employed at the firm. “To ensure meritocracy,” he told us towards the end of our conversation. It was, to him, the only way to preclude any perception of favoritism that only the best is good enough to work for SGV. He felt a cloud of doubt would hang over any child of his in the employ of the firm.

Before we scheduled this interview, Olive and I had mulled over the relevance of having a piece on Washington Sycip. He may be an intellectual monolith of his generation, but what could he say that would be of relevance to these troubled times.

A lot, we would learn, as our talk progressed.

On a side table in his office, among his collection of miniature turtles (for long life), owls (for wisdom) and assorted other artifacts (including an animated stainless-steel tree), were photographs of world leaders, including popes, president and prime ministers, whose hands he has shaken. A few, such as Ronald Reagan, have passed on; others, including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, are still very much around. Altogether the pictures indicate that Sycip has had the privilege of having a front seat in the theater of world history. Indeed particularly in the Philippines where he is legend, he is part of history.

Given such a perspective, we thus wanted to know his thoughts of why the Philippines is in such seemingly dire straits now, where the country is going, and what it would take to get it out of the rut.

“You may not agree with what I will say,” he began his discourse. “But the two reasons why the country is where it is now are democracy and Christianity.” These twin “handicaps,” as he put it, were at the root of the country’s problems.

Feisty as ever, he said “democracy will never work where poverty is as deep-seated and widespread as it is in the Philippines. “Look at the Asian tigers — Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong,” he continued. Each of these countries was governed by iron-fisted dictators who enforced economic discipline often at the expense of civil rights and liberties.

Don Albino Sycip and his sons in Fortne

“Look at them today,” Sycip pointed out, democracy is slowly taking root in these societies because their people are no longer hungry. “Democracy came naturally,” he said.

As for Christianity, he takes the Catholic Church to task for its “narrow-minded” antipopulation control policy. He points out that the country’s economic resources cannot cope with the exploding population.

So, we asked, was he saying that the country needs another dictator? We reminded him that a certain Ilocano president tried that already and many people would say that it was his regime that pushed the country over the precipice.

He sighed. “No,” he said. “We don’t need martial law. What we need is education.” He was appalled, he said, at the drop-out rate in schools in the poor rural areas, particularly in Mindanao, where only three out of 10 pupils manage to finish grade school.

Indeed, this late in his life, he has taken up education as his singular mission. He said that he used to just give out scholarships. Not anymore. He said he was disappointed to learn many of his scholars left for jobs overseas after finishing school.

Indeed, this late in his life, he has taken up education as his singular mission. He said that he used to just give out scholarships. Not anymore. He said he was disappointed to learn many of his scholars left for jobs overseas after finishing school.

Instead he has taken a more active role in a foundation, called Synergeia, of which he is a trustee. Synergeia in its website defines himself as “an organization that seeks to transform basic education in collaboration with local governments, parents, and the private sector.”

To make sure that he is not just wasting time attending the foundation’s board meetings, he visits remote villages in Mindanao where the foundation is making substantial progress in raising the educational standards particularly in the primary schools.

“We don’t give them any money,” Sycip said. What they do is to get everybody in the community involved, starting with the political leadership. Major educational institutions in the area share their resources. Notre Dame in General Santos City, for instance, sent teachers thrice a week. The local soft drinks distributors also did their bit, using their trucks to bring donated books to the schools along with the beverages they distributed to the stores.

“There are so many things you can do,” Sycip gushed, “it’s unbelievable.”

Now in its third year, the program has raised the literacy rate in these towns. “Now eight out of 10 finish elementary school,” he said with obvious pride.

For Sycip, democracy in the Philippines is just for the upper classes. The challenge is to raise the people’s standard of living and the only way to do that is through learning. “When we are better educated, we can make a better living. If you had a better living, you wouldn’t have to sell your votes,” he said.

Washington was probably named for Washington D.C. When he was born, his father, banker and lawyer Albino Sycip (Wikipedia lists him as the dean of Philippine banking), was at the US fighting a law that had been passed by the colonial administration outlawing the use of the Chinese language in bookkeeping and accounting. It was a violation of human rights, Albino argued. And the US government agreed with him.

Washington had two elder brothers, David, and Alexander, and two younger sisters, Elizabeth and Paz. They grew up in Sta. Mesa and attended the local elementary public school, Burgos. Washington was a driven student, finishing grade school in five years and secondary school at V. Mapa High School as valedictorian. This was a time when Philippine public schools were on par with such private schools as the Ateneo. He got an accounting scholarship at the University of the Philippines, but would later move to the University of Santo Tomas, whose business school was run by a prominent American business professor, Stanley Prescott. By taking extra courses every semester and going to school every summer, he got his accounting degree in two and half years, with a summa cum laude to boot.

SyCip with wife Anna and children

Upon graduation and while taking the accounting board exams, he was asked to teach a senior accounting class. “On the first day of classes, I was so shocked to discover that, at 19 years old, I was the youngest person in the room,” he recalls.

After passing the board, he got another shock. He needed to be at least 21 to get a license to practice. Dismayed, he left for Columbia University in the US for post-graduate studies. It was while he was at the university library that he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, triggering the Second World War in the Pacific. After learning that his father had been imprisoned by the Japanese, he enlisted in the US Army.

During the interview, the military recruiters noted his excellent scholastic record and asked if he might be interested in learning Japanese so he could be a code breaker. Washington took the offer, automatically became a U.S. citizen, and was assigned to Calcutta, India, to work in a joint US-British covert operation. The job was to intercept and decipher Japanese Air Force radio messages in and around Burma. Staff Sergeant Sycip had to sign a confidentiality contract and promise not to travel anywhere near enemy territory. He is, he says with a sheepish smile, probably the only Filipino to have spent the war years in what was considered a cushy job.

He left the army soon after the war ended and left for home. Manila, however, was a heap of rubble. “There were no buildings left standing on Dewey (now Roxas) Blvd. I had to ask a friend to escort me to Sta. Mesa,” he recalls, because there were no longer landmarks.

When his father asked him what he had intended to do, Washington said he had a job offer in the States. His father, who was rebuilding China Bank, replied, “There is much to be done here.”

“He did not ask me to stay,” Washington recalls, “but that one sentence made me realize the great need for everyone to involve themselves in reconstruction. I decided to stay and start my accounting practice.”

“He did not ask me to stay,” Washington recalls, “but that one sentence made me realize the great need for everyone to involve themselves in reconstruction. I decided to stay and start my accounting practice.”

With former U.S. President Bill Clinton

 

 

He set up shop in Binondo. “I hung my shingle at the Trade and Commerce building, one of the very few miraculously left standing. I had a desk and the secretary had a smaller one. I was both the senior partner and the janitor,” he says.

Eventually he would partner with two other prominent accountants to form SGV. Previously, most multinationals hired European and American accounting firms. But SGV steadily earned a reputation for integrity and reliability and before long, it had a number of multinationals among its clients.

Washington Sycip has always had a panoramic and, to a fair degree, altruistic view of his profession. To him, every accountant or auditor in a developing country must do his or her share to contribute towards the improvement of the economy.

“Business people have to make sure that their wealth will cause a ripple effect, benefits should trickle down to the people who have less,” he says.

“The world is changing fast,” he says. “The poor must be given a fighting chance to improve their situation. I urge everyone who can, to help educate the poor, not in the form of building schools, but more in the form of teacher training. We need more well-trained teachers especially in the provincial areas.”

It is perhaps through this that Washington has found the secret to longevity: to have a sense of purpose and the strength of conviction to fill what others may feel is a gaping, insurmountable need.

SyCip died on Saturday, October 7, while on a Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight to Vancouver.

This story was originally published in Asian Dragon’s March-May 2009 issue.

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