“The Poor Are More Honest Than the Rich” —Washington SyCip
At SGV, my role was to provide leadership for the firm and for the nation. When I retired I realized there was quite a lot of things that needed to be done to alleviate poverty.
We had 8,000 students in the Yolanda area who were affected by the typhoon. They were all on a loan basis. My initial reaction was to cancel the loan, but the head [of the company] said no, don’t cancel the loan. He said, the poor are more honest than the rich. That’s something you and I both have to learn. All the loans to the 8,000 students have been repaid.
What I learned is really not to give but to lend—for example, for the head of the family to borrow money for a bicycle to take [family members] to school. The whole principle is the obligation to pay back, it should be something they honor. I’d like to see 100 percent literacy rate [before I die]. Everyone has to be given a chance to read and write.
My father was a banker. He was sent by missionaries to the US to study law, and he came back and practiced law and eventually became a banker. At the time there were very few banks. So the Japanese, when they came to Manila, wanted him to head up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. He didn’t feel like doing this under the Japanese, so he got locked up in Bilibid.
So at some point you have to make a decision, what do you do? I decided to join the military. But the military at that time was the infantry, and after three months, I was interviewed, and [they found that] I had the highest IQ store in the regiment. So the person interviewing me said, what are you doing in the infantry? He took me out and put me in Intelligence, to be able to know what the Japanese were doing. So I was put into studying Japanese and from there to Intelligence, to see how we can break the Japanese code. Let’s say the Japanese will be sent to bomb Bangkok, if you can break the message in time and send fighters to intervene, then it’s fine. In many cases, the messages were simple, like “we have a person with malaria in the unit.” But then you know the Japanese have a weakness in that unit. It’s a case where you get to know their problems, their weaknesses.
I had a very sad week. I was invited to go to the US to receive an award from the [Rockefeller-founded] International House in New York. After I accepted the invitation, I received the news that David Rockefeller had died. He was such a part of my life that I was hoping he might be there when they gave me the award. But I arrived in time for the funeral services.
My father always said, you must know the people here. So I went to Burgos Elementary, all five of us kids, then Mapa High School. Now the question is, should I have followed my father’s policy? If I had to do my life over again, I would do their schooling entirely here. So that their friends will be their lifelong associates. I sent them abroad mainly because I wanted them to know how to make their own beds.
When I was starting SGV, I took a look at the large accounting firms at the time. The foreign firms were British and American, and the officers were all puti. No Filipinos. The Filipino firms were building up the firms for their children who were still in high school. I went to the schools and said, I’m starting a firm that is a complete meritocracy. You do not require money, just brains.
No SyCip can enter the firm. Whoever the best person is will go up. When I had my children, I told them, don’t even apply, you’ll be rejected. That part has kept the best people in the firm. We have 109 partners, and no SyCips.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines.