The ‘Bookkeeper’ on the Armed Forces
In my lifetime, I have never seen so many full-page tributes to a single individual, particularly one from the private sector. The common thread that runs through all dwells on the wisdom, integrity, passion for excellence, and genuine caring for others of Washington Z. SyCip, founder of the SGV Group and chairman emeritus of the Asian Institute of Management. Although I had a few private moments with him, I would not say that we were personal friends. He was an icon in the business community. Our paths rarely crossed.
In a biography written by Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., SyCip refers to himself as “only a bookkeeper.” Seeing his tiny and frail figure in photos covering his many public appearances, the thought that crossed my mind — borrowing a phrase of self-description by Gen. Carlos P. Romulo — is that of “a dime among nickels.”
Some years ago, Wash SyCip was the guest speaker at the annual general membership meeting of the Philippine Military Academy Alumni Association. The golden jubilee Class 1960 was the host for the event held at the Manila Hotel.
After brief remarks thanking the host class for its kind invitation, SyCip went on to say, “You may regret having me with you today.” He then proceeded to outline his short stint in the US military.
“I was working on my dissertation in the Columbia University Library on the day when Pearl Harbor and Clark Air Base were bombed by the Japanese. To be more involved in the war effort, I enlisted in the army and after completing three months of basic training, we were all interviewed. Since I had the advantage of a better academic background and the highest IQ score in the regiment, I was told that the military was short of people for intelligence work. I was quickly transferred for eight months to a Japanese language school, then to cryptography school in Virginia. Eventually, I found myself in an air force unit in India working on Japanese air force codes in the China-Burma-India theater.
“So, here I am, a former staff sergeant, having the privilege of addressing the top officers of the Philippine Armed Forces.”
Let me digress a bit. SyCip’s work in cryptography during World War II reminded me of the successful breaking of Japanese war codes that brought about the death of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the brilliant commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet. On April 19, 1943, Yamamoto took off to inspect naval air bases in Bougainville, New Guinea. Through the work of allied cryptoanalysts, Yamamoto’s exact flight plan was known and P-38s from Guadalcanal intercepted his plane. The famed admiral, who had been the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and was probably Japan’s most brilliant naval officer, died in the flaming crash of his bomber, a victim of US fighter planes waiting in ambush.
SyCip’s talk was more in the form of questions concerning PMA practices and traditions, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) leadership. Allow me to dwell on just two issues.
On the PMA. He noted that all members are identified by being a member of the class with which they graduate. His observation was that “while the identification by graduation class may promote cohesiveness, is this divisive relative to the whole organization? Does this prevent the rapid promotion of younger, more talented people of later classes?”
Perhaps the system is a reflection of a greater weakness. We have a weak sense of nationhood. We still think in terms of tribes and regions. And this is true all the way to the top as can be gleaned by many presidential appointments going to college schoolmates, fraternity brothers, and even dormitory roommates. This has been the standard for all administrations not just the present one. Oftentimes, we sacrifice greater talent and competence for comfort, comfort in the company of familiar and friendly faces.
SyCip also asked, “Is it proper for key government officials to be members (honorary) of a particular class?” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is an honorary member of PMA Class 1978, and her last AFP chief of staff was Gen. Delfin Bangit, who belonged to the same class. President Duterte is a member of PMA Class 1967. A number of presidential candidates in the last elections were honorary members of different classes. One could almost predict who would occupy the top posts in the AFP by early identification with the winning candidate.
It is time to stop the practice of having honorary members for PMA classes, whether they come from government or the private sector. If any particular class wishes to honor certain individuals whom it admires, it can do so with testimonial functions and include them in class activities or gatherings. The present chair of the PMA Alumni Association, Gen. Melchor
Rosales, has informed me that the practice of honorary membership has been suspended. It is hoped that final resolution will settle the matter permanently.
On the AFP leadership. SyCip noted, “We who are in the private sector wonder about the rapid changes in the military leadership. In the private sector, we will not have CEOs with one or two-year terms if we want reforms or proper planning for the future. Is it possible to carry out reforms in an organization as large as the Armed Forces when there is such rapid change in the leadership?”
I have stated it so often. We need fixed terms for the AFP chief of staff and the major service commanders to provide stability and greater certainty in carrying out future plans and programs. Marawi has shown that no one was looking beyond the horizon and preparing for what has happened. We thought and planned in terms of jungle warfare and what we have on our hands is an urban house-to-house conflict that we were unprepared for. Why should any AFP chief of staff plan for anything different when his term covers such a short period, just long enough to prepare for retirement?
One last word. After my columns on the “revolving door” practice covering the AFP leadership, I received a call from SyCip’s office, inviting me for dinner. I thought it would be a gathering of mutual friends from the business community or the military. It turned out to be just the two of us at a Makati restaurant. I shall always treasure his kind words. This was a person who genuinely cared for his people, and the country he loved even more.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.