A call to be real Filipinos
Washington SyCip was an American citizen. His critics in local business and political circles — and he had his fair share — liked to point out that the boardroom guru used a “blue passport” whenever he traveled.
And they emphasized this fact, while rolling their eyes, whenever “Wash” dished out words of wisdom about how a company should be run or how political leaders should behave.
“What’s his business telling us Filipinos what to do? He’s an American!” was the common refrain of those on the receiving end of his sometimes unsolicited advice.
Indeed, not everyone followed Wash’s advice — he espoused, for example, adherence to good corporate governance or putting the interests of minority shareholders above those of the majority — because it was simply too difficult to follow.
But everyone came to hear him speak, to hear him urge big corporations to put the broader interests of the Philippine economy ahead of their bottom lines, or government officials to be more consistent with their policies.
Whether they were inclined to nod in agreement or shake their heads once away from his presence, everyone listened to what he had to say.
He was the quintessential sage whose coveted advice was highly sought by tycoons, captains of industry and even presidents — often difficult advice that could be implemented only with political will, or not followed at great cost to the recipient of his insights.
Of course, not everyone in the local business community thought this management icon was a saint. For one, the man who founded SyCip Gorres Velayo & Co. — then “the biggest accounting firm west of the Mississippi,” as its old partners loved to point out — was known to take sides whenever business issues were brought before him.
After all, his was a rare job of mediating between warring tycoons, but more to give the best counsel to the one who was close to him, or to the one who hired him for his penetrating and far-reaching acumen.
He took sides, especially when the issue at hand involved a taipan who was a business partner against another one who was not. He took sides when he tried to deflect the harsh spotlight from a troubled financial institution (whose owners he was related to by affinity) and to redirect the focus of the media on another.
He took sides.
But the most important side Washington SyCip took — more important than those of his business relations — was the side of the Philippines.
He never tired of advocating for the Philippines whenever he was overseas or speaking before foreign investors, many of whom looked to him for a clearer grasp of the Philippine situation.
He was not naive, and not oblivious of the country’s problems, but he was a tireless advocate of its economic potential.
Well into his retirement — if one could call a regimen of regular speaking engagements and public appearances that — Wash constantly pushed for the country to be a better version of itself, often using the levers he was most comfortable with: the key players in the business sector.
In this sense, his life was a beacon and a call for all of us to be better Filipinos amid the divisiveness of our time. We can take sides. We can be partisan in the color of our politics. We can call each other names and be as mean to each other as we want where the affairs of the state are concerned.
But at the end of the day, we must remember to make the heroic effort of rising above our differences to put the welfare of the Philippines first. That is what this man’s life story tells us.
So, yes, he may have been an American citizen and was in fact using his US passport on that fateful night he passed away in a plane somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, en route to Vancouver, Canada.
But in the way he lived a life that spanned 96 years, in his thoughts, words and deeds, and in his heart, Washington SyCip was 100-percent Filipino.
We who often take for granted the blessings of being born in this country should aspire to be as Filipino as he was.
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