The death of Henry Sy on Jan. 19 was met with lamentations of two very different kinds. First, it was the end of a long and productive life of a man who represented what is often regurgitated as the Filipino dream: work hard enough, and you’ll rise out of poverty and take your family with you. Through the hard work of an enterprising mind, a humble store became an empire of malls and property development, a household name. He himself was said to remain humble and a true family man, even as he had climbed steadily to the ranks of the richest Filipinos since the 2000s.
Labor groups have paid tribute to him in death, with the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines calling his empire a “lasting legacy” through the creation of jobs for thousands of workers. Malacañang recently called him a “visionary” and “a pillar of the Philippine economy.” Many have spoken of him with affection and with admiration, an inspiring figure because his wealth was not the result of privilege but of dedication. A true rags-to-riches story, or in this case, a ten-centavo-to-billion-dollar empire story, isn’t to be sneered at.
On the other side of the coin, mere hours after the announcement of his death, criticism was quick and harsh. Some of the comments were truly crass; one particularly heinous one was “Will there be a sale?” Some quipped: “Can we redistribute his wealth now?” echoing the sentiments of Sy’s critics, who have pointed out that the amassing of his wealth has been accomplished, at some point, through underpaid and contractualized labor, the recent decision to regularize 11,660 workers notwithstanding.
Environmentalists, too, have had their beef with the Henry Sy empire, with several clashes over the uprooting of trees and the razing of land to make way for malls and residential areas. The Anakpawis party-list memorably called him a retail giant with “no regard for human and natural resources.”
In wading through the tributes, criticism and crassness, one comes to recognize that a great deal of the invective is valid criticism, a mark of growing discontent not just with the wealthy but with the system that continues to reinforce massive wealth on one hand and sheer poverty on the other. Sy’s passing, without his intention, has served as fruitful ground to question what it means and what it takes to be capitalist, and whether it is possible to be both wealthy and good.
One may be a generous philanthropist, as Sy was known to be, but surely charity is not a substitute for justice. The inequality between rich and poor has always existed, and in crossing that divide, Sy reinforced it, or at least his empire has continued to do so. Such is the nature of capitalism: he has been lauded for providing jobs to thousands, but the creation of work is an
arrangement which ought to benefit both employer and employee; in this case, many protests have been made that the employer has benefited more, and that poor working conditions, nonoptimal wages and contractual arrangements have been the lot of
SM workers for decades.
Surely he exemplified qualities that all can emulate, like dedication, initiative and an enterprising spirit; by all accounts he was a formidable yet pleasant man. But what I hope for my generation, and for the ones that follow, is that his legacy might teach us other lessons, too, such as the inherent evil of inequality, of belonging to the 1 percent and reinforcing that great divide. I hope that one day we will stop thinking of stories like his as examples of the Filipino dream. I hope that the amassing of great individual wealth will no longer be an aspiration for us, but rather a goal bereft of fairness and meaning. We gain nothing from villainizing a dead man, but would do well to learn from his legacy.
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