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Washington SyCip Remembrance Remarks by George SyCip

US Philippines Society
Celebrating the Remarkable Life of Washington Z. SyCip
Remarks by George SyCip
June 26, 2018, 6:30 PM
Philippine Embassy Annex, 2nd Level
1617 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming on this very pleasant evening to celebrate the truly remarkable life of my father, Washington Z. SyCip.

Thank you also to the US Philippine Society, Ambassador John Maisto, Hank Hendrickson, Lucille Ferraren and Joyce Javillonar for arranging this event and especially for procuring the delicious chicharon. And, Hank, thank you for keeping us on track. I notice that we are precisely 3 minutes ahead of schedule and my father would have been very pleased with that, as he always kept his watch 3 minutes ahead of time.

Ambassador Babe Romualdez; Ambassador John Negroponte; Mr. Hank Greenberg, who my father called the smartest man on Wall Street; Mr. Itos Cruz, who very ably carries on the SGV Legacy; Professor Erwin Tiongson; Professor William Wise; and even though he may no longer be a professor, he will always be my professor, Mark Fuller… I thank you all for your warm and insightful remarks about my father and the country he always called home, the Philippines.

From your remarks, I appreciate even more the remarkable and multi-faceted life that my father lived. This evening, for my part, I would just like to explore 4 facets of his life, which were particularly meaningful to my life and still are.

The first facet is his lifelong love of Learning and his belief in the power of Education.

It is quite fitting that this Philippine Embassy Annex and the Philippine Embassy itself are just across the street from the statue of Daniel Webster. You might be interested to know that Daniel Webster actually shares a link with at least three US Philippine Society Board Members: Ambassador Richard Murphy, Ambassador John Negroponte, and myself. We all went to the same high school in New Hampshire, called Phillips Exeter Academy, except that Daniel Webster was there about 200 years before us.

Daniel Webster is regarded by many as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators, because of his soaring rhetoric and fierce defense of the Constitution. He also defended the Union, which, throughout much of its first century of growing pains, was in real danger of becoming a Disunion. Daniel Webster also became Secretary of State, and was the only Secretary of State to serve under 3 US Presidents (Harrison, Tyler & Fillmore).

While Daniel Webster lived two centuries ago, I bring him up because I think his parents, like my parents, and my parents’ parents’ believed in Education and must have made a lot of personal sacrifices for his education. I understand Webster’s home was about 60 miles north of Exeter, and 200 years ago, 60 miles was not that close. Perhaps it required a journey of several days – not unlike my first trip to Exeter in the 1970s. More importantly, in those agrarian days of the 1700s, his parents, Ebeneezer and Abigail Webster, probably had to pay for his tuition, room and board, in hard-earned, hard currency as opposed to in agricultural produce… much like my father struggled to do throughout my academic years, and those of my brother and sister, in the US, when obtaining foreign exchange in the Philippines was not that easy, not to mention the fact that he was still building up the SGV Group’s network of firms, which undoubtedly required a lot of retained earnings for training, business development, facilities and equipment.

To understand my father’s passion for Learning and Education, I hope you will indulge me as I go back 3 generations to the turn of the 20th Century.

My grandfather, Albino Zarate SyCip, was sent by my great grandfather, Jose Zarate SyCip, in the early 1900’s, to a high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Why Michigan? According to my father, in those days discrimination against the Chinese was heaviest on both coasts. Chinese were despised, not only for being different, but more so for taking away jobs. By the 1870s, for example, a quarter of all wagepaying jobs in California were held by Chinese, and they had a tendency to accept lower wages. The complaints, specifically against the Chinese, resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

From a Chinaman’s perspective, though, there was much to admire in the US of the 19th and 20th centuries. America’s foreign policy towards China and later the Philippines was actually relatively benign compared to the other foreign powers; and, American Missionaries and Educators both in China and the Philippines also seemed to be truly concerned about the people’s welfare. In fact, my great grandfather, Bao XianChang, who helped to raise my father until he was 6 years old, got his start in the printing business by working as a typesetter for the Presbyterian Church in China. In 1897, great grandfather Bao went on to co-found the Shanghai Commercial Printing Press, also known as The Commercial Press. In a few decades, the Commercial Press became the largest printing press outside of the US. Among other things, it printed close to 70% of all textbooks in China and almost all of the foreign language dictionaries. As a toddler in Shanghai during the 1920s, my father was chauffeured by my great grandfather Bao around the 80 acres of factories, warehouses, and dormitories that The Commercial Press occupied.

In 1926, The Commercial Press established The Oriental Library in Shanghai, considered the most beautiful library in the Far East. Grandfather Bao probably also allowed his precocious 5-year old grandson to tag along on his visits to the Oriental Library, with its 510,000 volumes of books and ancient manuscripts, many of them priceless. Sadly, the Oriental Library was bombed and then torched in January 1932 when the Japanese invaded Shanghai, almost 10 years before Pearl Harbor.

During the first 3 decades of the 20th Century, the Philippines probably fared considerably better than China. After 1898, the Americans sent waves of Educators over. A big wave of 500 teachers arrived in 1901 on the US Army Transport Ship Thomas. These teachers became known as the Thomasites. Many more teachers were to follow. The Thomasites transformed the Philippines into the 3rd largest English speaking country in the world and were the precursors to today’s US Peace Corps Volunteers. These teachers certainly contributed to the respect and the affinity that Filipinos — and the growing population of Chinese that lived in the Philippines — felt for America.

With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty palpable by the early 1900s, my great grandparents on both sides believed that the future lay in getting to know the American Way. Hence, my grandfather, Albino SyCip, was sent on the long journey to Ann Arbor. My grandmother-to-be, Helen Bao VongLing, although starting her journey far to the north in Shanghai, landed not too far away in Oberlin, Ohio.

After Ann Arbor high school, my grandfather was able to matriculate in the University of Michigan. Originally, my grandfather was supposed to become a doctor, but, as my father tells it, after he went to the morgue and saw some cadavers, he couldn’t stomach it — perhaps literally as well as figuratively. He decided to become a lawyer instead. Grandfather Albino excelled in Law School and made it on to the Editorial Board of the Michigan Law Review. In fact, he was the only non-American on that Editorial Board, which listed him as “Albino Z. Sycip, China”, although he was actually born in the Philippines.

There is an important footnote to this. My father credits a good part of my grandfather’s success and also his own success at networking to some of the people who were on that same masthead of the Michigan Law Review. I would just like to mention, George M. Humphrey, who had also gone through University of Michigan for undergraduate and graduate studies with my grandfather. They remained lifelong friends. After Law School, Mr. Humphrey went into the mining and steel industries. He eventually became Chairman of the National Steel Corporation; but, more importantly for my father and grandfather, in the 1950s, he also chaired The Business Council under the US Department of Commerce and served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As my grandfather rebuilt his bank and my father built his accounting practice during those post-War years, George Humphrey was undoubtedly helpful at opening a few doors.

Going back now to the early 1900s, which really set the stage for my father a half century later, my grandfather, armed with a Law Degree from a prestigious US university, was able to go back to the US Territory of the Philippines and set up a successful law practice. As mentioned in today’s program brochure, he successfully argued the infamous Chinese Bookkeepers case, which was essential in laying the foundation for the commercial success of the Chinese community in the Philippines. As Professor Tiongson informed us, that is also how my father got his name, Washington. My father was ever grateful that my grandfather was not in Kalamazoo, Michigan or Buffalo, New York at the time!

As the Chinese community in the Philippines prospered, thanks in part to the work of my grandfather, their savings also grew, as did their need for banking services. After winning the Chinese Bookkeepers case, the Chinese community leaders thought it was time to set up a bank to cater to the Chinese Filipino community. Hence, several businessmen set up China Banking Corporation, and they asked my grandfather, a lawyer, but who had the reputation of being honest, fair, and without conflict of interest, to serve as General Manager. By the late 1930s, China Banking Corporation was reputedly the largest commercial bank in the Philippines and also had branches in Xiamen and Shanghai. As the bank’s clients accumulated more capital, incorporated and grew their businesses, there was naturally a need for more professional services, such as legal, accounting and tax services… This need for professional services reinforced the need for a good, formal education.

All my grandfather’s children eventually became white-collar professionals, but in those days, during the 1920s and 1930s, my grandfather insisted that all of his kids go to Filipino public school, because he did not want them to be segregated with just Chinese kids. Most of the time they would have to walk, instead of being chauffeured. Fortunately, the quality of public schools was quite good at that time, due in large part to the American support of public education. Incidentally, while my sister, brother and I had to go to private schools, my father told me that one of the reasons he sent me to Phillips Exeter Academy was, not only to learn how to make my bed, but also because Exeter had the highest proportion of kids on scholarship and thus the greatest diversity within its student body. And, in keeping with my grandfather’s tradition, he never got me a car!

When my father graduated from the University of Santo Tomas and also passed the CPA examinations, he discovered that he was too young to be licensed as a Public Accountant. Since he would not turn 21 until 1942, he then asked his father for permission to go to the US to study for his PhD; and, at that time, the best accounting professor was in New York’s Columbia University. And so it was that on December 7, 1941, just 6 months shy of his 21st birthday, my father was studying in Columbia’s library on 114th Street, when one of his classmates rushed in to tell him that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and also the Philippines. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father was very grateful that Columbia University housed him and fed him, as communications with the Philippines were cut off, along with the stipends that my grandfather was sending him. In fact, my father recalls reading an article in Reader’s Digest mentioning that my grandfather had been killed by the Japanese. It turned out not to be true, but he was arrested and put into solitary confinement. Going into solitary confinement was often was a one way ticket, but, fortunately, my grandfather survived.

With his desire to go back and help the Philippines, my father enlisted in the Philippine Scout Regiment; but, with his high IQ scores, he was yanked out of that Regiment and put into cryptography. At that time, there were two code-breaking centers in the Pacific – one in Australia, and the other one in India. Since the India center covered the China-Burma-India theatre, my father was sent to India, at an encampment outside of Calcutta. Aside from code-breaking, I suspect he might also have learned a few trading skills there, as the Yanks were next to the Brits, and one could, for example, trade Yankee beer for Scottish whisky. My father used to tell me that the exchange rate for beer and whisky was 6:1. I now regret not asking him what the friction costs were to consummate or lubricate the transaction. But, in any case, despite brandy being my grandfather’s liquor of choice, whisky was always the liquor of choice in my father’s household… and that continues in my household to this day.

As early as I can remember, during Sunday lunches at my grandfather Albino’s house, he would impress upon us kids the importance of Education. Grandfather Albino would say: “You can take away all of a man’s possessions, but you cannot take away his Education”. Indeed, during World War II, when my grandfather refused Japan’s request to serve as head of the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, they bankrupted his bank. After getting out of prison, he had to restart the bank and what he retained in his head was what allowed him to start over and regain the number one position in banking.

In the still uncertain world of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging to the west, Red China seemingly threatening from the north, and the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war, my father would also repeat my grandfather’s words of wisdom to us at every opportunity.

As my father built his business, a cornerstone of SGV’s success was certainly Training and Education – continuous training in the technical skills to allow SGV’s people to excel in the provision of professional services, and also continuing education in the more qualitative aspects of Life, such as how to socialize with clients, how to dress for success, how to tie a tie, and even how to party, which were essential to good marketing and business development… Other accounting firms did neither of these things or not as well and, so, just naturally SGV pulled ahead in the long run, eventually becoming larger than the other Big 8, and now Big 4 accounting firms combined.

While Mark Fuller covered AIM in his remarks, allow me to say a few words about one of the education programs that my father instigated in 2011. It is called the ZERO DROPOUT PROGRAM, and is being implemented by a microfinance organization called CARD MRI. CARD MRI has over 4 million members who avail of its microfinance services. Many of the members children cannot attend school due to lack of basic things like rubber slippers or a shirt, not to mention pencils and paper. A revolving loan program was set up to support these kids, not only because of my father’s belief that illiteracy is one of the main causes of poverty, but also because education is one of the most wished for blessings by parents for their children. Over the past 7 years, over 700,000 kids have been able to attend elementary school because of this ZERO DROPOUT PROGRAM. The repayment rate has been virtually 100%. And, just this month, we are extending the program to cover their expenses in high school as well. Hopefully, some of them will even make it through college. One small step at a time, but if 700,000 kids can take the step at the same time, then how can we not make progress?!

Much as Education is important, though, it is not enough. Allow me to go back again to the high school in New Hampshire, which my father sent me to. The founding father of Phillips Exeter Academy stated back in 1781 that while: “goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind”…. These words of wisdom tied into the second important lesson we learned from my father and also our grandfather. Along with the importance of Education, was the importance of THE GOLDEN RULE.

At one of our Sunday lunches, I remember my grandfather Albino handing us kids an index card, which I still have. It is dated 1957. On that index card he had typed THE GOLDEN RULE expressed by different religions, but all boiling down to this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Karma of Kindness is powerful. Going back to my grandfather’s seemingly miraculous survival after being put in solitary confinement… my father speculated that the reason he survived was Kindness. Before the War, my grandfather’s family had hired a Japanese driver and a Japanese gardener. He treated them well, almost like family members. After the war broke out, it turns out that they were officers in the Imperial Japanese Army. Did they put in a good word for him? Maybe we will never know; but, there are other events that also seem to corroborate the karma of the Golden Rule…

For example, when my grandfather restarted the bank after World War II, I mentioned that he used his Education, but he also had a lot of goodwill chips piled up from the Kindness shown to others in years past. People within and outside of the Philippines, who he had helped before the War rallied to his assistance as the rebuilding process started.

Then, a few years after the War, with many people still treating the Japanese as pariahs, and despite having been imprisoned for several years, my grandfather struck up a friendship with the visiting head of a Japanese company called Mitsui. My father said they got along because they were both short and they both liked golf. While the Philippine Government and most of the business community tried to stop Japanese companies and banks from expanding into the Philippines, my grandfather and father both argued that Japanese companies should be allowed to enter the Philippines, as the job of nation-building required many shoulders.

As Japan rose from the ashes of World War II, the banks and trading houses of Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Marubeni, Itochu and others ended up playing a constructive role in the Philippines. They also proved good clients for SGV. My father was particularly proud that Toyota, which was traditionally considered part of the Mitsui Group of companies, established The Toyota Motor Philippines School of Technology (“TMP Tech”). This is the only such facility outside of Japan producing highly skilled workers for Toyota on a worldwide basis. Karma!

I am sure THE GOLDEN RULE underpinned my father’s thinking and endeavors from the outset. And, over the years, I realized that these were not just words on an index card.

More than words, I witnessed how he practiced THE GOLDEN RULE. As his company, SGV, grew to dominate the accounting profession in Asia and, indeed, set worldwide standards for public accounting, I never heard him speak badly about competitors or try to pull them down. Rather, he focused on making SGV and its people the best that they could possibly be.

Now, let me go on to a 3rd aspect of my father’s life and the source of many good lessons for me… and that is to PARTY HARD. But, this does not mean that you Party until you drop, or that you drink until you pass out. On the contrary, I never saw my father drunk, nor was he prone to gluttony, although he certainly had a weakness for rum raisin ice cream…

For my father, to party hard and meaningfully, he had to think of himself as a Performer. My father always used to tell me: “The show must go on!” He loved going to Broadway musicals, and he actually thought of himself as a stage actor – when the spotlight is on, he told me, and the music is playing, you have to perform! In his case, though, the World was his stage, and he was always ready and willing to perform, 7 days a week. He came to accept being in the limelight, not only because it was important to building his company, SGV, but because he saw it as important to building the Philippines and the Asian Region.

My father might have been “Only a Bookkeeper” in his day job, but as far as partying after hours goes, he was truly at the top of the game. As a Performer, he intuitively knew that he had to grace parties and social occasions with a sense of style, wit and humor. But, while my father partied hard, he partied mindfully, and always with the intent of learning better ways to do things, making new friends, and adding to his store of useful wisdom. Mindfulness also means knowing where you stand and where you want to go; that is, knowing and having a bigger purpose in life.

And that brings me to the fourth facet that I would like to cover today – having a bigger PURPOSE in Life. My father was hardly what one would term a religious man, but he possessed those inner qualities that St. Paul exhorted Christians to have almost 2,000 years ago; and, those are Faith, Hope and Love.

Remember, in the context of the time when SGV was founded, Asians were looked down upon, even by themselves. The great wars of the past century had left many Asians with a sense of inferiority, as Western, and, more accurately, American democracy and capitalism seemingly triumphed. While the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943, old attitudes lingered, and for most Americans and the elite classes in the Philippines, they probably appreciated their Filipino little brown brothers for working the sugar cane fields or harvesting coconuts, but for little else. My father used to say that for most professional firms after the War, advancement was based on the color of your skin and/or family ties.

Yet, from the very start, my father had Faith in the ingenuity and industriousness of Asians, including Filipinos from all walks of Life. He believed that with proper Education, they could overcome all obstacles and stand toe-to-toe professionally with anybody in the World.

My father had Hope in the Philippines as a Nation; and, even though, he didn’t believe in Democracy Philippine-style or even American-style, he considered it his duty to support all the political leaders in their nation-building efforts.

And, finally my father had a great Love for the Philippines. My father especially loved the Filipino People. I can attest that he loved Filipino children as much as his own children, because the Children of the Philippines were constantly on his mind – from the early days of SGV 72 years ago to the day he passed away.

On that fateful Philippine Airlines flight across the Pacific last October, he was still talking to me about educational programs in the Philippines. Especially over the past decade, hardly a day went by when he wasn’t trying to improve the lot of the Philippines and the Filipino People, and especially the Youth of the Philippines, the hope of tomorrow, in whom he put his undying faith.

Perhaps with your help today, we can ensure that his legacy of Education, Kindness, Mindful Partying, and Love for the Philippines and the Filipino People will live on.

Thank you and Mabuhay!



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