Money & Power

The Words of Wisdom of Washington SyCip

Washington SyCip, founder of SGV&Co. and the Asian Institute of Management, has passed away at the age of 96.

What I've Learned

Washington SyCip, age 90

There’s a lot of exercise at the airport. The airports nowadays are so huge, you take a lot of time walking.

I left Manila on a Philippine Airlines flight at 8 a.m. on Monday for Hong Kong. But the meeting was in Nanjiao, an industrial estate outside of Ghangzhou. So a car picked me up, drove me straight across the border into China. Had a meeting there, followed by a dinner. Drove back to Hong Kong, stayed there overnight at the Marriott Hotel. Then caught the 8:35 a.m. flight back to Manila the following morning. I arrived in Manila at 10:35 a.m., arrived at my office at 10:55 a.m., had a meeting at 11 a.m. and on through to the evening. And I had dinner with a good friend, Butch Dalisay.

I always tell our partners here there’s no use to set rules. To ask the staff to be in the office at 8 a.m. if you are playing golf at 9 a.m. But if you are here at 7 a.m., then you don’t have to have any rules. In developing nations, the example of leadership is critical.

You know I enjoy my work because I learn a lot myself. So, to my mind, as long as you are improving your knowledge, it is interesting. So I don’t consider work as a bothersome and a worrisome thing.

In fact, recently, your mother taught me how to wear a pair of jeans and I was thinking how much money I could have saved from fifty years worth of traveling if I learned about jeans earlier in my life.

I am quite involved in microfinance, PinoyME (Micro Enterprise) and many other things. I’m trying to learn something more about rural health. Because I think that is the third item that will decrease the number of people who are poor.


In any emerging market, there is so much to do. So you can be relaxing if you want to and do nothing. But here (in the Philippines) you have a certain conscience because we haven’t solved the poverty problem yet, too much political democracy, when we needed more economic freedoms before political democracy.

I think when you have a nation where people are still poor, democracy is not necessarily the best form of government.

All those countries that have moved ahead had economic freedom ahead of political freedom. Then as the economy went up, income level rose, people didn’t have to sell their votes, democracy started.

The first year of Martial Law under Marcos, our growth rate jumped to 9.4 percent. It was higher than any other year in Philippine modern history. So it shows that once you have discipline, it works. I think people at that time began following traffic rules.

To me, the critical thing is, how do we change the declining rate per capita spending and spend more on basic education so that no one will be illiterate in the country.

Anybody who comes to UP in a car should be paying more tuition than what he is paying now.

If, after elections, the politicians kiss and makeup, then businessmen will not be concerned about endorsing a particular politician. But if the businessmen know that there will be a continuous division, then they are afraid to do anything.

We have many businessmen who could make good presidential candidates, but they don’t want to be because it may affect their business.

There are people from the poor families, when they work abroad they send the money in. So the upper income (families) are not contributing as much as they should. They get from the society but they don’t give.


My father insisted that the whole family go to public school because public schools could compete. I went to Mapa High School and Burgos Elementary School. I could compete with any La Salle or Ateneo graduate. Nowadays, you cannot. So the emphasis on a good public education so that the poor can use education as an equalizer, that’s essential. And that’s why I’m spending a lot of time on basic education. And on improving the public school system.

I remember that my father brought a constitutional case that he had lost in the Philippines to the U.S. at the time when we were still a colony. My father won the case in America— and that is the reason why my name is Washington.

When he got the cable that I was born, he was in Washington. I remember my father telling me that when he came back, having won the case, the following day (President Manuel) Quezon was at his house to congratulate him on winning the only case that Quezon had lost. At that time, people were gentlemen.

What is next for me in the next 80 years? Many more things. Maybe I will learn how to play guitar.

What I've Learned

Washington SyCip, age 95

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.

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.


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.

The first What I've Learned appeared in the January to February 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines, through an interview conducted by RJ Ledesma. Mr. Sycip was again interviewed by Audrey Carpio for our June 2017 issue. Minor edits have been made by the editors.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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RJ Ledesma
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About The Author
Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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