Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

THE LAST time I saw Wash SyCip was from a far distance. It was his 95th birthday on June 30, 2016, and a long line of well-wishers—businessmen, politicians, and other celebrities—had queued up at the ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati to greet him and have their pictures taken with the icon. I thought for a second about falling in line, just to say hello, but then decided against it, already having spent more time with Wash than most people except his closest associates. He looked more frail than I had ever seen him, even as he kept up a cordial countenance seated in his chair on a raised dais, and I felt content to remember the sprightlier octogenarian I had first met a decade earlier.

Of course I knew who Washington SyCip was well before then; my wife Beng worked as an artist in the communications department of SGV in the 1980s, but I had never met the man himself—not until an opportunity arose to bid for and to write his biography in early 2006, when he was turning 85. I felt very fortunate to have been chosen for the job—and that’s what it was to me then, a job, albeit one involving an illustrious subject. I had no inkling that I was about to enter into a privileged friendship, something that would extend well beyond the writing of a book.

I had already done books for and about other personages in politics and business, and would do many more after Wash. But none of them—meaning no disrespect to or disregard for my other clients—would come close to the biography I would write for Wash, and it had everything to do with the uniqueness of the man, who lived not only an extraordinarily long life but also one far more colorful than you would credit an accountant for.

For months, we met Saturday mornings in his seventh-floor SGV office, and chatted for a couple of hours about phases of his life, proceeding chronologically from his childhood to the key decision to open his own accounting firm, a moment that I would later decide to open the book with. (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper was published in 2009 by the SGV Foundation and the Asian Institute of Management, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.) Immediately I felt at ease with his polite formality; no artificial chumminess there or dramatic flourish, just a quiet consistency of well-remembered detail, everything from trying to learn the foxtrot for a graduation dance and breaking Japanese codes in Calcutta to carrying a cold, dressed duck under his arm on the New York subway to bring to a lady friend.

Most readers, I’m sure, were looking for the grand contours, the big business decisions—and there’s all that in the book—but I tried to keep things homely, and was glad that Wash was game for it. He liked to play “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on his iPod—but not being a techie, often forgot to recharge it.

When he learned that I collected pens, he sent a bunch of them over to my house; I opened the box and saw that he had gifted me with some very nice ballpoints, which I thanked him for. When a perceptive associate gently reminded him that I collected not ball pens but fountain pens, he sent another box of the correct writing instruments—CEOs like him typically received scores of these as gifts and stored them away in drawers—with an apologetic note, even more graciously acknowledged by the ecstatic recipient. And every Christmas we would receive a box filled with some lovely piece of décor handcrafted by a microenterprise he supported in Cebu.

He had a soft spot for Filipino talent of all kinds. He once hosted a party at his home for President Cory Aquino, some ambassadors, and similarly lofty people. After dinner, he sprung a surprise on them. “Just get into your cars and follow me!” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. He led the convoy to a dimly downscale stretch of Boni Avenue, down into the happy maw of Club Mwah, the gay musical revue. Cory had a blast, and I had fun watching Wash garlanded by that feathery parade.

Sometimes I dropped by his office or chatted with him in the corner of a soirée to hear him share his views on current goings-on, both of us probably thinking that they would be useful inputs to the centennial update of his biography, but really just to catch up. It was these unscripted asides, his inviting trust, that I felt most privileged by. I suppose biographers come in through some special door, and with Wash, that door always seemed open.

Last July I received an envelope from Wash, and even without opening it I could feel that it contained a pen inside. “Dear Butch,” said the accompanying note, “This is the only pen that I have come across which may be new to your library. Just note the owl at the head of the pen. Sincerely, Wash.” It was a ballpoint, but I didn’t mind—owls (and turtles) were his trademark avatars.

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His generosity was well known, but it was never the showy or sentimental kind. He believed above all in the capability of the poor to learn and to lift themselves up with a little help. Despite the American citizenship he had to accept in a time of war, he thought and acted as a true global Filipino.

When he passed away last week on a plane above the Pacific—bridging the two shores he knew best, and still on the job at 96—I was requested to draft an obituary, and I replied, choking, that it was going to be my honor. It was the first—and, almost certainly, the only—time I would shed a tear for someone I wrote about.

Penman No. 107: Small Loans for Big Dreams

WS-Butch-1Penman for Monday, July 28, 2014

 

IT HAD been a few years since I last sat down for a chat with the accounting and business guru Washington SyCip, whose biography (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper, published in 2009) I had been privileged to write, so I was only too happy to oblige when our mutual friend Marlu Balmaceda asked if I could spend some time last week to shoot the breeze with Wash.

Both Wash and I had aged a bit since we started working on his book back in 2006—I more so than he, who last month turned 93. Having just gotten my senior card in January, I’ve been feeling entitled to some relaxation, but Wash SyCip was right at his desk in his old 14th floor office where I last saw him, working away, surrounded by a growing menagerie of owls, turtles, and roosters, the gifts of friends. On the wall was a Chinese painting of a dignitary, perhaps the Emperor himself, seeking the counsel of a wizened turtle. Wash caught me looking at it and told me what the turtle’s sage advice was: “Take it easy.”

As cool and dapper as he is, Wash makes it look like he’s taken it easy all his life, but I know for a fact—having chronicled that life—that it just isn’t so. No slouch could’ve put up and sustained what became the regional accounting giant SGV.

But this time, Wash wasn’t talking about himself, but about a new program for education that he and a friend began three years ago, called the Zero Dropout Education Scheme, which seeks to put and keep poor Filipino kids in school. “The country’s biggest problem remains poverty and the wide gap between the rich and the poor,” Wash says. “For me, education is key to alleviating poverty, but ironically, the poorer you are, the more children you have, so half go to school and half don’t. Those who don’t will stay illiterate, and will be resigned to poverty all their lives.”

Seeing that illiteracy still afflicted millions of Filipinos, Wash resolved to do something about it and committed US$1 million of his own money to a fund aimed at the problem. Helping him along was his friend, the Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist Paul Kazarian, who pledged to match Wash’s contribution dollar for dollar. But even with that funding, Wash was modest and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t do the job by himself. “I don’t really know the poor, and how best to reach them,” he admits. “So I got in touch with CARD-MRI, which has been a leader in Philippine microfinance, to help us out.” Radiowealth Finance Corporation has also geared its CSR program toward the Zero Dropout scheme, and committed to provide P30 million.

The Center for Agriculture and Development-Mutually Reinforcing Institutions or CARD-MRI goes all the way back to 1986 when Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip and 14 other rural development practitioners got together to set up CARD specifically to help empower women in poor communities. In 2008, it received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. “With over 1,400 units all over the country, CARD had a network in place we could tap for our program,” Wash says.

Initially available to CARD members, the Zero Dropout scheme offers small renewable loans ranging from P1,500 to P3,000, at a monthly interest rate of 1 percent. “Basic education may be free,” Wash acknowledges. “But families still need money for school supplies, slippers, clothes, and other expenses. That’s where we come in. We’d like to provide not just the money, but an easy way of getting it, with as little red tape as possible.”

As of March this year, the program had supported over 46,000 students through loans totaling over P160 million, out of which P130 million in principal and P6.5 million in interest has already been paid back. They expect to hit 100,000 beneficiaries by year’s end.

While most beneficiaries come from Region IV-A (the Calabarzon area), the program has expanded to the ARMM in Mindanao, where the dropout rates are the highest. Typical beneficiaries include Lucena native Lilia Fernandez, a mother of nine who works as a manicurist alongside her husband, a construction worker; her son Erick dreams of becoming an engineer.

Unlike the government’s conditional cash transfer program, which gives cash direct to poor beneficiaries, Zero Dropout is a loan program. “They repay the loan through microfinance, by increasing their income with a loan for a store, a tricycle, and so on,” adds Wash.

If you think poor borrowers can’t or won’t repay their loans, think again. CARD has made a name for itself making sure its system works, basically because it’s led by people from the very grassroots it serves. Wash tells this story: “I had CARD’s management people over for dinner at my house once, and discovered that none of them were from Makati or Manila. They were all from the rural areas, and they were mostly women, very bright women. I was very impressed with their dedication. CARD knows its clientele. It works with groups of 20 women who guarantee each other. I’ve attended meetings with these groups and I can see that our poor communities are full of people with initiative and drive.”

I came away most impressed by an incident that Wash related: “When Yolanda hit, 8,000 students under the program were affected in Leyte and other places. My first reaction was to cancel their loans, as the least we could do to help. But Dr. Alip said, Wash, no—the poor are more honest than the rich. And as reconstruction took off, the loans also began to be repaid, even if the borrowers had lost their homes.” If that’s not inspiring—in the context of billions lost to crooks and scammers—I don’t know what is.