Forbes Asia – Volume 7, Number 6
“Back To His Roots”


Milwida Guevara didn’t know Washington SyCip when he turned up at her foundation’s launch in Manila in 2002. She had started the Synergeia Foundation to help keep poor children in grade school. “Our dream, really, was to give every Filipino child a decent opportunity to have a grade six education,” she says. The statistics were grim: Nationwide only seven out of ten public school children enrolled in first grade completed sixth grade. In the poorest areas the figure was three out of ten.

Guevara had been an economist at the International Monetary Fund but had no experience in fundraising or running a foundation. No matter. After the ceremony SyCip invited her to breakfast the next day, along with her group of a dozen governors and mayors eager to reduce dropout rates and boost test scores. He ended up offering her 10 million pesos ($200,000 at the time) “to start you off.” Nearly every year since he has sent Guevara a million pesos, on top of gifts to her staff and to a school district that was hit by a typhoon.

Since that chance meeting the foundation has gone into 400 communities and reached 3 million children. SyCip serves on the board and constantly pushes to add more sites, especially in strife-torn Muslim Mindanao and the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi islands. In some of these areas only three out of ten children finish first grade. At Synergeia’s sites in Mindanao illiteracy among second graders has been cut from 85% to 15%. At its sites nationwide dropout rates have been cut by 45%.

SyCip, or “Wash” to his friends, will turn 90 years old next month and his involvement with Synergeia may have added years to his life. He founded the pioneering Philippine accounting and management-consulting firm SGV in 1946–it’s now a unit of Ernst & Young. He also helped start one of Asia’s first U.S.-style graduate business schools, the Asian Institute of Management, in 1969. He had been a major supporter of higher education for decades–doing everything from funding scholarships to buttonholing friends to be donors and trustees. But around the time he met Guevara he had decided he had done enough for universities. “I refuse now to give scholarships,” he says. “I believe I should give to reduce the dropout rates of poor families.” Says Guevara, “At this stage in his life he sees it as the best way to fight poverty, but he’s also going back to his roots.”

Indeed, while SyCip has been a U.S. citizen since 1943, he’s long been critical of America’s colonial role in the Philippines. Nevertheless, the U.S. investment in mass public education in the first decades of the 20th century is the one legacy he says the Philippines should have strived to preserve.

So he throws himself into Synergeia, attending all of the initial meetings at a new site and often chairing them. The process begins when a mayor extends an invitation. Foundation staff give the children and teachers diagnostic tests, and at the first meeting parents, teachers and school board members talk about their obstacles– children who are needed for work, lack of supplies, unqualified teachers. “Initially I just wanted to concentrate on reading and math, but we cannot close our eyes to poverty,” says Guevara. In the following two years Synergeia pulls in other partners– perhaps a company to donate school clothes or volunteers to produce lesson plans. Mayors who got older sites going act as mentors for mayors just starting out, passing on ideas, say, on how to improve property tax collection or organize school lunch programs.

Armed with connections that go back to when he entered college at age 15, SyCip would be any cause’s secret weapon for drumming up support. “Some people don’t give because the need is so great,” he says. “You cannot solve all the problems, but if you help in certain areas, it will spread.” He recruited Manhattan real estate broker Giovanna Lim by scolding, “You won’t be remembered for your diamonds, but you will be remembered if you help Filipino children.” She now organizes support from Filipino expatriates.

Synergeia also runs programs to improve adult literacy and to help poor students continue on to high school and college. But these funds must be clearly segregated when SyCip examines the books because he wants his donations spent solely on elementary education. “He has strong convictions on why he doesn’t want college,” says Guevara. “He knows exactly how many children are being financed. He’s very much into benchmarking. He wants to see results.”

How did the Philippines’ public schools, perhaps the best in Asia 60 years ago, deteriorate so severely? Sharing the general view, SyCip blames government corruption and inefficiency for starving education and other social services. A lax Presbyterian in a Catholic country, he also blames the lack of contraception education for the poor and the burden of an additional 24 million people since World War II.

He truly diverges from most Filipino public figures, though, in another explanation for why the Philippines didn’t develop as rapidly as many other Asian countries: “premature democracy. ” He sighs, “I wish I could go back to that first (1935) constitution. I would give the Philippines much less freedom but much more authority to an honest president.”

Universal suffrage, public tenders, a free press and, most of all, lawyers earn his scorn. (His father, Albino, though, was a lawyer–and banker–and he named his son “Washington” while he was in the U.S., exulting over a successful argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.) The Philippines’ problems started with poorly educated people selling their votes, he believes, and have been compounded by lawyers agitating over individual rights at the expense of the greater good. He points with envy to the wide multilane highways that are built in China, bureaucrats never needing to be concerned with claims from landowners.

Although his maternal Shanghai relatives lost their wealth to communism and suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, SyCip views China’s current leaders as disciples of Milton Friedman and benign authoritarians who are far less corrupt than most members of the U.S. Congress. He dismisses the possibility that the lack of a free press in places such as Malaysia and China might allow corrupt politicians and practices to continue. “I could tell you the names of journalists here who accept payments,” he says. “I’m not against democracy, but it will emerge naturally, as it did in Korea and Taiwan, once an economy reaches a per capita income of $5,000.” The Philippines’ per capita income last year was $2,500, and the economy grew 7.2%.

Fixing public schools is certainly the right cause for SyCip because he’s so old he remembers when they were excellent. His Chinese-Filipino family was wealthy, but Wash and his two brothers attended public grade and high schools in Manila in the 1920s and 1930s. He fondly remembers his American teachers; they must have thought very highly of him because they had him skip three grades. But a few years ago, when he and a mate since first grade, Fred Velayo (the “V” in SGV), raised a million pesos for the grade school they attended, Padre Burgos Elementary School, much of it had to be used for basic supplies and repairs.

SyCip has seen a lot of destruction and reconstruction. In the autumn of 1945, when he returned to Manila, age 24 and freshly discharged from the U.S. Army, vast sections of the city had been reduced to rubble. Some 1 million Filipinos had died during the war. His family had survived, although Albino had spent most of the war in a Japanese prison and was now rebuilding his China Bank from scratch.

Wash could have resumed his doctoral studies at Columbia University’s business school in New York or joined a U.S. firm but decided to stick with his newly independent country. Besides, his brother Alex oversaw one of the few office buildings left standing, where General Douglas MacArthur had his headquarters. In the same large room where Alex had a law practice and brother David set up an import-export company, he launched W. SyCip & Co.

In the first few years SyCip spent most weekday evenings teaching accounting at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, and two other colleges. He never considered joining one of the large British firms returning to the Philippines because, he says, only a white person could become a partner. “Why would you join if you couldn’t get to the top?” he reasoned. By 1958, when SGV took over the largest of those old-line British firms, Fleming & Williamson, it was already the biggest accounting firm in the Philippines and has remained so. Says Jose Dalisay, who wrote an authorized 2009 biography of SyCip, “Wash’s most enduring legacy to Filipinos isn’t so much the millions he’s quietly donated to worthy causes as it is the very high marks he set for SGV–and by extension the Filipino professional–to achieve, not to mention all the new business that he helped to bring to the Philippines.”

SGV’s training and international standards were strong lures for smaller accounting firms in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand that joined as SGV partners in the 1960s. The network lasted until the early 1980s, when a trend SyCip hadn’t anticipated reached East Asia. Large U.S. accounting firms had set up their own branches in Asia, and the multinational clients of SGV partners faced pressure to use the same accounting firm in every country. So the partners decided to affiliate with Andersen Worldwide. After Andersen collapsed in 2002, suitors flocked to SGV’s Makati office once again. This time it joined with Ernst & Young, and “SGV & Associates” still appears above the E&Y logo in the Philippines.

SyCip retired as SGV Group chairman in 1996, but that hasn’t stopped his ceaseless globe-trotting. There are the twiceyearly meetings of the Asia Business Council, which he cofounded in 2001. He’s on the boards of Columbia Business School; Pinoy-Me, a microfinance foundation started by Corazon Aquino; and more than a dozen companies. At least seven times a year he visits Manhattan, where he has long kept an apartment. Often he stops in San Francisco, where a son, George, a philanthropist and an adviser to companies doing business in China, once served as social services commissioner. (His daughter, Victoria, will retire this year from the International School. Younger son Robert runs a seafood export company in Manila. His wife of 62 years, Anna Yu, has Alzheimer’s. Brothers Alex and David died in 1975 and 1988, respectively.)

When SyCip is in Manila he keeps up a 65-year habit of coming in to his office early, six days a week. Slightly stooped, he bears a distinct resemblance to a soft-spoken Yoda, if Yoda wore a loose-fitting barong overshirt. The top of the large desk filling one end of the room, like nearly every other flat surface, is teeming with model turtles (a Chinese symbol of longevity), owls and other small figures, tiny toys and large bowls of wrapped candy.

The exception is a credenza top jammed with silver-framed photos of SyCip with titans of business and government, such as Suharto, Ronald Reagan, Lee Kuan Yew (a particular hero) and Bill Clinton. “I’ve met every Philippine president,” he says, “except [Emilio] Aguinaldo”–who ruled from 1897-1901–“but my daughter married one of his direct descendants.”