My name is Karim Raslan and I’m a storyteller. I have spent more than 20 years travelling and writing about Southeast Asia and its neighbours. The name of my column, “Ceritalah”, comes from a Sanskrit word that means “tell me a story.” I strongly believe that understanding stories, from the ground-up, is crucial to getting a real sense of politics, society and business. This column will seek to share with you stories about the people, places and issues affecting our region. This week, I want to start with the life of a very remarkable man from a country close to my heart—the Philippines.
Manila, like its counterparts Bangkok and Jakarta, is vast, rambunctious and extremely competitive, verging on the cutthroat.
For foreign investors looking to take the plunge, knowing who to trust is a critical issue. A wrong move can wipe out your investment – sometimes we’re talking billions of dollars.
For well over half a century, Washington SyCip, a sprightly, nonagenarian professional who passed away in 2017 was the key to the Philippines. Straight-talking, warm, funny and enormously curious, “Wash” left a deep, enduring legacy in the region’s fastest-growing economy.
Nowadays, everyone knows that Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) is a key pillar of the Philippine economy. Last year, the sector generated US$24 billion in revenue, providing employment to more than 1.3 million workers as well as stimulating a property and consumption boom.
However, few people realise the genesis of this sector owes a great deal to Wash and the accounting-turned-consulting giant SGV Group, which he founded in Manila in 1946.
“Back in the 60s and 70s, SGV was the largest accounting firm west of the Mississippi,” says Cesar Purisima, who was twice Philippine Secretary of Finance and one of Wash’s protégés at SGV.
“In the 1980s, Wash and SGV started offering BPO services in partnership with the-then Andersen Consulting through what was then referred to as the Manila Solutions Centre.”
Indeed, Wash grasped early on that corporate clients would seek to lower the cost of back-office services – accounting, payroll – while maintaining standards. Of course, we can never know if he anticipated the sheer scale of the demand he had initiated.
He also understood the importance of regional integration. By the 1960s, SGV became one of the first Filipino companies to expand abroad, building a network in neighbouring countries like Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Korea. In Thailand, in 1967, it formed the SGV-Na Thalang & Co.
One of his most endearing traits was his ability to focus on his dinner partner or interlocutor to the exclusion of everything else.
In this era of continuous distractions – smartphones and social media – it’s very important to be able to concentrate and listen because that’s how you connect with people. It’s also how you learn and then, later in life, keep learning.
For Wash, learning and education were at the core of everything he did. He was crucial in the founding of the Asian Institute of Management (or AIM) – the region’s premier business school and funded the education of countless poor Filipinos.
“He was a one-man council of elders for many corporate Philippine movers and shakers,” says Doris Ho, president and CEO of the Magsaysay Group. “He mentored top professionals, advised most Filipino tycoons and sent to school hundreds of thousands of underprivileged children. He had strong faith in the Filipino, even during the worst of times.”
Wash was born in 1921 in Manila to a father descended from Fujianese immigrants and a mother with family roots in Shanghai. Educated at Columbia University before World War Two, he later joined the specially constituted Filipino regiments in the US military. However, before he could serve as an infantryman, he was selected to learn Japanese and ended up working as a codebreaker for the Allies in Kolkata.
Ploughing through reams of Japanese transcripts in search of precious intelligence must have sharpened his mind. He told his biographer the process was like sleuthing. You had a pile of raw data and the knowledge five bombers had been sent to bomb a certain place. Then, you had to work backwards looking for patterns that matched the information until you could fill the blanks.
“Decoding enemy messages in the middle of nowhere may not sound attractive to most but it gave me a perspective on how, in time, the world will become smaller through communication links,” Wash wrote many years later of those years living alongside Bengal’s Hooghly River. “My experience there taught me that what would be considered remote will eventually be connected to the mainstream. Players from different industries will come from large, emerging and small economies; this makes it essential to speak a common financial language.”
World War Two opened the world to Wash and transformed his life. He learned new languages, unusual skills and lived in parts of the globe he never expected to visit.
By comparison, most of us have grown up in times of peace. When faced with adversity, we often lack the fortitude to weather the changes. It’s about building character: our experiences shape our future and relatively “soft times” may mean we do not have the depth and breadth of previous generations.
Wash maintained his independence and was scathing of his homeland’s atrocious political leadership. Unafraid of controversy, he also questioned the effectiveness of democracy in delivering effective governance, citing the success of authoritarian states such China and Vietnam in reducing poverty compared to India and the Philippines.
The Philippines, indeed, Southeast Asia, misses his robust and principled voice.