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What has luck got to do with Washington Sycip?

February 16, 2007

In my youth, I never imagined that I would find myself in a calling that would allow me the acquaintance of famous people in my country. Since I started a life’s work in feng shui, I have developed special relations with known business, media and show business personalities who approach me for consultations. Thus, when the chance came up for me to spend some time to talk with Mr. Washington Sycip, the acknowledged business patriarch in the Philippines, nay, the Asian region, I was beyond myself with joy. Indeed, being a feng shui practitioner has its nice rewards. Sycip is not a very common surname in the Philippines, but whenever it is mentioned, almost always, it refers to ‘Wash’, as Mr. Sycip is fondly called by close associates. For all his contributions to the country’s business, the Philippine Government conferred on Mr. SyCip the Philippine Legion of Honor in 1991. The following year, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his promotion of international understanding. No less than the Fortune magazine has recognized him as “the man to know in Asia”.

How I got to know the grand man of Philippine business is in itself an interesting story. It started when I first broached the idea to Lillian Too, of holding the very first Feng Shui extravaganza in Manila (..who is actually coming back on 27th * 28th January 2007 for her Forecast on the Year of the Fire Boar 2007 at the Premier Cinema of SM Mall of Asia and at the Manila Hotel Pavillio). Lillian was quick to say that she would only consider doing that if I could invite Mr. Washington Sycip, who, it turns out, is her good friend from way back in her banking days in Hong Kong in the 1980s. I took up the challenge, despite some qualms about how difficult it would be to get through to this very important and busy person. I got to talk with Sylvia, Mr. Sycip’s secretary for the past 30 years and gave her my message. Within minutes, I got a call from his office, which completely unnerved me. On the other line was THE Mr. Sycip himself. To cut to the chase, the first ever World of Feng Shui Extravaganza of Lillian Too was held in Manila this year, and yes, Mr. Sycip was present and even hosted a social function in honor of Lillian at The Tower Club, an exclusive members-only venue for executive functions, where he was photographed, impeccably dressed in his auspicious red barong tagalog, with the movers and shakers of Philippine business.

Outstanding heaven luck

A quick research into the early life of Mr. Sycip revealed that he was born to an affluent Chinese family. His father was a lawyer and his mother belonged to a wealthy family in Shanghai who operated the largest printing press in Asia at that time. His parents were both American-educated and he was named Washington after the US capital because at the time of his birth, his father won a case he was arguing before the US Supreme Court.

Although his family could afford to send him to any of the elite schools or to a Chinese-language school as was the preference of most Chinese families then, Mr. Sycip spent his early school days at a public school where Americans taught along with some Filipino teachers. He and his brothers walked to school, “because that time, my classmates didn’t have cars, so if you went to school in a car, you’d be a pasikat (show-off)”, he laughs. An exceptionally bright student, Mr. Sycip finished what should have been seven years of schooling in just five-and-a-half years. In high-school, he excelled in physics and mathematics and graduated at the top of his class at the age of 15.

Armed with a scholarship, he went to the University of the Philippines, but wasn’t happy with the business course there, so he transferred to the University of Sto. Tomas (UST), a Catholic university, where he breezed through his commerce degree in two-and-a-half years – still graduating summa cum laude. While waiting for the results of the board exams for accountancy, he was offered a teaching position at the UST where he taught seniors older than he was. He passed the exams, but then being only 17 at that time, he was not allowed to practice and had to wait until he was 21 to get his license. He did not have a hard time convincing his father to allow him to take postgraduate courses in the USA to make better use of his time. While doing his Ph.D. program at the Columbia University, World War II broke out; months later he enlisted with the US army where he was recruited to undergo a code-breaking course. Because of the delicate nature of his tasks, he was sworn in as a US citizen.

Auspicious mankind luck

With whatever predetermined luck he was born with, the values and the directions he chose in his life and career conspired to make Mr. Sycip the much-respected person he is today. His decision to be an accountant ‘because his father was already a lawyer’, his resolve to go back to the Philippines to start his own practice instead of staying in the USA turned out to be providential not only for himself, but for many Filipinos. When he started his company, he was virtually the senior partner and the janitor at the same time. The one-man office evolved into the largest professional firm in Asia in the 1970s, known for its talented and dedicated employees, and responsible for honing the skills of the country’s best managers, many of whom landed top Cabinet posts during different presidential terms.

At 85, Mr. Sycip is way past his retirement from Sycip, Gorres, Velayo & Co. (SGV), the company he founded in 1946 at the time when the country was trying to rebuild itself from the ravages and debris left by World War II. Shortly after he left SGV ten years ago, during the firm’s 50th anniversary, he was invited to sit on the boards of various top companies. He has also been kept busy by his other advocacies, which include advising nongovernment organizations engaged in education, healthcare, and population management. It was quite easy to get him to talk about his views on politics, the economy, and governance, for he has witnessed how this country came close to becoming a tiger economy but how it is now struggling to shake off its image as being the sick man of Asia.

Many of his views run contrary to popular beliefs and may not be politically acceptable, but they ring of so much truth and wisdom, that he has not been scorned for saying them. Like when he observes that the standard of education has deteriorated. “It used to be that the school system was the means by which you get the people out from poverty. A poor person gets free education from a good public school so he could move up, but now he finds it hard because the quality of education at the public schools is poor. So he is handicapped compared to someone who went to an exclusive school,” he observes. The teachers are also not given the opportunity to improve themselves. Together with a childhood friend, Fred Velayo, he had a program where Ateneo, an exclusive school, got to help the elementary school where the two friends had their early education. The teachers said: “this was the first time that anyone has cared about us improving ourselves.”

What he knows about feng shui

It was not the first time I had set foot on Mr. Sycip’s office, but every time I visit, it’s easy to see that the busy set-up bespeaks of the man holding court there. It has a distinct ambiance with its impressive library, curio items that are mostly gifts from friends and business associates, posterity shots of Mr. Sycip with international leaders, including US presidents Bill Clinton,  Ronald Reagan, British prime ministers Edward Heat, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. And for reasons unknown to me then, there were lots of owls, tortoises, and various lucky animal symbols everywhere. I simply had to ask him about this during the interview. He said it all started with an ivory owl. “I advised Matsushita on where to locate air compressor plants and they were happy with my recommendations,” he recalls. “So, one of their senior managing directors brought an ivory owl, and gave it to me.

How would he explain the presence of so many tortoise symbols in his office? Pointing to a beautiful painting of a man talking to a turtle, he obliges, ”I happened to see that painting in China. The story behind it is that the man was problematic and he was asking the tortoise for advice on what he should do. The turtle’s suggestion was for the man to ‘take it easy’. “Look at me, I’m a turtle. I’m slow but I can live for so many years,” the turtle said to the man.

Some people thought that he was fond of those animals, so the next thing he knew, owls and tortoises in various forms kept pouring in since then from friends and business associates. And so with all of these accumulation of lucky animal signs, which were mostly gifts from friends, I asked if he did not realize that it was all about feng shui? “I don’t know much about feng shui. I only learned from you!” was his quick reply.

He admits though that his daughter is very interested in feng shui. In fact, after Lillian Too’s Feng Shui Extravaganza earlier this year, where among other things, she mentioned that the North is the lucky facing direction of the house this year, his daughter came one morning and she rushed to the house to be sure, and with her compass, which must have been part of an old toy, immediately told his wife, “look it’s facing north”. “I was hardly expecting it”, he recalls.  “At that time, my wife was the one who decided on the house and she believed in feng shui also.”

“So your main door is facing North,” I repeated. He lets out a chuckle, “Whatever it is, she was saying what she learned from you guys.”

Before I left his office, I presented him with a Feng Shui Almanac for 2007 and gave him pointers on how to use it, especially for setting appointments and as guide for traveling, which he still expects to do a lot everytime. At his age, Mr. Sycip still starts his day at 5:30 am and is usually in the office by 6:30 am or 7:00 a.m. from Monday to Saturday morning.  He does not follow a strict diet, eats anything and loves good seafood. “I know I have two types of vitamin pills. I don’t know what they are, but I take them every morning. I just swallow,” he laughs. He considers walking up and down airports as his exercise. He managed to give me suggestions on the fortune cookies that I gave him, saying that the messages inside them are usually bland and uninteresting. “If you could do something about making sexy messages, so that people will have more fun, I tell you, they will sell like hotcakes,” he said with a tint of naughtiness in his voice.

I’m really giving some thought to that suggestion from a wise man, whom I had the luck to know through feng shui and my dearest mentor and very dear friend, the world renowned Lillian Too.

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