MANILA, Jakarta and Bangkok: Southeast Asian cities are vast, rambunctious and extremely competitive, verging on the cutthroat.

For foreign investors looking to make the plunge, who to trust is a critical issue. A wrong decision here can wipe out your investment. And 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 – he read voraciously – “Wash” (as he was called) left a huge, enduring legacy in the region’s fastest-growing economy.

Nowadays, everyone knows that Business Process Outsourcing (or BPO) is a key pillar of the Philippine economy. Last year, the sector generated US$24bil in revenues, providing employment to more than 1.3 million workers as well as stimulating a tremendous property and consumption boom.

However, very few people realise that the genesis of this sector owes a great deal to Wash and the accounting-cum-consulting giant SGV Group, that he founded in Manila back in 1946.

As Cesar Purisima (one of his protégés at SGV and a two-time Secretary of Finance) explains: “Back in the 60s and 70s, SGV was the largest accounting firm west of the Mississippi.”

“In the 1980s,” he adds, “Wash and SGV started offering BPO services in partnership with the-then Andersen Consulting through what was then referred to as the Manila Solutions Center.”

Indeed, Wash grasped very early on that corporate clients would be looking to lower the cost of back-office services – accounting, pay-roll, etc. – while maintaining standards. Of course, we’ll never know if he anticipated the sheer scale of what he had initiated.

aRobust and principled: Philanthropist and highly influential business leader, Washington Sycip would have turned 98 this week. Prim and proper, he evoked professionalism since a young age (centre). On active duty during the Second World War as a cryptographer in the tropical China-Burma-India theater. – Photos from ‘Wash – only a Bookkeeper. a biography of Washington Sycip’.

While I can’t claim to have known Wash particularly well, I was fortunate enough to have met him on a few occasions. 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 – smart phones 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.

Obviously, I’ve been very intrigued by Wash, but when he passed away just under two years ago, I didn’t really know enough about him to write an obituary. Since then, I’ve spent some time researching more about his life and his achievements. In doing so, I’ve realised that with 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.

Speaking of Wash, President and CEO of the Magsaysay Group Doris Ho noted that “he was a one-man Council of Elders for many corporate Philippine movers and shakers. 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 as a cryptographer or code-breaker for the Allies in Calcutta.

Reading his accounts of those years, I can see that ploughing through reams of Japanese transcripts in search of precious intelligence really sharpened his mind. As he explained to his biographer, the process was like sleuthing – you had a pile of raw data and the knowledge that 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 up the blanks.

SGV tower and EY, side by side on Ayala Avenue, the main artery of all major private sector firms in the Makati CBD.  – Photo by

SGV tower and EY, side by side on Ayala Avenue, the main artery of all major private sector firms in the Makati CBD.  – Photo by

Many years later, Wash was to write of those years living alongside Bengal’s Hooghly River: “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. 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.”

WWII opened the world to Wash. It transformed his life. He learned new languages, unusual skills and lived in parts of the globe he’d never expected to visit. This is not unlike Malaysia’s very own nonagenarian premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose wartime experiences emboldened him to challenge colonial powers as well as accepted norms.

By comparison, most of us have grown up in times of peace. In essence; it’s all about character-building. Our experiences shape our future trajectory. The relatively “soft times” we are in now may mean we end up lacking the depth and breadth of previous generations. When faced with adversity, we often lack the fortitude to weather the changes.

Wash maintained his independence at all times. He was scathing of his homeland’s atrocious political leadership.

Unafraid of controversy, he also questioned the effectiveness of democracy in delivering good governance – citing the success of authoritarian states such China and Vietnam in reducing poverty compared to India and the Philippines.

The Philippines misses his robust and principled voice.