IN ALL the talks that he gives these days before different organizations, Washington SyCip says one thing: "To improve the Philippine situation, fix basic education first."
As he sees it, without a good education in grade school and high school, generations of Filipinos will be illiterate. "How then can they get jobs? How can they rise out of poverty?" he asks.
Today SyCip is wearing a Silk Cocoon barong embroidered with ancient Coptic writing. The pistachio color looks good on him. Despite his 87 years, it is hard to think of SyCip as an old man. His age does not inhibit him from having an active life, especially where his wisdom, work ethic, wealth and web of friends are needed.
The man packs so much brain and generosity in his small, slight frame. The founder of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and the force behind the leading accountancy firm SyCip, Gorres & Velayo (SGV), SyCip has put his money where his mouth is, as far as education in the country is concerned.
He has supported so many private initiatives, such as the Philippine Business for Education and Synergeia, that he can teach a course on Saving RP Schools 101.
He has also funded the education of a lot of young people. But he says, "I've stopped giving scholarships completely. I give scholarship and, when they're done, they go to the United States. What am I subsidizing, the US? It doesn't make sense."
After seeing what Nene Guevarra (the recent Gawad Haydee Yorac awardee) and the foundation Synergeia have accomplished in Mindanao, he says, "I switched my funding for education to her foundation to be used for basic education. For higher education, I think I've done quite a bit through AIM."
He's very choosy about what he supports now. For instance, there was a time he did not want to get involved with the Museo Pambata "because I felt that it was catering only to the children of the higher income families."
Trust a museum to persevere, though. "So then I said, all right, I'd give you a contribution but it should be used only for the kids from the poorest schools," SyCip recalls.
In the last few years, his donations have covered the expense for the buses that bring the children to the museum from, say, Tondo, as well as for the lunch of the young museum-goers.
"I had someone from our office check to see how effective that program was," he notes, "and she reported it was very, very effective so it became a yearly thing."
Farming for kids
At Boys Town and Girls Town in Silang, Cavite, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation awardee for International Understanding has been underwriting the kids' training in farming.
"I had no idea that they had all those kids there from poor families getting free room and board and an education up to high school," says SyCip.
"I was invited to visit. I went through their dormitories--so orderly. Their kitchen--so clean. The children were so disciplined. I asked the nuns, do you teach them how to improve productivity since most of them are from farms? The nuns said, 'We don't know how to do that.' They teach the girls how to sew dresses, knapsacks, etc."
By some coincidence, the place was right next to the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR). SyCip had been invited to be on the board of IIRR, an American organization with operations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"I asked the IIRR people to teach the kids how to get a patch of ground to be productive so they'd know what to do when they went back to the farm," SyCip says. "It's quite effective. They've been raising vegetables for their own consumption."
The IIRR project to teach the kids is a two-year program. SyCip gave the money in August last year for the first year of the program.
He is enthused that the kids have even developed a small machine for chopping daily organic waste that they can use for compost. "Every day, each kid gets a banana. What happens to the peeling? Now they have this machine that chops, chops, chops the banana skin for the compost," he says.
SyCip is a big believer that the most important ingredient in education is a good teacher. He notes that in most places in this country, children find any old excuse not to go to school. "Teachers should be inspiring. They have to motivate the kids to want to go to school."
Teachers are underpaid and underqualified. "That's why I told Metrobank their program (Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Teachers Awards) is the best," says SyCip.
He himself liked teaching, he confesses. He taught college courses at the University of Santo Tomas, University of the Philipines, Far Eastern University (back when it was the Institute of Accounting) and University of the East, but had to give it up when he got too busy with SGV.
"I really enjoyed teaching, and my students said they enjoyed my classes. I raised a lot of questions--that's the kind of teacher I was."
Employees of SGV, the accounting firm that SyCip founded and expanded throughout Asia, go for further training to upgrade their skills so they can move up. "But the teachers, after they graduate, get nothing. They feel no one helps them at all. They become indifferent," he says.
So with SGV partner Fred Velayo, who went to the same public elementary school, SyCip sought Ateneo de Manila University's help in training teachers at P. Burgos Elementary School.
"Fred and I financed the teacher training program. They also needed a meeting place, so Fred and I built an auditorium for them," he says.
Ask SyCip how we can improve the public education system, and he says, if needed, we can do it one school at a time.
"You cannot reform the whole Philippine system, and it is no use to say that because of that, you might as well leave the country," says SyCip.
One doctor from Makati Medical Center came to him for advice. Should his two sons, recently graduated, stay or go abroad? "I said, you know, if you doctors pay your income taxes, they don't have to go abroad." The frankness didn't sit well with the doctor.
"My contention is, do what you can," he says.