Homage to Ramon Sy
Another pillar of Philippine society passed away last week. Ramon Sy rose from poverty to be a brilliant banker concerned with our development into a just and sovereign nation.
We met at a Japanese embassy reception many years ago. He approached me at the sushi buffet and said that he liked what I was writing. He then asked me to address the officers of the Coconut Planters Bank of which he was CEO. Sure enough, the following week, I went to the bank’s Makati headquarters, had lunch there and then addressed the officers.
In my public lectures, I try to empathize with my audience and focus on their problems and expectations. My general themes are why we are poor and the compulsion to change from the agrarian tradition to modernity. In the question-and-answer forum, I realize how little we know our own culture, how it obstructs change, how we are our own enemy.
Cocobank was moribund when he took over – he breathed new life into it. Ramon’s parents were ethnic Chinese. He was born in Cavite and was orphaned when he was very young. Nostalgic, we compared our boyhood, Ramon selling cigarettes in the city, and me in that farming village. He took up commerce at the Far Eastern University, and his first job was as a messenger for a bank. He then went to the University of the Philippines where he got his Master’s in Business Administration. He became country manager of the Bank of America and from there, he was associated with so many banks and corporations, bringing to those positions innovations, industry and integrity to become a legend in the banking industry.
Ramon and I shared a lot of ideas. He was a staunch Caviteño, I am a hardened Ilokano. He did not appreciate the landlord proclivities of the very rich. “They are not producing” was his consistent observation of the malls, the condominiums, pleasure spas, casinos and mansions that the rich are building. And the corruption – how do we diminish it?
We appreciated how Singapore, Korea and Taiwan developed with these countries run by strong leaders. Having gone through Martial Law, he was saddened by Marcos’s failure with wrong economic policies, his plunder of the national wealth and the profligacy of his wife. And smuggling – he decried how a weak state permitted our textile industry to die, and the big time smuggling of oil – this required complicity in the highest enclaves of power.
His views on China were pragmatic; China as a market, a producer of cheaper products. It was inevitable that Philippine capital would go there, but not to the extent that there is more Philippine money in China than Chinese money in the Philippines. I asked him who, in his mind, among the Filipino-Chinese businessmen, is the most Filipino. Without a second thought, he said, Carlos Chan, and that is why I have appreciated Carlos Chan ever since, particularly his venturing in Asia and Africa.
Ramon used to tarry in the shop. But as we both grew older, we couldn’t go up two flights of stairs to my room; so, he would take me out to lunch, usually at the Japanese restaurant in the Diamond Hotel. The last time we saw each other was before the lockdown last year. He was with his collapsible stroller and I was with my cane. I ordered my usual soba, and he had a tray of sushi. We talked about Duterte, minus his risqué vocabulary, and we decided that the man was not doing badly but that his drug and anti-corruption campaign were failures. We talked about the young, the next generation attuned with all those technological innovations, artificial intelligence and robotics that are becoming realities. Then there is the looming catastrophe of climate change. In this new world, we will both be lost.
I mourn Ramon’s passing. He was wise, compassionate and full of wisdom in a country where ignorance is bliss. He is survived by his wife and three children. I’ve met his daughter, a successful architect, and his son, a writer in San Francisco.
History is not the Judge
As the election year approaches, those who have committed crimes against the people see history as the final arbiter that will wipe away their guilt. Wrong! History is a continuum; today is history, the final judge is not history – it is us! The future citizens of any country will not suffer the tyrants now. They cannot be the judge. They will know, but they will not experience suffering. And the tyrants today – sure, they will have their asterisks in history books to record permanently their crimes. Sure, truth may have many interpretations as viewed from several perspectives. They may even be denied. The objective truth is tangible, or felt or seen – the pile of corpses at the Nazi concentration camp, a stomach ache, a typhoon.
We must be conscious all the time of the lie; when it is repeated so often, to those who do not know the truth, the lie will be accepted as the truth. In this information glut, lies ceaseless numbs the mind, destroys the will to resist. And there are fanatics who will die for that lie.
The Marcos clan
Many are so loyal to the Marcoses. Some of my contemporaries – scholars at that – sincerely appreciated him, worked for him, ignoring his faults as they emerged. Marcos and his wife were astute politicians, nice, charming. They also lifted many people from the dung heap, some of whom became very respectable to be esteemed as such to this very day.
As the late Marcos executive secretary, Rafael Salas, said, the Marcos loot was about $4 billion; squirreled abroad in ways only his family knows. The revisionists would have us believe the Marcos years were the glory years. Sure, Marcos came to power when our economy was on the “take off” stage. In those 20 years that he was in power, we became the “sick man of Asia.”
The Marcos family never really returned our money. The Marcoses are using our money to return to power.
Poverty as gimmick
Poverty is never a qualification for an exalted position. It is for the grave. But for many candidates, it is a plus; it identifies them with the masa. Indeed, a leader born poor acquires profound insights from this condition, insights which enable him to envision possible programs of lightening the poor man’s burden. Again, only the poor understand the poor. This, only if such a leader doesn’t forget his past.
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