"You know why many Filipinos are poor? Sheer laziness. Lack of drive. Lack of ambition. Never mind having a creative mind."
On Monday night, Nov. 25, 2019 at the City Club Grand Ballroom in Makati, BizNewsAsia marks a milestone—its 18th anniversary of publishing the Philippines’ largest and most influential weekly news and business magazine. The event also marks my 71st birthday.
The CEOs and top honchos of the Philippines’ largest companies have confirmed their attendance. By largest, I mean, largest in revenues, largest in market value, and/or largest in wealth or net worth. If you are a regular reader of BizNewsAsia, you know who these companies are.
The Big Business of the Philippines is a very small society. As I keep saying only 100 families own the economy and politics of this country of 7,300 islands, 24 million families, and 107 million Filipinos.
I have been a business writer for 50 years. I have known, befriended, and watched a number of our taipans and tycoons become big. They say behind every great wealth is a great crime. That is not always true.
What is true—always—is that behind every great wealth is punishing hard work, relentless drive for excellence, and purposeful ambition. The late John Gokongwei Jr was right—“if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
When the late Henry Sy Sr landed in Manila from China in 1936 as a boy of 12, he had only ten centavos in his pocket. By the time he died early this year, his wealth was worth $17 billion. How did he do it? Pure hard work. No illegal drugs. No selling of get-rich-quick scams. Just punishing work 24/7.
Tatang Henry worked so hard he had little sleep. Always sleepy in class, he decided to quit. So he did not finish school. He did finish his goal—to be No. 1 in malls and retailing, No. 1 in property, and No. 1 in banking. In all three, Henry had no close second.
You know why many Filipinos are poor? Sheer laziness. Lack of drive. Lack of ambition. Never mind having a creative mind.
How can you explain why 25 million Filipinos are poor despite a rich country whose land and natural resources can feed and sustain a population of more than 200 million? It is not just simple laziness. It is also laziness to study.
When Singapore was just starting as a nation, 50 years ago, they had nothing. Singaporeans had no resources, no land, no water, no toilets. In contrast, Manila had one of the oldest water and sewerage systems in Asia and Asia’s first expressways. The entire island of Singapore you can sink into Laguna Lake and you still have 24,000 hectares still extra.
Yet today, the per capita income of Singapore is nine times that of the Philippines—$90,000 (purchasing power parity) vs. $10,000.
Singapore reckons its founding from 1965. Filipinos reckon their republic from 1898. We had a lead time of 67 years. Longer, if you acknowledge that the Philippines was westernized from 1521, when Magellan landed in Mactan and was quickly decapitated by Lapu-Lapu’s men. Cut to pieces, Magellan’s body was never found.
Today, a Filipino child can go to school free—free elementary, free high school (required by the Constitution), and free college (ordered by President Duterte). I think the quality of teaching in public schools should have improved. Why? Because public school teachers are paid better than teachers in private school—P25,000 vs. P15,000.
Of six future taipans who landed in either Cebu or Manila just before the war, only one is still alive, Lucio Tan. The others have all died, but not after building great fortunes—Al Yuchengco who died in 2017 at 94; George Ty who died in 2018 at 86; Henry Sy who died in January 2019 at 94; and Gokongwei who died Nov. 9, 2019 at 93). Gotianun had wealth of $501 million, Yuchengco $600 million, Ty $2.2 billion, Sy $17 billion; and Gokongwei $5.9 billion. Kapitan Lucio Tan is worth $3.9 billion per BizNewsAsia reckoning.
What do these taipans have in common? They started penniless. They ended up dollar multi-millionaires or billionaires.
To be sure, you don’t need to finish college to be wealthy. Half of the ten richest men of America are college dropouts. Nearly all our first generation taipans did not finish college. The billionaire college dropouts of America were inventors. The billionaire college dropouts of the Philippines were industrialists. They didn’t invent anything. They just developed new ways of doing old things. A common trait of these dropouts—hard work. Also, they could be ruthless. They finish off their competitors at the first opportunity. Lapu-Lapu style. He finished off the first conquering tyrant at the first sign of invasion.
In BizNewsAsia, we like competition. But our rivals have voluntarily finished themselves off. Entrepreneur magazine has quit print publishing. So has Forbes Philippines.
This makes BizNewsAsia a monopoly. Sadly, I don’t have the fabled billions of a monopoly. Maybe, I am in the wrong business. Publishing is an endangered profession. Print publications are losing subscribers and advertisers who have gone digital.
A number of local big newspapers are losing readers, circulation, and money. Thankfully, that is not happening with BizNewsAsia. We remain a very strong brand. I will not say very profitable because BIR has been on the lookout lately. But hey, I do a lot for this country promoting the Philippines as an investment and tourism destination.