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INSIGHT: Filipino management guru draws inspiration from three top Malaysians
IT is rare indeed that anyone past the age of 90 still has what it takes to keep a hall of top executives, including at least one Tun and a Tan Sri, at rapt attention to what he has to say.
That was exactly what Dr Washington SyCip, the Filipino founder of the pioneering Manila-based Asian Institute of Management (AIM), did at the inaugural Gabby Mendoza management lecture in Kuala Lumpur this week.
The management guru, whose institute reportedly counts at least 4,000 alumni in Malaysia and countless more Asia-wide, was the epitome of real learning as he imparted to his audience not so much his wisdom as the wisdom he claimed to have received from at least three prominent Malaysians.
From the late Tun Ismail Mohd Ali, SyCip said he took the advice to cut AIM's graduate management course from two years to one, the better to accommodate busy and successful Asian executives and something which Western management schools are only now implementing.
From Tun Ahmad Sarji, the first recipient of an award bearing SyCip's name, the latter said he learned that flattened bamboo makes the most prized tennis-court surface.
It was, however, from SyCip's interactions with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that he drew the main theme of his "lecture". He referenced it to the four original so-called Asian "tiger" economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
SyCip noted that South Korea and Taiwan were Japanese colonies while Singapore and Hong Kong were British ones. But the common trait uniting all four economies, he observed, was the fact that they all grew fast while not being politically free.
SyCip contrasted those four economies to that of his own country, the Philippines, and of India, respectively colonies of the United States and Britain, whose traditions of political freedom both Asian countries sought to closely emulate.
The result, SyCip said, was that his own country adopted the American system of open bidding for public works projects, with evidently grievous consequences in terms of the Philippines' perennial infrastructure bottlenecks.
He marvelled at the speed with which the Penang Bridge was built and learned directly from Dr Mahathir that it was because the latter adopted a system of limited open bidding for projects.
The lesson Sycip said he learned from Malaysia was that it was not necessary to always blindly follow the West and that Asian countries must not be afraid to strike out on paths more suited to their own peculiar needs and conditions.
SyCip placed particular emphasis on the admirable Asian trait of thrift and eschewing conspicuous consumption and valuing education, especially in science, mathematics, engineering and medicine. The Filipino mistake of producing a surfeit of lawyers must be avoided, he joked.
Such Asian emphasis seems appropriately apt today in view of the current economic crises both in Europe and the US caused by uncontrolled budget deficits. The keen Filipino observer of global affairs said he told his European friends at the creation of the euro that they were asking for trouble in creating one currency controlled not by one finance minister but 17 of them.
In response to a question from the audience, SyCip explained that he is not against democracy. But he said poor countries needed to place emphasis on fast economic growth first in order to address the basic needs of their peoples.
Moreover, poor people whose basic needs are not attended to first are more likely to sell their votes. Far better that they be uplifted from their poverty before any democracy suited to each country’s peculiar needs and circumstances is crafted, was the sage advice imparted by SyCip.
SyCip said he enjoyed his many visits to India and especially his return to his native Philippines from there because he has observed that the slums in India are worse than those in the Philippines.
The much-decorated SyCip also let on that many of his American friends agree with him that from the period of the Reagan presidency onwards, coinciding with the time when China’s Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms, China’s leaders have done much more for their country than American ones for theirs.
SyCip might be peddling politically incorrect observations, albeit with subtle humour, but he did preface his speech with the caveat that at his age he could afford to be “controversial”. The mystery, especially here in Asia, perhaps is why, sadly, the views and observations by such a learned and much-travelled man remain controversial even.