In his March 10 column, Philippine STAR’s erudite and perceptive business columnist Boo Chanco wrote a very interesting and thought-provoking piece entitled “Chinese entrepreneurs.” He raised several questions relevant not only to our ethnic Chinese minority but with valuable lessons for all business people and professionals in our society.
By the way, late this month, the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII) will hold its biennial national convention to choose new leaders to take the place of the successful yet humble outgoing president aluminum tycoon Angel Ngu.
Our sources say that a top contender to be next FFCCCII president is its incumbent EVP Henry Lim Bon Liong, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman engineering graduate, boss of Sterling Paper Group and hybrid rice pioneer SL Agritech. He is proficient in English, Filipino, Mandarin and Hokkien, an expert in Chinese culture and history such as the Three Kingdoms-era saga studied by many Asian leaders and entrepreneurs from Korea, Japan to Vietnam.
Another top contender as president is the low-key paint manufacturing and realty tycoon, FFCCCII VP Domingo Yap. His son Bohol Congressman Atty. Arthur Yap is former agriculture secretary under ex-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. A source said the Zamboanga City-educated Yap “would become the first ever FFCCCII president from the Mindanao region if he wins.”
The paramount leader and top philanthropist of FFCCCII is its chairman emeritus, the self-made billionaire Dr. Lucio C. Tan of Philippine Airlines and the Tan Yan Kee Foundation. Tan was given an honorary doctorate degree by Soka University in Tokyo, Japan last March 7. Tan still leads the FFCCCII in its yearly civic donations of many public schools for poor rural regions.
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Going back to Boo’s column, Chanco asked why the Philippines’ ethnic Chinese minority hasn’t been able to uplift our national economy to become a globally-competitive player, similar to the way those of our entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese peers helped do for Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places, even though he rightly pointed out that we all share the same ancestral roots, either in Fujian or Guangdong provinces.
Chanco also pointed out that not even our top business taipans are as big as their Asian and ASEAN peers. Why is that? I recall John Gokongwei, Jr. himself telling me before that the fortune alone of Malaysia’s immigrant “rags-to-riches” Genting/Resorts World founder Lim Gok Tong is bigger than those of several Philippine taipans’ net worth combined.
Himself a descendant of an ethnic Chinese immigrant whose family has produced no entrepreneurs, Chanco asked why the rugged entrepreneurial spirit and traditional Confucian values of the first-generation immigrants are often quickly lost here in the Philippines, and don’t seem to positively benefit or lift the Philippine economy, unlike those in other Asian societies?
Let me suggest some answers, considering the unique situation and challenges of our ethnic Chinese minority here in the Philippines, in response to Boo’s queries.
• Many self-made immigrants overprotect their kids. Many of the “rags to riches” immigrant entrepreneurs, their wives and even taipans here in the Philippines make the fatal error of overprotecting and overindulging their children and grandkids. Why? Many mistakenly think that they “don’t want to deprive” their heirs of the creature and material comforts — even luxuries — that they might have lacked in their own “difficult” early years.
They don’t realize that one of the strong reasons behind their entrepreneurial and professional successes is precisely those “difficult” times, their early sufferings, struggles against poverty, social ostracism, numerous legal and other obstacles.
Instead of raising kids and grandkids who could be globally competitive entrepreneurs and professionals, who could be reformers to help modernize the Philippines, not a few of these entitled, culturally effete and even spoiled heirs ape the lifestyles of the rich and become part of our society’s often rent-seeking and decadent traditional elites or the so-called “oligarchs.” These elites have, for generations, been stumbling blocks to progress.
• The ethnic Chinese minority in the Philippines is the smallest in ASEAN. Unlike Spanish colonizers, here in the Philippines for 333 years, the pragmatic British colonizers in Malaysia and Singapore allowed the influx of many Chinese migrants to their colonies to help stimulate industries and modernize local economies as traders and artisans.
In stark contrast, our Spanish colonizers for three centuries focused more on feudal agricultural plantations, mere resource extraction and religious conversions, so they frowned upon the influx of entrepreneurial Chinese traders, moneylenders and artisans as threats to their own presence in the archipelago.
The Spanish colonizers imposed the highest taxes on the Chinese, committed outright pogroms and mass expulsions, all which helped limit the size of the ethnic Chinese minority here to the smallest proportion in Southeast Asia. Unlike sizeable Chinese communities all over Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam, the ethnic Chinese minority in the Philippines amount to no more than two percent of the national population (excluding the Chinese mestizos).
• Too much Westernization in cultural values. Boo Chanco is correct in his observation that unlike many of our peers in Asia, the ethnic Chinese minority members here in the Philippines have become the most Westernized in the region in terms of mindset, lifestyle and even values, often losing the soul and essence of our own identity.
Due to mis-education, often overprotecting and over-pampering of heirs, is it any mystery why many of the current crop of taipans, who are the pacesetters of Philippine economic progress, are not scions of top Chinese clans from the Spanish or American colonial era?
Isn’t it amazing that foreign-born migrants — whom the old families of the Chinese community used to call sin khe or “newcomers” (nowadays called by local-born Chinese “TDK” from the phrase “tai diok ka” or “mainlanders) — like Henry Sy of SM, Lucio Tan of PAL and Andrew Tan of Megaworld, Emperador and Alliance Global Group, are the preeminent leaders of the business community, the top donors in Philippine philanthropy and also the foremost catalysts of Philippine economic investments?
I heard that William Bello, the self-made founder of construction industry leader Wilcon Builders, which launches its P7.9 billion IPO on March 31, is also an immigrant from Fujian province. Wilcon’s first big retail center at EDSA highway in Balintawak, Quezon City used to be a sawmill property owned by a seventh-generation ethnic Chinese businessman whose family by the 19th century was already Manila’s top lumber business clan.
In Juan Luna Street, Manila, the late self-made and Fujian-born Andrew Gotianun’s Filinvest Group now owns the three-hectare former sawmill property once owned by a top tycoon of this same formerly Manila’s foremost 19th century lumber clan. This former sawmill land will soon become Filinvest Group’s One Binondo mall/office/hotel complex.
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