Lessons from Henry Sy and Vice Ganda

Cesar Purisima
If you commit to these lessons, you will be productive, satisfied, and clear in conscience – precisely the kind of worker I would hire, and precisely the kind of person that our country needs

Cesar PurisimaGraduation speeches often take on the character of the person delivering them. I am not a priest, so don’t expect me to preach to you. I’m not an inventor, so I can’t tell you about the magic of scientific discovery. I’m not a philosopher, either, so don’t hope too hard for me to tell you the meaning of life, love, or happiness.

What I am is an accountant, a finance man, and a public servant. And so today I will tell you about business, service, and my observations on how to be a success.

It is my privilege to serve our country as the Secretary of Finance and under PNoy. While many agencies play a role in Philippine economic development, at the end of the day, it is my job to make sure that we have the resources to invest in our country and our people. When we talk about our biggest asset, it is our people and our challenge is how to educate each one to become a professional or an entrepreneur. And in preparation for when you begin building your futures, I would like to share with you two very meaningful stories.

The first story is about a poor immigrant. During the Spanish era, two of the lowest jobs you could possibly have were carrying water – kargadors, and repairing shoes – cobblers. This young man learned to be a cobbler after the Spanish era. But rather than just spend his life repairing shoes, he decided to begin collecting and selling rejected and overrun shoes from factories. Eventually, he saved up the capital to start his own shop. Yet he didn’t stop there. He worked hard to evolve himself and his business so he would always have a new way to serve the market.

Today, he is the richest man in the Philippines. He graduated with a degree from FEU, and his name is Henry Sy.

The second story is about a young student from Tondo. Born the youngest of five children, his father was a barangay captain, and was brutally murdered when he was quite young. His mother left the country to work as a caregiver, and he studied political science at FEU. He learned to develop a unique perspective and deep understanding of human nature, which he cleverly incorporated into comedic routines. Soon he became an important cultural critic and an icon for aspiring entertainers.

His name is Jose Maria Viceral, but he is more popularly known as Vice Ganda.

LIFE'S LESSONS. Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima at FEU. Photo courtesy of the Department of Finance

Sy’s hard work 

Now, you may find it strange that I mentioned the stories of people with very different occupations – one a successful businessman, the other a very popular entertainer. The stories of these two FEU personalities inspired me because there are three very important lessons to be learned from them, no matter what profession you choose to pursue.

And no, these lessons won’t necessarily make you millionaires or billionaires. But if you commit to these lessons honestly and purposefully in your heart and actions, you will be productive, satisfied, and clear in conscience – precisely the kind of worker I would hire, and precisely the kind of person that our country needs.

The first thing you must learn is from Henry Sy’s story – you must never doubt the value of hard work. I’m sure that your whole life, you have heard again and again about the virtue of diligence. I particularly like what the American president Calvin Coolidge had this to say about hard work:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

What Coolidge is saying is that there are plenty of people who are smart, educated, or talented who do not succeed – simply because they do not have the fortitude to persevere in achieving their goals. They look for the easy way out. Mr. Sy was not born into a life of privilege or good fortune. In fact, he was disadvantaged in many ways. It was only through dedication and hard work that he became a successful businessman.

Part of working hard is working to constantly improve yourself. My own graduation speaker was Mr. Joe Concepcion, and the most important advice he gave me was that you must develop two inventories – an inventory of skills, and an inventory of contacts.

An oft-repeated cliché is that an education should prepare you for the job of a lifetime. This means that your job does not begin or end with your workday – you must always be striving to move yourself forward. This is true for your technical skills – in this age of technology, there is always a new platform, new software, new infrastructure that you need to master to keep yourself evolving and relevant.

I tell you this because you are not just competing with the workers in offices today; you are competing with the generation of workers who are now being born even as I give this speech. You must always know what your value is and you must always be working to keep that value high.

For Henry Sy, he knew that he could not stop at just being a shoe seller. He worked hard to build, expand and grow from one shop to a chain of malls. He evolved and adapted, and now the SM empire spans many different lines of business.

‘You will live and die as a team’

The second half of that statement is your inventory of contacts – that is, building your network of relationships. Look around you. Right now you are not just surrounded by friends and classmates, but also by your professors and loving family members.

Think of how you would go out of your way to do something good for these people, and remember that many of them feel the same way about you. The relationships you build as you enter professional life are crucial. They will sustain you when things spiral out of your control – and believe me, if you work as long as I have, they always will at some point in time.

When you succeed, always share the credit with the people you work with. Remember that in the professional life, you will live and die as a team. Look for ways to make your teammates better, because that will ultimately make you look better. In many activities, even cooperatively, there will be winners and losers, and some will be better at certain things than others. It is important to learn how to manage your team’s talents so that everyone comes out better.

Above all, be grateful to the people who bring good will into your life, and do your best to show them your appreciation. This is not just for your own advancement, but also for your soul. Sometimes you go to bed thinking that you can thank someone tomorrow, only to find that you may no longer have the chance. No regret is more common than the regret of not having loved enough.

Vice’s humor

Now, talking about how you should feel, let’s move on to Vice’s story. The lesson you should learn from Vice is that no matter how difficult things get for you, you must always stay positive. When you sincerely have a positive attitude, you will find that every problem has a solution.

I spoke about how we are not yet where we want to be yet in terms of our economy. I agree that there are many areas where we can still improve. However, if you let anger take over you and focus too much on assigning blame, you will miss out on chances to maximize your strengths. This is like looking at someone incredibly beautiful and only noticing a mole on their face. We have to stop looking at the moles!

We have one of the youngest populations in the world – our median age is 22, and we are poised to enter the “Demographic Sweet Spot” – where the majority of our population is of the productive age between 15 and 60. Our labor force will be one of the youngest, most dynamic, and most skilled in the world – a force that you all will become part of very soon.

Being able to look at things differently is the strength of the optimist. Many people become frustrated because they are unable to solve their problems. Yet often the problem lies not in the lack of a solution, but the lack of understanding of the problem. Some people, in their haste to fix things, oftentimes miss the point and sometimes end up making their problem worse.

Let me give you an example. In the Philippines, we are always looking for ways to increase revenues, and one way is through our income taxes. Now our tax collections have gone up in recent years, but we are still not where we want to be compared to some of our neighbours and trade partners. If the problem was defined simply as having a low tax effort, a blunt solution would be to raise tax rates. However that definition would be inaccurate –the proper definition of the problem lies in our tax compliance.

We still have many individual taxpayers, including prosperous professionals and businesses, that pay very low taxes – I can think of cases of doctors and lawyers paying only a few hundred pesos in tax a year, when public school teachers pay many more times that. And so by approaching the right definition of the problem, we realize that a brute force solution wouldn’t work – it would just unduly harm many of our people. The right approach would need to be specific, targeted and with the clear goal of enforcing tax compliance from tax evaders.

Remember, Vice is a comedian. His sense of comedy stems from his ability to see things from different angles and perspectives, and thus making observations that other people fail to catch. Employers value a sense of humor because not only does it make you a more pleasant person, it means that you can see things differently and find what is laughable, and what is profound. Never lose your laughter.

‘Give your life meaning’

The last important lesson comes from both of their stories. You will meet plenty of people that are diligent workers. There are also plenty of people that are pleasant and fun to be around. But these qualities will not take you far in life if you have no dreams to direct you. You have to set your sights high, and dream for yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do, or what your dreams should be.

I want you to look within yourselves now and find something that you want to reach for. Your dreams can be simple or elaborate, but they should drive you to improve yourself to attain them. If your dreams contain no difficulty, you will stay complacent.

Recently, we were upgraded to Investment Grade by a major ratings agency – something that we have always dreamed of achieving. Yet, this is no reason for our dream to end here. There is still so much we can do and become, as a people and a nation. If a country like Singapore can be AAA-rated, why not us? Our people are creative and talented, our population is diverse, and our country is blessed with natural resources and natural beauty. Serving in government, we have big dreams for the Philippines, and we do not let anyone else’s expectations define them for us.

Working hard and having fun are nothing if you do not dare to give your life meaning. It can sometimes be terrifying to face your dreams and how daunting and difficult they may be. But this should not stop you. The writer Neal Donald Walsch had a way to describe people who are too filled with anxiety to do anything: “Too scared to die, too scared to live… what a way to exist.”

Go out of your way to make a difference. Don’t be one of those people who go to sleep wishing you were a different person – BE that different person. I’m sure many of you have thought of things you would change to make our country better. I tell you today, as a member of the civil service: why not? Hold on to those thoughts. Keep them in your mind and let them motivate you, especially if they fill you with the strong emotions of happiness, sadness, or rage. Our country was built on the anger of a people struggling to be free, because they wanted better lives for the people they loved and for the children they would have.

Hold revolutions in your hearts and make big changes. Make sure that people remember where you walk, where you work. To quote a popular hashtag on twitter: You Only Live Once.

I must warn you though, that as you try to fulfil your dreams, you will encounter those who wish to hinder them – and the bigger a difference you want to make, the more you will be attacked. If you are truly working to change the world, you must be prepared to come under fire not just from structured opposition, but by the vicious undercurrents of cynicism and lies that will be spread by those who will want to see you fail.

I say this not to discourage you, but to show you how to fight it. Your armor against these attacks must be your integrity – the resolute strength of your soul against the world. Rather than lash out at your tormentors, it is a greater virtue to show the world your resolve through your actions. An unwavering commitment to tangible progress will silence any of your foes. My mentor Washington Sycip told me, and I never forgot:

“The factor most critical to successful innovation is not the presence or absence of material resources, but the presence or absence of leaders with integrity who are free to dream, to imagine, to think, to act.

If there is one and only one message I would like you to remember for the rest of your life, it is this: be a person of integrity.”

And this is the amazing realization. If you commit to these three pieces of advice from the stories I have told you, you will achieve four important things, no matter who you are or what you do – you will be excellent workers, you will be satisfied, you will be true to yourself, and your actions will show the Love of Fatherland and God that impassioned Nicanor Reyes to found FEU. As Secretary of Finance and one of the country’s economic managers, looking at each and every one of you, I could not possibly ask you for more.

Builders of a better PH

I have one more person to tell you about. He is not an FEU alumnus, but he is a worker who embodies everything I have just talked about. Like many other workers, he shows up to work – sometimes loving his job, sometimes not loving it so much, especially when times are difficult. However, like a true professional, he does not let difficulties get in the way of his dedication to his work. He treats his work and his co-workers with respect, and commits to seeing things through. When he meets people, he establishes credibility and once he earns their trust, he holds it most sacred and does not break it for anything. He has a goal for where he wants to be, and he holds himself and the people who work for him to the highest standards.

His name is President Noynoy Aquino.

If I had to name the most important thing that President Aquino accomplished in his administration, it is that he has gotten everyone around him to believe in a bright future for the Philippines. The most visible manifestations of this are the upgrades to our credit rating – we are now an investment grade country, which signals that the world has faith in the strength of our economy.

But there are other effects of this trust that you do not always see in the news. I am inspired every day by the young people that I see joining government in greater numbers. Brilliant young minds like yourself now do innovative work in many agencies. I have met young staff who work to build peace in Bangsamoro, and aspiring scientists who are working to improve our agriculture through technology. In the Department of Finance, fresh graduates have joined us as analysts to help us root out smugglers and tax evaders.

Whether you work in government or not, you will all be a part of this future. All of you are now builders of a better Philippines.

A Philippines where our businesses, institutions, and professionals are recognized not just for their excellence, but for uprightness and stalwart ethics.

A Philippines where people choose to live in not out of obligation or desperation, but out of true choice, because of its infinite splendour and opportunity.

A Philippines where you will find vindication for the dreams you have today. This is the true embodiment of the Love of Fatherland and God, and the values of Fortitude, Excellence and Uprightness that FEU holds dear.

President Aquino did not grow up thinking he would become president. He was a civil servant who wished to serve his country and constituents to the best of his ability. He practiced excellence in his work because it was in his nature, so when fate called upon him to play a greater role in our country’s history, he was ready.

And so this is the lesson I would like all of you to learn from our country’s elected leader. Be excellent, each and every day. Every one of you will one day be called to greatness. And that day may be as early as today. – Rappler.com

Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima delivered this speech on April 29 during the 85th FEU Graduation Ceremonies, Institute of Accounts, Business, and Finance.