May I thank Mrs. Carmen Linda M. Atayde, Executive Director-Education, of the SM Foundation for inviting me as Guest of Honor and Speaker today during the presentation of this year’s scholar-graduates of the SM Foundation. From her academic enclave as President of Far Eastern University, my esteemed friend Lydia B. Echauz called me up three weeks ago to be sure that I would be present here today. Salamat po, Mrs. Atayde and Dr. Echauz for granting me this rare honor to fellowship with the cream of the top educational institutions in the Philippines, who are gathered in this super venue called the SMX Convention Center.
I congratulate the joyful and smiling SM scholars for this most memorable milestone in their lives. Today, they proclaim their faith in and adherence to academic excellence, discipline and hard work as they join the ranks of the professionals, entrepreneurs and work force in the real world, confident that their diligence and demonstrated brainpower assure them of a coveted place in society.
I felicitate also their beaming and proud parents, brothers, sisters and other loved ones. They too sacrificed their time and treasures to help our beloved graduates attain this ecstatic moment. Today, they certainly deserve a generous share of the graduates’ glory of achievement. Palakpakan po natin silang lahat.
Let me now pay tribute to the man whose far-reaching vision has made this occasion possible and has fulfilled the dreams of the gifted and the deserving. I refer to Dr. Henry Sy, Sr. whose rags-to-riches story has inspired millions of people to forge on and eventually succeed even when the obstacles before them seemed so impossible to surmount.
Synergy in Business
I first met Dr. Sy more than fifty years ago, when as a struggling student, I bought my shoes at his Shoemart store in Carriedo Street in Manila at, believe it or not, only ten pesos at that time. His store progressed because he sold the best pairs at the most reasonable prices. From Carriedo, he expanded to the Makati Commercial Center, to North EDSA, thence all over. Shoemart metamorphosed into SM.
Today, SM generates nearly 150 billion pesos in revenues last year, employs over 75,000 workers and operates a perfect 100 stores (a landmark indeed) nationwide, composed of 34 SM department stores, 25 supermarkets, 14 SaveMore branches, 13 SM hypermarkets, and 14 Makro stores. Three of the world’s biggest malls are located in our country and they all proudly bear the SM logo: SM Mall of Asia, SM Megamall and SM City North Edsa.
Inevitably, his businesses expanded to other fields but they always complimented and supplemented each other into one seamless whole. He has one underlying business philosophy: he sticks to his core business and to his area of expertise. Thus, although his business empire seems diversified, it is really inter-related – retail, tourism and entertainment, shopping centers, real estate and banking. Together, they provide for the basic needs of people and uplift their lifestyle. Because of this interrelation, Henry Sy Sr. is known in the business community where he is an icon, as Mr. Synergy.
Symmetry in Personal Life
Though highly successful in all his ventures, Henry Sy Sr. has remained humble, self-effacing and low profile. He seldom makes public appearances. Nonetheless, he honored me two years ago – for which I thank him – when he made a supreme effort to be present and to greet me during my retirement ceremonies as Chief Justice. I know that normally, he prefers walking in his malls, watching people shop and have fun rather than attend cocktail parties and high society socials.
He treasures, if I may quote him, “my six children who are my teammates and friends in the office and at home, and most especially my wife of (over) fifty years, Molly, who is my lifetime companion, treasurer, adviser and best friend.” He also professes deep faith in God, who according to him “is good and generous with His gifts to us.”
That is why at the center of all his major projects is always a house of the Lord. In the frenzy of buying and dining at the SM Megamall, shoppers can still find peace and tranquility at the Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord inside that huge shopping center. Even before he built his gigantic Mall of Asia, he first constructed the Shrine of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life near it, in response to the late Pope John Paul II’s wish for a center for the youth during the 1995 World Youth Day held in our country.
He calls his low profile, God-oriented, family-centered lifestyle as “balance.” I prefer to call it “symmetry,” a word that – in my humble opinion – reflects, yes, balance and also, harmony, evenhandedness and congruity with God and humans alike.
Symphony in relation to God
Although Henry Sy Sr. has been acclaimed for many years as one of the richest men in the world, he has not forgotten his roots. He always reminisces that he was once poor, that he was a struggling and hard-working commoner who has been blessed abundantly. So his passion is not really to accumulate more wealth but to distribute it equitably to the marginalized, the dispossessed, the infirm and the helpless.
Thus, he established and generously endowed the SM Foundation that, since 1983, has undertaken educational, health and medical, mall-based outreaches, and livelihood and religious programs designed to help the unfortunate, including the College Scholarship Program we are commemorating today. Aside from these programs, he also supports many charitable and education ventures like hospitals, wellness centers, universities and disaster relief activities. But he calls the SM Foundation the “heart and soul of SM,” his business empire.
Our Lord God has been generous to Henry Sy Sr. That is why Dr. Sy is also generous to others in sharing his fortune. He helps those who are too infirm or too destitute to help themselves. He helps the talented like you, my dear graduates, to be able to hone your talents so you can, in time, help others improve themselves.
He has thus joined the league of the world’s super rich like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet. Henry Ford, John Rockefeller and Li Ka Shing in their passion to share their fabulous wealth with the destitute, the infirm and the sick. As I have always dared say, the only justification for accumulating enormous wealth is the zeal and the ability to distribute it wisely to the needy and the hungry.
For all of us who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, this is the only way to earn a final reunion with God. In the Good Book (Matt 25), our Lord taught his disciples that they would inherit the Kingdom of God only if they feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. By the same token, when we finally knock at the pearly gates, our Lord will not ask us how many digits were in our bank accounts, or how many doctoral degrees we earned, or how lofty our government positions were.
He will just ask whether we shared our resources with the poor, used our talent to defend the weak, and spent our time to help those in most need. Indeed, man is only an administrator of the gifts and blessings the Lord has given. I call this direction given by the Lord to share our blessings and possessions with the less fortunate as a confluence, a congruence, a concert, a symphony with the will of God.
Born poor and later orphaned
As I said earlier, I met Dr. Sy over fifty years ago. Like him, I was born very poor. My father was a mere high school graduate who found great joy as a rank and file government employee. My mother barely made it through primary school. Both of them died while I was still in school and before I finished my law degree. To support my early education, I hawked newspapers, shined shoes and sold cigarettes in the streets of Sampaloc, Manila.
Many times, as I lay awake in the cold pavements waiting for the newspaper delivery truck to arrive at the break of dawn, I had to fight back tears of sadness and feelings of self-pity. I would think of my schoolmates as they slept on their beds while I had to work at an early age to be able to support myself to school. So I vowed to myself that someday I would be president of the Manila Times, the largest selling newspaper at that time. I thought that that was just a pipe dream but voila, little did I know that God heard my guileless prayer, because decades later, I became president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest circulated newspaper in our country.
Although born a Catholic, I did not really know my religion. My parents were not themselves steeped in their faith, so they could not teach me much. I did not have the opportunity to attend catechism classes either as I had enrolled in public elementary and high schools. Having graduated with honors from Mapa High School, I was granted a tuition scholarship at the University of the Philippines. But my poor father could not afford to give me the fifteen-centavo bus fare between our small rented apartment in Sampaloc, Manila to Diliman, Quezon City.
UP, UST and FEU
He advised me to enroll in a nearby college. So I went to the University of Santo Tomas. The Dominican priest who interviewed me there assured me that I would be admitted if I could answer correctly three basic questions. First, he asked, “How many God are there?” I answered instantly, “One.” Then he queried again, “How many persons are there in one God?” I said. “Three.” Then he asked the final question, “Name them.” Truthfully, I did not know the answer, so I muttered softly, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” remembering that I had heard my frustrated grandmother say to me, “Jesusmariajoseph!”
Of course, I failed the test and I was rejected. But I vowed to study my faith. I read the bible back to back several times. I researched on volumes and volumes of books on religion such that, after finishing college, I was asked to teach in Catholic schools like the Assumption Convent where Tessie Sy-Coson, the eldest daughter of Henry Sy Sr., became my student. (Tessie, by the way, has long ago surpassed her humble professor in talent and achievements.) And many years later, I, who did not even know the three persons of the Holy Trinity, was appointed by the late Pope John Paul II as the only Filipino member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Vatican for the 1996-2001 term!
Anyway, because I could not enroll in UP and was rejected by UST, I went to Far Eastern University where I was also awarded a scholarship. I did not have to take a test on religion! As many of you know, FEU is a great school because this is also the alma mater of Dr. Henry Sy Sr.
Engineering, not law
Let me tell you that I did not really want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a chemical engineer. But my father insisted, “Pilosopo ka at matigas ang ulo mo. Kaya kailangan maging abogado ka.” At that time, my father’s word was the unbreakable law in our house, especially because that was his wish before he died. So to a law career, I reluctantly veered my sight.
Having graduated with honors at the top of my class, having been a popular campus figure as founder and president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines, and having been one of the topnotchers in the bar examinations, I was granted – at the recommendation of our then Dean at the FEU Institute of Law, Dr. Jovito R. Salonga – a scholarship at the Yale University to pursue my masters degree in law.
But alas, I did not have the money to pay for my airfare to the United States. So, again I could not pursue my educational ambition because of lack of funds. So, I vowed to work hard as a lawyer and to earn enough money so I could fund the educational ambition of my children. I organized the Baron Travel Corporation to be sure of being able to fulfill that promise.
And true enough, through hard work and perseverance, my ambition to obtain a graduate degree in the US was fulfilled by my five children who all finished their masteral and doctoral degrees at pedigreed US schools including Harvard, Stanford, University of California, University of Chicago, University of Michigan and Boston University.God’s blessings and bounties did not end there. This poor boy from Sampaloc who could not enroll in a university of his choice, who did not even know the rudiments of his religion, who reluctantly studied law to please his father and who could not fly to Yale to pursue graduate studies, became Chief Justice of the Philippines, only the 21st Filipino to occupy that position of honor, integrity and responsibility in the more than one hundred years of Philippine democracy.
Three Ps to live by
There are many other miracles in my life, to propel not only my career but also to enable me to escape accidents and fatal illnesses as well as to overcome emotional stress and family problems. All I can say is that as I journeyed through the many labyrinths of life and as I reviewed my experiences of pains and gain, I began to accept that there is Power much much bigger than myself who was watching and guiding me through life.
All you dear graduates are scholars of SM Foundation. Undoubtedly then, you possess academic excellence. Because of your God-endowed high intelligence quotient, you have a good head start as you enter the real world. To supplement your academic excellence, let me name three traits that will help you along the new path before you. These were taken from the personal life experiences I just narrated to you. These are Patience, Perseverance and Prayers – - three Ps.
First, let me tell you about patience. Many times brilliant individuals become maladjusted in their careers and personal relationships because they are in so much hurry. They become impetuous, reckless and thoughtless. They run over the rights and feelings of others. They become so full of themselves and ignore their parents, siblings and friends.
Sometimes, they tend to presume that everyone else is also bright; hence, they do not explain themselves enough. They become overbearing, showy and overeager. As a result, they turn off people who regard them as mayabang or mataray.
Being too much in a hurry can be likened to over speeding in driving a vehicle. Recklessness and uncalled-for speed usually end up in accidents and injuries. Remember, patience is a virtue that must be consciously nurtured by the brilliant. Be tolerant of contrary opinions. As the saying goes, make haste slowly.
Second, let me discuss perseverance. While you must be patient with other people who may not be as brilliant as you are, at the same time, you must be persevering in your work and activities. Be persistent in your efforts. Indeed, persistence and hard work characterize all successful men and women of all ages, past and present, in the Philippines or elsewhere. As Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is ninety nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” Indeed, he was not satisfied with his bare talent and intellect; he worked long days and nights to achieve what he has set out to do.
Graduates, no matter what happens, whether good or bad, continue doing your best, continue being excellent, continue to persevere in good work, continue to believe in yourselves and what you can achieve. Never give up, never let frustration overcome you, continue to have faith in your ultimate victory.
Third, let me discuss the need for prayer. Believe that there is a God who is infinitely more powerful than any of us, than all of us combined. He can do what we cannot do; He can make possible what appears to be impossible.
Have faith in God. Many times, we pray and ask Him for what we want- for a passing grade, for a good career, for a reciprocated love, for the healing of some illness, for a job. Sometimes, when we do not get what we want, we feel embittered and doubt His power and providence. But our God is infinitely intelligent and powerful. He knows our needs better than we do. He will always provide all things good for us, in His own time and in His own way. As God himself said in the Bible, in the book of Isaiah:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts
And my ways are not your ways,
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
So high are my ways above your ways,
And my thoughts above your thoughts.”
My dear graduates, parents, friends, ladies and gentlemen, in all my struggles and trials, in my search for education and work, in my quest for success, good health and happiness, God has never abandoned me. Neither will he forget any of you. I know that for every one who believes and loves Him, God will always be there. Sometimes, we may, in our desperation, feel that He has forgotten us because He does not manifest Himself to us, because He does not grant us what exactly we ask for. But let me assure you that He always answers prayers – in His own way, not always in our way; in His own time, not always at the time we demand. Even in our prayers, we must be patient and persevering.
I suggest that we begin each day with a prayer. It may be a memorized one, like the “Our Father.” Or it may be an original, a homespun one. After all, prayer is really our private conversation with God. It is enough to tell him how much we love and respect Him; it is enough to talk with Him as if we are speaking with a friend. After all, God is really our best friend. It is enough to thank him for any blessing received, like for instance, I thanked him earlier before I began this speech; I thanked him for the opportunity of meeting all of you and for the privilege of imparting to you this message.
Our prayer language need not be elegant, but it must be sincere and from the heart. It may be in English, Tagalog or any dialect. It can be audible or just in our conscious thought. It may last one minute or one hour. The important thing is that we remember God daily, dedicate to Him whatever we say or do, ask His help in all our undertakings, and petition Him to enable us to solve our problems and difficulties.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me now summarize. If my presence today and my speech of 20 minutes will have any meaning for you, let it be two things. One, remember and internalize as long as you live my life story of patience, perseverance and prayer. They are all easy to remember because they all begin with P as in Panganiban.
Two and more important, remember and internalize as long as you live the three SY’s of your benefactor and my friend Dr. Henry Sy Sr. These are SYnergy, SYmmetry and SYmphony.
Those two remembrances of three Ps and three SYs constitute the Précis and SYnopsis of our Program and SYmposium today.
Maraming salamat po.