Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 23 June 2012



Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures of the top 15 Filipino billionaires (in US dollars, mind you) in Friday’s issue of the Inquirer brought home with crystal clarity the domination of the Philippine economy by ethnic Chinese. This is, of course, not a unique situation, as it seems to be the case in all of Southeast Asia (with the possible exception of Malaysia), but that is cold comfort indeed.

Yale Law Prof. Amy Chua, in her book “World On Fire,” asserts that Chinese Filipinos comprise 1 percent of the population but control 60 percent of the economy. Presumably, she means ethnically Chinese Filipinos (i.e., of pure Chinese descent). If one includes, however, mixed-blood Chinese Filipinos, where the other part of the blood, as it were, would be Filipino, or Spanish, or maybe a combination of both, then the percentage of Filipinos of Chinese origin goes up to around 22 percent. That is to say, more than 1 in 5 Filipinos have more than a small amount of Chinese blood.

What constitutes more than a small amount? I haven’t put my hands on the information, but for purposes of this discussion, let us assume that one has to be at least one-third Chinese to be considered Chinese Filipino.

So let us now hark back to those 15 pictures. One immediately sees the Chinese domination. And the small amount of research I did validates the eyeball conclusion. Nine of the 15 billionaires—or 60 percent—are in fact ethnic (pure-blooded) Chinese: Henry Sy, Lucio Tan, John Gokongwei, Andrew Tan, George Ty, Robert Coyuito, Tony Tan Caktiong, Lucio Co and Emilio Yap. Their mother tongue has to be a Chinese dialect. And in fact, six of them were born in China, or what is now China, immigrating to the Philippines in their youth.

Another three of the 15 certainly have Chinese names: Dave Consunji, Bobby Ongpin and Danding Cojuangco. But that’s about as far as it goes, and while I have not been able to ascertain that they have less than one-third Chinese blood, I am willing to bet on it, particularly since I was able to talk to Maribel Ongpin and Marilou Tuason (walking social historians). One thing is sure: Their mother tongue has nothing to do with any of the Chinese dialects. So even if two of the three have a “mestizo” look (Dave Consunji is as Filipino-looking as they come), I would tag all three of them as Filipino Filipinos.

The final three: Ricky Razon, Jaime Zobel, and Iñigo Zobel, are obviously Spanish Filipinos—and their mother tongue is most probably Spanish, although Iñigo’s father, the late Enrique Zobel, spoke Filipino like a native Batangueño.

But there are ways of classifying these 15 billionaires other than by their ethnic origins. For example, nine of them I would classify as “self-made,” in that they came from almost nothing—Sy, L. Tan, Gokongwei, Consunji, A. Tan, Ty, Tan Caktiong, Co, and Yap. The other seven had from some amount to a very great deal of inherited wealth, which at the very least assured the best education, which they then used to excellent effect.

Then, of course, one can also classify these billionaires—and here I will not name names because of possible libel suits—as having come by their wealth from 1) hard work while keeping their noses clean, or 2) hard work combined with political and/or financial hanky-panky, or 3) hard work with shameless labor exploitation, or 4) the pits (2 and 3 combined; hard work plus getting rich by hook or by crook), or 5) just sitting back and not rocking the boat on inherited wealth. I invite the Reader to do his/her own private classifying.

Still another way of classifying the billionaires is by the nature of their activities (not mutually exclusive): There are at least five in banking or finance, six in real estate development, three in manufacturing (including food and beverage), and three in retail trade. The greatest common denominator seems to be real estate development, in one form or another.

What is also very interesting about the Filipino billionaires is how they have increased in number, and how their net worth (and their rankings) have changed over time. For example, in 2007, there were only four Filipino billionaires (in US dollars, remember) listed by Forbes magazine: Jaime Zobel de Ayala and family at the top, worth $2 billion, followed by three ethnic Chinese—Henry Sy, Lucio Tan and Andrew Tan. By 2011, there were 11 billionaires, and, of course, the latest number is 15. Over the same period, the three ethnic Chinese overtook Don Jaime in terms of wealth. Why that happened would make for a very interesting case study.

And see how fast some of their net worth has grown in the 5-year period between 2007 and 2012, the global financial and economic crises occurring within that period notwithstanding. The biggest success story seems to be that of Dave Consunji. Now I am not afraid to say that Dave is in Category 1 as far as how he came by his wealth is concerned: by the sweat of his brow and keeping his nose clean. He is one of the straightest shooters in business that I have had the privilege to meet. In 2007, when he was 86, his family’s net worth was “only” $210 million, making him the 19th richest man in the Philippines. Well, as reported in the Inquirer, his net worth in 2012 is $2.78 billion, or more than 13 times what it was in 2007. Not bad for a 91-year-old man—and one who has kept his nose clean.

Which is why my vote for “Filipino Billionaire of the Year”—if there is such an award—goes to Dave Consunji.