The BusinessWorld Online: “The life and times of our only Prime Minister”

By Romeo Bernardo | 31 August 2014

I WAS PRIVILEGED to be Master of Ceremonies at a recent launch at the Yuchengco Museum of the book of Dr. Gerardo Sicat — Cesar Virata: Life and Times Through Four Decades of Philippine Economic History (University of the Philippines Press). I highly recommend it to students of economics and history and admirers of the only Prime Minister our country ever had.

We waited 30 years for this book, and only Gerry Sicat could have written it. Professor, most prolific author of economic researches papers and textbooks, and development consultant, Sicat is also father of three economic-oriented institutions known for their excellence — the UP School of Economics, the National Economic and Development Authority, and the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. (More recently, he is known as the father of the also excellent PSE President Hans Sicat.)

The hefty 800-plus-page book “stands on its own,” the author joked, making reference to its ability to stay vertical without support. He explains the reasons for its physical gravitas. “I see it as several books. The scope is large. First there is Cesar Virata. Along with him are other running stories: our nation in its young age of independence, and the problems of economic national building, then the Marcos years — the positive, the controversial, and the crisis years. It is also about the transition afterwards.” You need to read the book to fully appreciate its intellectual heft.

Those present at that book launch had the privilege of listening to three “reviewers” and a beautiful musical number. These were, in the order of the program:

• Victor Macalincag — I described him as “PM Virata’s right-hand man at the DoF,” “my former boss who was brilliant and hardworking,” and not the least “according to my wife and I heard the First Lady of that time, the handsomest undersecretary in government.”

• Washington Sycip — “One of the few who can claim the high honor of being a mentor to PM Virata, even when the latter was still a student. Founder of the SGV Group, now a continuing mentor and guru to the nation.”

• Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco — “Industrialist, banker, diplomat, taipan, belonging to that breed of post-war nation builders which perhaps comes only once in a country’s history.”

The music in the forum was provided by the same person who provided the music in PM’s life: Mrs. Joy Virata, singing a soulful rendition of “Summertime.”

In the remarks I would have made had my iPad cooperated, I underlined some lessons for the idealistic public servant on a man who is the gold standard for public service, integrity and patriotism.

“This is the humbling story of a man who persevered and shepherded the economy through the Philippines most critical financial and political crisis. A man who sacrificed his own reputation, never abandoning the ship of state through the raging storm.”

Sicat writes of how PM typically shirked the limelight. He writes about a posthumous honouring of the late Finance Secretary Jaime Ongpin in Malacanang, during the Cory Aquino presidency, where Virata was unacknowledged by virtually all of those who spoke. That is, until Maribel Ongpin took the podium to give her response. She acknowledged Virata. According to Sicat’s recounting, “The full house thundered in applause. These were all faithful members of the Department of Finance, the career people who had worked for him for almost 16 years. He was a man they respected, who had performed his job in the department faithfully, and whose work was acknowledged as the most consistent and successful during his time in the post.”

Allow me to end this piece with an excerpt from Vic Macalincag. After elaborating on the roles PM Virata played across a wide front of economic reform — banking and finance, trade, investment, industry, project development, international economic diplomacy, development of Mindanao, energy diversification, agrarian reform, etc., he ruefully considered:

“Reading his biography, one is tempted to conclude that in a different setting and stable political environment, and despite restrictive provisions in our laws, his economic management and policy prescriptions and strategies could have placed the Philippines not far behind South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.”

Romeo Bernardo is Vriens & Partners Senior Counselor in the Philippines. He is also a finance undersecretary during the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations, and board director of Institute of Development and Econometric Analysis Inc. Original piece can be found here.