BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Cracks in this billionaire's empire

(To those asking, here's my June 3 Eyes Wide Open column. Reposting this here because the link on is no longer working because of a glitch).

This is a story of a billionaire’s empire and it begins with the patriarch himself, an enigmatic wise old man who built a multi-billion dollar fortune from scratch.

He came all the way to the Philippines from Fujian, China way back in the 1930s to escape the Japanese Imperial Army. He was a young boy of four when his family fled to Manila. Poverty was sweeping their hometown, so they packed their bags and rode the first departing ships out of their country to look for their fortune elsewhere. They didn’t know where to go, but any place was better.

Taiwan was nearer to the port city of Xiamen, but as fate would have it, many of those who would be part of the Chinese diaspora would end up in Manila.

The boy and his family were no exception, and so despite his fabled wealth, he knew what it meant to be poor and hard up, having been born in one of the poorest provinces in China.

That was the beginning of this billionaire’s story as it was for most rags-to-riches taipans here in the country.
He studied hard, took on jobs with meager pay and slept in friends’ couches to save money. When he had enough, he put up his own company and worked with blood, sweat and tears to make it big.

He worked and strived to get out of poverty. The rest, as they say, is history.

The man would become one of the country’s richest men, building one of the biggest conglomerates he never imagined he could build.

It used to be simple, this billionaire’s story. It was just another rags to riches tale, one among many. Once in a while the man and his empire would be at the center of controversies — a labor strike, a favored government deal, a skewed tax arrangement — but nothing he could not handle. He was always vindicated.

Yet the story the past days is no longer simple; no, not anymore.

There are now so many twists and turns and so much drama and in-fighting among the men and women who share his name. There’s a power struggle of sorts, an inquisition long plotted and planned, fuelled by a greed for the throne, just like in the Game of Thrones.

The latest twist in this saga is the rise of a new villain, no doubt out to get the throne no matter the cost. The villain, we’re told, has the ear of the patriarchs queen.

The power struggle is real, no longer imagined, a thickening plot that would be a perfect addition to the long list of edge-of-your seat series in Netflix.

But the patriarch, say his men, will live forever and is not about to relinquish the throne.

Two companies – among the empire’s biggest – are particularly at the center of the power struggle with many of the insiders discombobulated on what to do. Some have been kicked out. Greed for power is the name of the game.

The wise old man must be scratching his head in frustration amid all the squabbling over control of the empire he built.

Once not too long ago when he was asked about his possible successor, he jokingly replied that he would just sell everything.

Cracks in the empire may turn off creditors and big-time clients, or may send investors jittery - a part of it after all is the public’s money.

What happens next is still up for anyone’s guess. The villains, it seems, are eagerly awaiting victory. But then again, it may be too early to tell.

Let us remember that in life, as it is in chess, the quiet pawns are just as strong as the queen and they may well uniquely determine how the game will end.