Nov 22, 2016

Nicole CuUnjieng is many things: a co-founder of the public policy platform Pampubliko, a columnist for The Manila Times, a contributor to The Manila Review and The Philippine Star, an advocate for reform incubation on the Department of Finance, and a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.  She’s definitely got a lot on her plate, but Nicole faces every task with an open mind and a passion for progress.

While originally from the Philippines, Nicole earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Pennsylvania.  Up until a few years ago, she admits she had been preparing to live her entire life abroad.

“It was only recently that I realized how important it was for me to come home, and that nothing abroad could ever mean to me what living at home in the Philippines and actively contributing to its development does,” she admits.

She is in fact making her mark on the country’s social and political landscape, one publication at a time, as her penchant for writing gives her an outlet for all the things she wants to say.  Nicole writes a monthly column on The Manila Times, where she voices out her concerns on cultures shared and issues faced by Filipinos all over the world.

And of course, she keeps up her passion project Pampubliko, which she founded early this year with Sam Ramos-Jones.  Pampubliko is described as, “a think tank and online policy discussion platform that provides a public resource for the Philippine citizenry to engage with governance, and that seeks to [orient] the mainstream political conversation […] towards policy discussion.”  Its goal is to educate the public – especially the youth – on the nation’s most pressing issues, generate and aggregate good policy solutions, provide an avenue for constructive and peaceful discussion, and promote an objective, free and critical press.  It’s an ambitious venture, but Nicole definitely has what it takes to push through.

On paper, Nicole’s resume may seem intimidating – there’s no doubt she’s a highly accomplished woman.  But there are many sides to Nicole, and it’s clear that an academic is just one facet of her personality.

She’s also an avid surfer and says that she’d love to surf in Okinawa and go on a safari sometime in the future.  She’s a history buff – “My doctoral dissertation, [of which I’m submitting the last two chapters soon,] is on Pan-Asianism in Philippine political thought at the turn of the twentieth century,” she shares proudly – and a best friend to her cousin Georgina, which she considers one of her greatest achievements.  When asked about the top pieces of advice she’d give to young Filipinos, she gives us three unexpected – and yet quite practical – bits of wisdom:

“Don’t accidentally hit ‘Reply All,’” she says with a laugh.  “Read the New Yorker.  And watch the best W’s: Whit Stillman, Werner Herzog, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen.”

Finally, as if her plate wasn’t full enough, she manages a second course.  Just recently Nicole started working at the Department of Finance in the Office of the Chief Economist.  She says that if she was ever given the chance to speak at one of the President’s cabinet meetings she’d say, “‘Make evidence- and research-based decisions, and support the Department of Finance's tax reform package!’

The first tax reform package was submitted sometime in September of this year with the goal of easing the burden of personal income tax especially for those who belong to the lower income brackets. Aside from this, the package includes the expansion of value added tax (VAT) base through the reduction of its exemptions. The package is most notable for its significant drop in the rate of personal income tax from a maximum of 32% to 25%.

Nicole lives a busy life, but there’s an underlying purpose beneath everything she does: a love for the Philippines, and a dream for its progress.

“I often hear people say that the Philippines lacks a ‘culture,’ which of course I strongly reject,” she says.  “We do not have a souvenir, postcard-ready codification of our culture, but that doesn't mean it is absent and, moreover, that's precisely what I love most about it. Our culture doesn't unfold itself for the quick apprehension of a casual tourist. You have to work for it, and take time to understand our mottled history and quirks.”

In the same vein, she’s intent on helping this very culture progress to the best that it can.  With an extensive understanding of history and politics as a foundation, columns and articles cementing her stand, and a spot in government giving her the opportunity to make bigger changes, there’s a lot we can expect from Nicole CuUnjieng.