GRID x PAMPUBLIKO: Talking The Talk


With the Philippine national elections drawing near, issues of governance are at the forefront. Nicole CuUnjieng introduces her new project, a digital think tank and sourcebook for matters of policy, in GRID Magazine's latest issue.

Originally published in GRID Magazine's Issue 12 (March, 2016).

Guest on the Grid

Talking The Talk

With the Philippine national elections drawing near, issues of governance are at the forefront. Nicole CuUnjieng introduces her new project, a digital think tank and sourcebook for matters of policy. 

Sipping San Miguel beer in winter coats while waiting in line to use the bathroom at a party in New Haven, these two Filipinos felt pretty lucky to have a taste of the tropics while at a house party so drafty that the dance floor was filled with people still wearing heavy outerwear as they grinded. Even from so far away, or perhaps because we were so far away, Sam and my conversations were always trained on Philippine issues. That was our way of feeling closer to home. We were raised in Manila and were family friends from when we were young, but it was only much later, after we had grown up a bit and unexpectedly found ourselves studying at the same school that we realized how closely our concerns aligned. Even still we would never have guessed that two years later we’d both be living back home in Manila, let alone co-founding anything together.

Sam and I came up with the initial idea for our think tank project one day last August while stuck in traffic on Paseo de Roxas. This seems a perfect beginning for us, in one way, given how the phenomenon characterizes certain of our problems here in the Philippines. Traffic bedevils the developing world, particularly in urban areas where development has outpaced a city’s infrastructure and government. In this sense it flows from a weak state, the government’s shortsighted planning, failure to keep pace, or outsourcing of responsibility to corporate developers that are not structured toward long-term urban planning and regulation. But, one night, two years earlier, when we were still at Yale and had gathered with another Filipino student to eat Thai food in the bottom of a mysterious, ever-empty hotel with a dirty pink sheen to it located right off campus, Sam told me that he thinks that our traffic jams are also a perfect metaphor for the characteristic rule bending that occurs in the Philippines, particularly corruption. 

“Three lane roads become five lane roads and because each car is out for himself, the rules are meaningless—both for the traffic enforcers (who now have to try to do something within the chaos but who obviously are not able to maintain and set the best, proper guidelines to begin with and are now only making it worse if not creating this whole mess in the first place through negligence, incompetence, or indifference) and for the cars whom the rules are supposed to protect and serve. The result being that out of this barely-moving jigsaw puzzle in which each car is trying to squeeze into slight, temporary openings of room, every car is slowed down. Being out only for yourself gets everyone, including you, nowhere.”

This is one example of the kinds of vicious cycles between state and citizenry that our start up think tank, PAMPUBLIKO, aims to address—in our case by effecting a ground-up change among the people, speaking to the individual responsibility that society endows in us and that is crucial to the contract of our hard-won democracy. Especially among the youth, we want a larger share of Filipinos to feel a stake in governance and be invested in how it is achieved, how issues are solved. More broadly still, we believe that independence of thought is the privilege and cornerstone of our democracy, and that it is our responsibility to safeguard it by deeply educating ourselves on the Philippines’ most pressing affairs, genuinely engaging with the opposing positions of others in our society, and constructing our own informed conclusions. PAMPUBLIKO is a platform to do precisely these things.

This sense of responsibility to our society and polity was something that Sam and I felt more acutely as the years stacked up living abroad. It was the best time of my life in England and the U.S. Over the years I spent in New York, fresh from college with all my best friends (we had moved en masse to the city immediately following graduation) I thought even then that we’d never have this again—such youth and closeness with the vastness of possibility and the city all around. But at some point I started unexpectedly to chafe against the atomistic life that New York presented me, and that anywhere other than home presented me. Beginning a few years ago, a chilling jealousy or some kind of pang of regret would run through me every time I heard of another of my friends (or even acquaintances) moving back home. I felt increasingly guilty for being part of the country’s brain drain; and though I had built a whole world for myself, with a kind of freedom I had never thought possible for myself growing up in Manila, I found that in it I was part of nothing larger than myself. It came as a surprise to me that I wanted to submit myself to the mess of obligations, duties, social codes, and longstanding relationships entailed in the gothic novel that is Philippine life (a characterization that my British uncle, Richard Blackett, once gave to the dense, inter-generational web he had observed in Manila!). Completely counter to my American life, which I had arranged exclusively as I saw fit, I wanted to return to a place where the all-seeing eye of family and Manila society afford no privacy, and where my individuality is buttressed by webs of affiliation that came so long before me and will continue far beyond me. 

This individual responsibility I mentioned, then, is an odd one. Its individualization rests on the willing submission of the individual self to a collectivity—or at least the voluntary recognition of the individual self as socially situated and thus bound to something beyond it. I moved home to Manila, as did Sam, and it wasn’t very easy, really. But unlike there, here everything means something to me, and our project, PAMPUBLIKO is only one among so very many.

PAMPUBLIKO is a think tank and online policy discussion lab that provides a public resource for the Philippine citizenry to engage with governance. 

In one of her recent Philippine Star articles, “Political Parties and the Question of Democracy,” Lila Ramos Shahani mentioned a different scenario— “another kind of education,” the one that comes “from participating in bottom-up policy development, where people are directly consulted and enjoined to participate in the definition of their problems and the design of their solutions.” Indeed, that is exactly the other kind of education we want for ourselves and that we're trying to build a community around—a community centered on the youth, facilitated through technology, and premised on that individual responsibility to our polity and society that is so crucial to our democracy. An estimated 34.6% of our total population today is under 15 years old. We are an extremely young country and the sooner we can involve our youth in our polity, help them feel they have a stake in the method and achievements of governance, the better.

For too long the mainstream political conversation has centered on a difference in personalities, without meaningful, sustained public engagement with policy. Though, following the research of Mark R. Thompson, one can trace since the EDSA Revolution two vague overarching camps of reformism and populism in mainstream national politics, these are largely differences of tone and electoral packaging, rather than differing visions of governance. Large-scale national political parties are not differentiable along ideological grounds and do not engage their voter base in such discussions. This practice of electing people, rather than platforms, crucially weakens our democracy and contributes to the prevailing culture of political impunity.

A policy-oriented political discourse involves the people in the shaping of their country’s future. Rather than electing candidates for what they stand for and project, we can not only elect, but also craft, the future we hope to achieve for the Philippines. Moving the political discourse away from one centered on specific personalities and toward constellations of policy positions will over the long-term: force candidates to take clear, differentiable policy positions and to run on and with corresponding political platforms and parties; provide a consistent, action-oriented means for people to evaluate politicians and officials; and, most importantly, empower and engage our citizenry in the Philippines’ future.

PAMPUBLIKO is a think tank and online policy discussion lab that provides a public resource for the Philippine citizenry to engage with governance, and that seeks to reorient the mainstream political conversation away from personality politics and towards policy discussion. You may find us online at BANTAY PUBLIKO is our media watchdog blog, aiming to keep the media accountable and the public critical you may visit it through the main site or directly at

PAMPUBLIKO seeks to elevate the mainstream political conversation to be premised on substantive discussion of policy, while also refreshing policy discussion to be more inclusive and accessible—not merely the province of academia and legislators. We do this because we believe that reorienting the prevailing national political discourse will foster progress in good governance, political accountability, and people’s empowerment in government. As we enter election season, now more than ever we think this is a time to reinforce an issues-based discussion of our future, and we hope that everyone will join us to become part of PAMPUBLIKO.

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