Nicole CuUnjieng on the art of tolerance and distilling noise in an age of misinformation
There are a select few who attempt to disentangle the confounding history and politics of the Philippines. Even fewer are those who do so on a public platform such as a newspaper column, where they are at higher risk of receiving vitriol from the occasional troll. For three and a half years, Nicole CuUnjieng, a graduate of New Haven’s Yale University, had been the recipient of trolling, with her now defunct weekly column in Manila Times. “After a while, ‘ weekly’ became much less frequent,” she recalls. There, CuUnjieng wrestled with issues that ranged from the problem of international schools and the notion that the Filipino spirit is “waterproof ” to, more recently, a selfdeclared failure of critiquing the elite. “That’s what writing really is,” she says. “It shows me what I think. There’s something about the process.”
To CuUnjieng, the great contemplation of weekly topics had led to a regular exercise of self-discovery, though its fruits, she admits, weren’t the most popular among readers, if the online discourse they generate were any indication. “My boyfriend would read [the comments section] and I would get really upset. The people who leave comments online are either very strongly pro or anti, so there’s not much room for productive debate,” she muses. “I do think the internet can be a good avenue for discourse in its ideal state because it democratizes access and the articulation of one’s thought. It democratizes publishing.”
It’s with this thought that CuUnjieng co-founded Pampubliko with Sam Ramos-Jones. Pampubliko was conceived in the middle of Manila traffic, when Ramos-Jones mentioned how he wanted to one day start a think tank and a public policy magazine, to which an excited CuUnjieng answered, “Wait, that’s my secret dream.”
Amid the echo chambers that are our social media feeds, Pampubliko stands out as an avenue for enlightened discourse. Arguments here are made
with evidence, context, and historical references that have gone through “background briefings.” Instead of blindly backing personalities to drive traffic, the publication foments policies and ideas that are borne of an understanding of an issue’s nuances and the people who are part of it. CuUnjieng and the Pampubliko team are currently working on their inaugural single issue: a deep, multi-dimensional dive into the topic of sex work in an attempt to craft better policies regarding the protection of sex workers. For this, interviews and discussions are held not with the intention of claiming one side as victorious but with the desire to reach a collective understanding of what’s on the table, regardless of who’s right. With impassioned debates often ending with people “bashing” those who disagree with their ideals and opinions, Pampubliko takes away the mindset that has individuals immediately writing off those with beliefs contrary to theirs; in this sphere, CuUnjieng makes deep empathy, understanding, and respect imperative instead of bargained. “I think having one of my best friends, one of the smartest people I know, have completely opposite views from mine has been a very enriching exercise,” she says. “I couldn’t rest on any assumed understanding or shared beliefs. I had to argue and substantiate all of my different positions.” Instead of viewing a differing opinion as a stance to be brought down or corrected, she sees it instead as a possibility, “a different aspect to a topic that I may not have thought of. It gives an added dimension.” The dinner table at home is a frequent setting for “arguments” with her dad regarding certain issues. “I have the role of being the [argumentative one] so it’s just the two of us arguing mostly; my two brothers are much nicer than I am.”
With her work at the office of the chief economist at the Department of Finance, her budding public policy publication, and the pressing need for discourse, CuUnjieng is perfectly at ease swimming in an ocean of information, doing whatever she can to carefully distill concepts and facts and make them easier to understand, in order to create a stage for better dialogue and the creation of much better policies.
Left: Dress, Poe, Rustan’s Makati; pants, Sacai, Univers, One Rockwell; shoes, Robert Clergerie, Univers, One Rockwell. Above: White top, Ricardo Preto, Rustan’s Makati; black turtleneck, Eileen Fisher, Rustan’s Makati; boots, Chanel.