Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua has become a household name in the Duterte administration since his appointment as the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. But long before he was named as NEDA chief, he had already been pushing for the administration’s priority economic reforms.
As then Finance Undersecretary, the enormous task of ensuring the passage of the administration’s tax reform measures fell on his shoulders. He was a constant presence in legislative hearings and plenary sessions when tax reform bills were being deliberated. The first of which is the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law, a landmark measure that reduced income tax rates and provided funding for the government’s social services and infrastructure programs.
He was also instrumental in the passage of laws increasing the excise tax on tobacco and alcohol products and introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and electronic cigarettes and vapes. These taxes now fund the Universal Health Care Program — a critical intervention as we battle COVID-19.
He says these tax reform measures are the nation’s investment in future generations, but pushing for these was never easy.
Secretary Karl told me, “I learned in government that reforms do not just magically happen. It takes solid analytical underpinnings and massive engagement efforts to pass a reform. You need to work hard and do all the research to show the cost and benefit. At the same time, you need to communicate very well and tell a story without flooding your audience with data.”
Secretary Karl’s stint in the Department of Finance thrust him into the political arena, where he would endure both admiration and criticism as he advocated for complex concepts like “incentives rationalization” and “fiscal sustainability” to different stakeholders.
Prior to his entry into public service, Secretary Karl was the World Bank’s senior country economist for the Philippines. Right before he left the multilateral agency, he was offered tenure, which he turned down to join the administration.
When asked why he gave up his prestigious work for a thankless job in the government, he answered, “I realized one day that I cannot fulfill my passion for development if I am just advising at the periphery, so I felt that government was going to happen one day. I just did not realize it was going to be that soon.”
He never expected to become the administration’s “poster boy for tax reform,” let alone the chief economist during the country’s deepest crisis. But what keeps him going, he said, is his six-year-old son.
“I am inspired by my son. My goal is to give him and his generation a better future,” he shared.
Now, as NEDA Secretary, he says that his top three priorities include: fast-tracking the National ID system, the economic recovery program, and the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.