After logging in to her LinkedIn account last summer, Waewnet Sukkasem (MIDP ’14) was surprised to see a message from a tax specialist at the World Bank. He had found her profile online and was interested in discussing her background in transfer pricing and tax policy. After talking over the phone and meeting in person, Sukkasem accepted a position as a tax consultant for Southeast Asia.
“My initial reaction was total shock. I hadn’t applied to any positions at the Bank and I knew that it was undergoing restructuring,” she said. “At the same time, I’m very happy that the Bank saw my potential.”
The Bank’s interest was understandable. After receiving a scholarship to study International Taxation in Duke’s Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program, Sukkasem landed two competitive internships at the International Finance Corporation in Vietnam and the United Nations Development Program in 2013. She also completed her master’s project on transfer pricing, one of the most controversial and challenging issues in international tax, under the guidance of Dr. Graham Glenday and Peter Barnes.
The World Bank was already familiar with Glenday and other professors at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) for their expertise in taxation, public finance and fiscal decentralization in countries worldwide.
“He knew everyone on the faculty here, so it helped when they vouched for my character and expertise,” she said.
Until the end of June, Sukkasem will be working on tax policy in five countries in Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and her native country of Thailand. She will also analyze information on tax incentives in 13 Asian countries for the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community conference in June.
She will begin her work in Myanmar, which is still at a critical juncture after nearly 40 years of military rule. Local tax policy is underdeveloped, and regions have little incentive to improve revenue collection, according to a report by the Asia Foundation. Sukkasem will be taking a leading role in reviewing the country’s tax policy and recommending strategies to improve social welfare.
“In Myanmar they have a lot of small businesses that don’t register as official businesses, so the government loses a lot of revenue from them,” she said. “When I work on introducing a new tax policy I’ll need to consider the threshold over which businesses need to register.”
Sukkasem will also assess the feasibility of introducing a property tax in Thailand, which she said is an effective way to promote fiscal decentralization and accountability for use of public funds. The work is a continuation of research she conducted in Dr. Roy Kelly’s class.
“It’s very challenging, as not many people are willing to pay property taxes to help the government provide a wider range of public services,” she said. “Yet some are willing to contribute, because property tax is more real and tangible to them. They know it’s going to help their villages.”
A life that matters
After earning her accounting degree in Thailand, Sukkasem began working as an auditing assistant for Pricewaterhouse Coopers. She was well on her way to earning an MBA abroad and continuing a lucrative career in the private sector.
That all changed when her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. Sukkasem quit her job to take care of her mom and volunteer with the Red Cross. The experience made her rethink her goals for her career – and her life.
“What’s most important to me is a life that matters,” Sukkasem said. “I don’t need a glorious career or social recognition – I just need to know that I took care of those in need in as much as I was able.”
Although she later worked for Siam Commercial Bank and Annex Power, a leading renewable energy group in Indochina, she knew she ultimately wanted to apply her financial knowledge to tax issues in developing countries. She shelved her plans for an MBA, deciding that a public policy degree would allow her to make a positive difference.
“If a country doesn’t have strong policies related to tax and governance, the economy and social welfare will suffer,” she said. “It can’t begin to move forward.”
Sukkasem turned down MBA programs at Stanford and Yale, as well as a public policy program at Columbia, to pursue the MIDP at Duke.
“This was the only school that had a taxation focus,” Sukkasem said. “All of [the faculty] had experience in developing countries in Africa and Asia, which was awesome for me because it provided a broader perspective than just the U.S.”
The MIDP difference
Having graduated from the MIDP program last year, Sukkasem is even more convinced she made the right choice. The program’s focus on practice as well as theory allowed her to apply her knowledge to real-world problems, she said.
Sukkasem also credits the faculty for making themselves available at all times to offer help and guidance. She recalls receiving one of the lowest scores in the class on her first economics assignment. Shaken, she approached her professor, Dr. Cory Krupp, to ask how she could improve.
After meeting regularly with the professor, “I went from getting the second lowest score on the first assignment to getting the highest score on the midterm,” Sukkasem said. “[The professors] are always there to help you. They are not only instructors, but friends.”
In part because of her positive experience at Duke, her younger brother plans to apply to the MIDP after completing his undergraduate degree and getting several years of work experience in Thailand. He came to visit the campus last year with his father and mother, who is now in remission.
Sukkasem continues to benefit from the friendships and connections she made with professionals from all over the globe. The experience, she said, allows her to apply lessons from other countries to the situation in Southeast Asia.
“I feel our world isn’t that big anymore,” she said.