The ranking that had Malacañang talking
It's not every day that a Philippine presidential spokesperson holds up a print-out of an article you have written, and one's writing becomes the topic of a Malacañang Palace press conference.
So was the case for my co-author, Southeast Asia anlayst Jose B. Collazo, and me when our annual year end wrap-up for CNN of "Asia's winners and loser" had Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte topping our 2016 recap of who had it good in the year that was.
Our list "perks up Palace," reported GMA News. "Palace welcomes Duterte accolades as 'Asia's Big Winner'" read, in part, another headline. On social media, from Twitter to YouTube, our selection garnered praise, surprise and disdain.
"It's heartening to know that certain media agencies are able to notice the good things the President is doing," Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said at the news conference.
A clip of his comments was soon posted online, and clarifications followed that it was not CNN but CNN contributors Collazo and I who had made the selection. From the Twittersphere came comments and questions about alleged human rights violations and a weakening Philippine peso, as well as praise for our selection.
But just as now President Donald J. Trump had been named "Person of the Year" by Time Magazine last December, our opinion piece for CNN made no judgment as to whether Duterte's leadership to date has been for good or for bad, or somewhere in between. I believe that ultimately that is up for the Filipino people to decide.
What was clear though in our deliberations was that the new Philippine president is a leader to be noticed, and one that clearly the leaders of the largest economies in the world, the United States, China and Japan had taken note of in 2016.
For the prior year, 2015, Collazo and I had taken to CNN and awarded "best year in Asia" to China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The newly created international financial institution was then well on its way to being a future challenger to the Manila-headquartered Asian Development Bank, on whose Board of Directors I had served for nearly four years.
We awarded "worst year in Asia" 2015 to "Asia's lungs." From north China to tiny Singapore, and India's capital city to Indonesia's Kalimantan, burning forests and factory smokestacks darkened skies and threatened to shorten lives across the region. Sadly, they still do. But in the year that was, we looked further east, across the Pacific, to an outgoing US president and a pivot and partnership that were not to be in choosing who had the worst year in Asia.
As the lunar new year arrives – the Year of the Rooster – this January 28, we take one last look at the Year of the Monkey, 2016 and the rankings that got Malacañang talking.
Best year: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Not without controversy, Philippine President Duterte topped our CNN list for “best year” in Asia by winning his nation’s presidency in a landslide last May 2016 and subsequently upending, rethinking and reshaping the state of affairs – for good or for bad – at home and abroad.
Since taking office last June 30, 2016, the former mayor of Davao City has launched an unsparing, and bloody, war on crime and drugs that has brought mounting human rights criticism and concerns over extrajudicial killings. The tough-talking leader also has declared a "separation" from the United States, its long-term ally, and moved to put aside territorial disputes in favor of business deals with China – this, despite an international tribunal ruling in the Philippines’ favor in July over territories in the South China Sea.
In early December, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey firm had Duterte enjoying a 77 percent approval rating as Filipinos continue to put their trust in their controversial president. For now, the Philippine leader’s unconventional moves seem a harbinger of things to come.
This is no pivot to China, but a disruption of the old normal. Duterte ends 2016 seeking to rebalance his nation’s ties, improve the life of the average Filipino and make the Philippines – a one-time economic and trade powerhouse – great again. And for that, Asia’s best year went to Duterte.
Good year: Asia's digital disruptors
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos may well be a household name in America, but how about Wei Cheng, co-founder and CEO of Didi Chuxing (formerly Didi Kuai), the multi-billion dollar Chinese ride-sharing app that beat Uber Technologies at its own game in China. In September, Uber surrendered in its costly battle for riders in China and swapped its operations there for a minority stake in Didi Chuxing.
Cheng is an example of Asia’s Digital Disruptors who came into their own in 2016. Like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, these new titans are embracing disruptive business models and leveraging local knowledge and connections to win customers and investments. For them, 2016 was most definitely a good year, even if some are still struggling, as are their Silicon Valley role models, to turn a profit
Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial, the parent company of the Alipay online payment service, was valued alone at about $60 billion last June when it raised $4.5 billion. Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma of India is one more digital disruptor. His and others’ e-commerce and digital wallet offerings are likely to benefit from India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing efforts to “demonetize” and “digitalize India.”
With Forrester research projecting the Asia-Pacific e-commerce market to reach US$1.4 trillion in 2020, these and other digital disruptors are likely to see many more good years ahead.
A mixed year: Asia's webizens
When their smartphones did work, increasing mobile adoption and internet penetration in 2016 gave Asia’s webizens the tools to connect and share information and opinions as never before. Unfortunately, for many in Asia, if an increase in freedom of on-line expression is the metric, the year was mixed at best.
The 2016 Freedom on the Net report by US non-governmental organization Freedom House rates only two of 15 Asian countries – the Philippines and Japan – as having an internet that is assessed as "free." Webizens were "partly free" in South Korea, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bangladesh, and "not free" in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Pakistan.
From outright censorship or arrest in China or blocked access to social media platforms and communication apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh, for Asia’s Webizens the power of technology also brought new risks in 2016.
Bad year: South Korean President Park Geun-hye
In South Korea, it has been a bad year for embattled President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached over a still unfolding scandal that could well have been penned by a Hollywood screenwriter. Allegations of corruption and slush funds mix with tales of cult-like rituals and influence linked to a mysterious, close friend now on trial, Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a deceased religious figure. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for the president’s resignation.
Park barely beat out another contender from South Korea for “bad year” in Asia – Samsung Electronics for its now discontinued Galaxy Note 7.
The smartphone was seen as a worthy challenger to Apple's iPhone. Any such aspirations in 2016, literally and figuratively, went down in flames. Battery problems causing some Galaxy Note 7s to spontaneously combust put the "must have" phone on a permanent “no fly” and then “don’t buy” list.
Worst year: The US pivot to Asia
The dubious distinction of worst year in Asia went to former US President Barack Obama for a “US pivot to Asia” that was increasingly seen as more rhetoric than reality even before November’s elections.
A central Obama foreign policy initiative, the pivot was described as a strategic rebalance, shifting U.S. diplomatic and military resources to the world’s most dynamic economic region. At its economic heart would be an ambitious trade deal, a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) linking 12 Pacific Rim nations accounting for 40 percent of world trade. The U.S., not China, would help “write the rules,” Obama declared, through this “gold standard” of trade deals.
All that was not to be. First, one-time TPP proponent Hillary Clinton turned her back on the deal. And then, Trump’s election drove a stake into it. The now inaugurated U.S. President had said among his first actions in office will be to withdraw the United States from the TPP in favor of “fair bilateral trade deals.”
Oversold, under-delivered and now trumped: the Pivot to Asia.
So endeth the Year of the Monkey. And so now begins a new year, if not a new era, as President Trump – dare I say America's Duterte – begins a four-year term as US president. – Rappler.com
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. J Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.