Gripes about President Hu doing little about China’s biggest challenges outnumbered the accolades. Noda’s premiership ended as ingloriously as those of the other five leaders Japan has had in the past six years. Lee’s time as president will be remembered for South Korea’s widening rich-poor divide and North Korea’s march toward nuclear-missile capability. Tensions over tiny islands meant East Asia’s three biggest economies barely spoke to one another.
Hu, Noda and Lee are but a few of the notable personalities that shaped a chaotic year in Asia. As 2012 draws to a close, some awards are in order for the people, countries and trends that mattered most, for better or worse.
Man Behind the Curtain Award: To Thein Sein, the unsung hero of Myanmar’s embrace of democracy, market economics and a free press. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will always be the symbol of her nation’s opening, but President Thein Sein is the low-profile technocrat behind the scenes removing the vestiges of the dictatorship that had cut off his 50 million people from the world.
Whistle-Blower Award: To Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing, China, police chief who set in motion the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a powerful political figure. The fallout shook up and at times overshadowed the nation’s leadership transition. Wang turned over evidence to U.S. diplomats that Bo’s wife killed a British businessman. The result was the biggest scandal China has seen in decades and a global focus on the corruption and income disparities chipping away at the Communist Party’s credibility.
Stronger Than Bullets Award: To Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by Taliban gunmen. The student-activist did more than defy their violence by surviving. Her story catalyzed a global movement against the forces of ignorance and extremism eating away at the Muslim world. Trying to silence Malala only made her voice louder.
Horsing Around Award: To Psy, for showcasing South Korea’s vibrancy. His rap sensation “Gangnam Style” and comical horse-riding dance moves were parodied everywhere and breathed fresh life into the “Korean Wave” industry of cultural exports, which could pay economic dividends for the nation’s 50 million people.
Nail That Sticks Out Award: To Carson Block, the short-seller who cast a probing light on opaque corporate governance. His suspicions about deception at Chinese companies listed in North America, such as Sino-Forest Corp., proved correct. Is he right to compare Singapore commodities firm Olam International Ltd. to Enron Corp.? Stay tuned in 2013.
I’m Baaaaaaaack Award: To Shinzo Abe, Japan’s next prime minister. Many reached for this horror-film dialogue mainstay as Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party rose suddenly from the ranks of the political dead. Act 1 for Abe: resurrecting technology giants Panasonic Corp., Sharp Corp. and Sony Corp., which have stumbled spectacularly. That includes acting fast to weaken a strong yen that has killed exporters.
Sex and the City Award: To Singapore, site of several earthy peccadilloes. The resignation of Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer this month over an extramarital affair came on top of multiple sex scandals and two days after the island’s largest Chinese-language newspaper called 2012 a year of lust. Well, Singapore’s airport code is SIN. Could it be the casinos?
Third Rail Award: To Benigno Aquino, the Philippine president. His support for a “condom bill” to provide contraceptives to the poor earned the ire of the powerful Catholic Church. His backing of higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol is running afoul of tycoons such as billionaire Lucio Tan. Taking on taboo issues to limit population growth and plug holes in the budget will win a higher credit rating. So will his peace framework with Muslim rebels in Mindanao.
Stealth Boom Award: To Malaysia and Thailand, two out-of-the-spotlight nations. Kuala Lumpur eclipsed Hong Kong as Asia’s initial-public-offering center and is poised to end the year as the world’s No. 4 IPO market. Thailand emerged as an unlikely deals powerhouse. Thai tycoons made a record $25 billion of purchases abroad, signing more deals in 2012 than in the previous 12 years combined.
Let’s Get Serious Award: To Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s largest business group, for shaming Manmohan Singh over his failure to promote growth and root out corruption. In several unusually candid critiques of Singh’s administration, the billionaire called on the prime minister to get his act together as nimbler China grabs market share. Tata is leaving Tata Sons Ltd. after 20 years at the helm, and one of his greatest legacies may be cajoling the government into action.
He Got Game Award: To Kim Jong Un, North’s Korea basketball-besotted leader. With the one-year anniversary of his father’s death bearing down, Kim and his generals were under intense pressure to wow the world. His successful rocket launch was the geopolitical equivalent of a 3-point shot just before the buzzer. Kim’s shot managed to ruin the holidays for many a world leader.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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