In a year that will go down in history for political upsets blamed on the anger of economically dislocated people, it is apt to recognise the impact of disruption, as we do in our choice for The Straits Times' Asian of the Year award. While the displacement of incumbents by emerging technologies and industrial revolutions is not a new phenomenon, the exponential pace of the current digital revolution - and the scale of the disarray it has wrought on lives everywhere - has no precedent.
The honour this year goes to "The Disruptors", as represented by Grab co-founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, Flipkart co-founders Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal, Go-Jek founder and chief executive Nadiem Makarim, Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma, and Razer Inc co-founder Tan Min-Liang. In conferring the award, the newspaper is disrupting, so to speak, traditions of its own. Since it was inaugurated in 2012, the year-end award has been bestowed upon political leaders, among them Myanmar's Mr Thein Sein, Japan's Mr Shinzo Abe and China's Mr Xi Jinping. Handing this year's award to some of Asia's most successful technopreneurs is a nod to the sweeping shifts that these business leaders and their regional counterparts have triggered, which is affecting the way people live, work, travel, shop and play. It is also an acknowledgement of the influence the disruptors have had in changing the lot of consumers and workers in ways both simple and profound.
This year also marks the first time the award is being shared among more than two winners. The size and diversity of the group of winners speak to the widespread and diffuse nature of disruption in today's economy. This is especially true in Singapore, where no industry is being spared the push of transformational change, and no start-up is too small to eventually achieve success.
But disruption cannot be an end in itself. Taken too far, the social convulsions it causes could hollow out the consumer economy upon which disruptors too depend. The obsolescence of jobs as a result of automation and artificial intelligence, coupled with the rise of the gig economy workforce, could threaten the stability of the social compact between government, employers and employees with potentially disastrous outcomes.
Thus the process of change has to be steered carefully by policymakers, community and business leaders as well as technopreneurs. Governments should keep an open mind to groundbreaking technologies and newfangled business models, with an eye on sufficient protection for those at greatest risk of displacement. Workers must be efficiently and adequately trained for new jobs. Fair competition rules must be observed to thwart a grab-all culture. And failing industries must have scope to gain a new lease of life. Disruptors must avoid becoming destructors as they too risk being disrupted in the cycle of innovation.