Seismic 2016: The year that threw certainty out the window

This was a year that threw uncertainty out the window with Brexit, Trump's win, power play in Asia and war in the Middle East. The Straits Times correspondents and contributors take stock of how the ground has moved and what that means for 2017.

When hard truths lose out to seductive lies

In the US, Mr Donald Trump succeeded by transforming his lack of government experience and the absence of any experts on his electoral team into the very source of his electoral appeal. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Did you know that the Pope already endorsed Mr Donald Trump as US president, urging faithful Catholics to vote for him months before Mr Trump faced the American electorate?

Were you aware that, once safely outside the European Union, Britain would be able to reconnect to its former colonies and recreate the splendour and prosperity of its old empire? And did you know that, recently, a teenage Russian girl was repeatedly raped in Germany by Muslim migrants, but that the German government hushed up the entire affair and allowed the perpetrators to escape unpunished because it did not wish to admit that Germany's immigration policies are filling Europe with dangerous criminals?

If you were not familiar with these stories, don't worry too much, though. Because they are utterly false, complete concoctions from beginning to end. Yet each one of these stories was believed by tens of millions of people during this outgoing year. And each one had direct consequences, by contributing to changed political realities in the countries concerned.


How Eastern Europe blew up the West

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arriving at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec 15, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Like the rise of Soviet communism and both world wars, the Western liberal order's apparent collapse in 2016 could turn out to be yet another historic upheaval that began in Eastern Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's brand of "illiberal democracy" was quickly adopted by Poland's de facto ruler Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and is now making inroads in the heart of the West - first with the United Kingdom's "Brexit" referendum, and then with Mr Donald Trump's victory in the United States' presidential election.

Meanwhile, Turkey's nascent democracy has given way to Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan's strongman rule, and the Philippines is now led by a populist authoritarian, Mr Rodrigo Duterte. As we head into 2017, something is clearly rotten in the state of democracy.


Europe's values are its best defence

A European Union flag is held in front of the Big Ben clock tower in Parliament Square during a 'March for Europe' demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, central London, Britain, on July 2, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

The year 2016 will go down in European history as a time of striving to maintain the political, systemic and social unity of the European Union (EU) as a community of countries, people and values. It was a time of uncertainty and highly visible failures. But it was also a year marked by real achievements.

Above all, the United Kingdom's vote in June to exit the EU stands out as a bitter disappointment. And yet a new pan-European consensus on the protection of the EU's external borders, together with the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, warrants cautious optimism.

Most of the problems the EU has been grappling with for some time now have not been fully resolved.


Urgent need for peace in the Middle East

Israeli security forces taking position near the settlement of Kadumim (background) during clashes following a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel in the village of Kfar Qaddum, in the occupied West Bank, on Dec 23, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

This year, conflicts in the Middle East continued to proliferate far beyond the Israel-Palestine issue that had dominated regional politics for so long. Heading into 2017, four key countries - Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen - are tearing themselves apart in civil wars.

These conflicts are directly or indirectly affecting the rest of the world, by exporting terrorism and refugees - products that are contributing to resurgent populism and authoritarianism in the West from which almost no country has been spared. In the coming year, the world will find itself under more pressure than ever to start resolving the Middle East's conflicts and their dangerous spillover effects.

For starters, reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process must be a high priority. Although the conflict has not garnered as much attention in recent years as it once did, it is no less important to bring the occupation of Palestinian territories - and the attendant humanitarian crisis - to an end.


The year Asia's power balance

Mr Xi and Mr Obama at a meeting in the Netherlands in 2014. As America's influence declines, the steel-willed Chinese leader has risen above a shaky economy and the embarrassment of being all but declared an outlaw in the South China Sea to impose his will across a widening patch of Asian landscape. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, Major Strasser of the Third Reich tells the French police prefect that his impression of saloon keeper Rick Blaine, the principal protagonist, is that he is just another blundering American.

Captain Louis Renault's response is to caution that no one should underestimate American blundering.

"I was with them," he says meaningfully to the arrogant German, "when they 'blundered' into Berlin in 1918."


Xi Jinping's year of living dangerously

Chinese President Xi Jinping waving as he arrives in Dhaka, on Oct 14, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

It might seem ludicrous to suggest that President Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, will be in danger in 2017. But looks can be deceiving, and his consolidation of power may not be as unassailable as it seems.

The test will come next year, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds its 19th National Congress to select a new team of leaders to serve under Mr Xi.

To be sure, since becoming CCP general secretary in November 2012, he has made great strides in establishing his own authority.


Democracy, inclusion and prosperity

Protesters holding signs spelling the word 'Democracy' during a demonstration to protest the National Electoral College's selection of President-elect Donald Trump, outside the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, US, on Dec 19, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

It is a truism that people everywhere want to live in a safe, prosperous country where they enjoy freedom of thought and action, and can exercise the democratic right to choose their government. But the world faces a disarming question in 2017 and the years ahead: How can we be sure that political freedom and economic prosperity go together?

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that liberal democracies, with their political freedom and economic success, have three important pillars: a strong government, the rule of law and democratic accountability. I would add a fourth: free markets.

Strong government does not mean simply military power, or an efficient intelligence apparatus. Instead, it should mean effective, fair administration - in other words, "good governance".


The religion question in the New Year

A member of the Iraqi forces holding an upside down ISIS group flag in Mosul's eastern Al-Intisar neighbourhood on Dec 30, 2016, during an ongoing military operation against the jihadists.PHOTO: AFP

As we enter 2017, a very old debate about the role of religion in society has come to the fore. It is centred on the extent to which religion should determine political legitimacy, social frames of reference and personal identities.

Religion's social role is a conspicuous problem in the Middle East. But now it is causing tensions in Europe as well, owing to the influx of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing to the continent, and in the United States, where President-elect Donald Trump's campaign stoked fears about Islamist radicalism.

With militant Islamism on the rise in the last decade, many people in the West are asking if Islam itself is inherently in conflict with diversity and is, therefore, incompatible with secular modernity.


The challenge of economic inclusion

Below: Nigerian women mingle after an Italian language class for migrants near Florence. While migrants and refugees can bring substantial benefits to host countries, their arrival can also raise fears of economic and cultural change. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In 2016, the world's attention was focused on major political developments in the European Union, the United States and other countries, where voters have expressed deeply held concerns about trade, migration and structural labour market changes.

But, from an economic perspective, 2016 was a fairly quiet year. The global economy continued its slow recovery, with economic activity in the US, Europe and emerging markets gradually improving, despite some remaining vulnerabilities.

And even low-income economies that have struggled to adjust to falling commodity prices may receive a small boost, given recent price increases.


Meeting the populist challenge

A participant throws a piece of paper reading "Trump and Brexit" into a trash can to be shredded during "Good Riddance Day" in Times Square, New York City, US, on Dec 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Capitalism is the greatest engine for prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But the democratic institutions that create the space for business leaders to operate have not kept up with accelerating economic and technological change; nor have they made the necessary adjustments to ensure that enough people benefit from the system to which they all belong.

All leaders should keep these two thoughts firmly in mind as they respond to 2016's populist backlash - manifested in Brexit, Mr Donald Trump's election victory in the United States, Italy's failed constitutional-reform referendum and so forth.


Getting past the globalisation bogeyman

Chinese migrant workers working at a construction site in Beijing, China, on Dec 27, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

As we enter 2017, globalisation has become a dirty word. Many see it as a conspiracy by elites to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.

According to its critics, globalisation leads to an inexorable increase in income and wealth inequality: The rich get richer and everyone else gets nothing.

One bogeyman begets another.


A year of consultation, consolidation for Singapore

People walking on the Jubilee Bridge after office hours against the skyline of the Central Business District. PHOTO: ST FILE

If 2015 was a year of celebration for Singapore as it marked its golden jubilee, 2016 has turned out to be a year of consultation and conversation on the nation's future.

The focus? How citizens, companies and government agencies can step up, pitch in and work together to steer Singapore in a more challenging environment. The long-term goal is a stronger Singapore when the city state marks SG100, come 2065.

A range of discussions took place throughout the year, some public, others in smaller groups.


Saving the centre

Pro Europe demonstrators protest outside the Supreme court building in London on the first day of a four-day hearing, on Dec 5, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

There is no doubt about the waves of discontent and anger sweeping Western politics. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after four decades of membership, jeopardising all the intricate trading and political connections that such a long relationship created. Against all forecasts by political pundits, Mr Donald Trump won the United States presidency, something the political class thought virtually inconceivable. Throughout Europe, new political parties are springing up, all based on variations on the same theme: The political establishment has ignored us, and we will throw them out in protest.

One defining feature of this uprising is that the impetus for change has become more important than any consideration of what change might mean in practice. The things said by leaders riding this wave can be wildly out of kilter with normal rules of political conduct; but none of it matters. What matters is that the revolt is happening, and whoever happens to catch the wave will be born aloft.

By contrast, politicians who make reasoned arguments of a conventional kind merely irritate rebellious voters, arousing impetuous dismissal, if not contempt and derision.


One swimmer, one nation: When Schooling raced past Olympian greats to clinch S'pore's first gold, he galvanised the spirit of a whole nation

Moved to tears by a man in water

Schooling in Brazil earlier this year after winning the 100m butterfly. Tied for silver were (from left) Michael Phelps of the US, Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sport ostensibly brings people together and yet its purpose is to separate talent. It is an inclusive pastime which is full of exclusive clubs. Only eight nations have won football's World Cup and only five have won cricket's equivalent. For years wherever I went, I got the same annoying sporting question: So many Indians, not even one individual Olympic gold medal?

Trophies and medals don't make us better nations, just briefly happier and united ones. We like to see one of our own recognised for his talent. We like to believe that in water, land or air that we are no less.

When an Indian did win gold, in 2008, I wasn't there at his event. But I was for Joseph Schooling and I got to see from close quarters what a first gold means to a people.


I was there when history was made

Joseph Schooling celebrating after winning the Rio 2016 Olympic Games men's 100m butterfly final at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug 12, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE 

Memory fades and so years from now, I might not recall that momentous minute as vividly as I do now. I may forget the rawness of it all; the nerves first, then relief, joy, disbelief and pride.

But even if my memory dims, one thing I cannot forget: how great a privilege it was to have been there that night.

Unlike most spectators who were at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium that cool, breezy night in Rio, for me this was not simply a special swim with an unbelievable result. My shared nationality with the swimmer and my proximity to his feat meant it went far beyond that.


A 'sporting culture' in days to come

Singapore's first Olympic Gold Medallist Joseph Schooling, his mother May, and coach Sergio Lopez taking to the stage to acknowledge the crowd at Raffles City, the last stop of the victory parade on Aug 18, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

Alice Soh confessed that she did not swim.

But no matter. Joseph Schooling was a hero and that was a good enough reason for the retiree to jostle with thousands of other Singaporeans at Raffles City Shopping Centre to try and get his autograph.

The interview with her, which was captured in a video of the Olympic champion's victory parade around Singapore on the The Straits Times' webpage, was a seminal moment for me.


The day a Singaporean kid ruled the planet

Joseph Schooling of Singapore with his gold medal from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games men's 100m butterfly final at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug 12, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

When Manny Pacquiao boxes, his entire country comes to a stop and Filipinos are glued to their television screens. When Joseph Schooling was about to swim his 100m butterfly final on the morning of Aug 13, my 72-year-old father was gently tending a community garden a few floors below our HDB apartment. Every man must have his own interests.

Upstairs, like a true sports nerd, I was reciting swimming records to my bemused mother and sister. They are both Manchester United fans whose purpose in life is to taunt this Liverpool diehard.

But that morning, there was no partisanship, just the three of us, together, fixated on a pool of water.


Champion with a clarity of purpose that spurs others

Singapore's swimmer Joseph Schooling answering questions from the media during a press conference at the Sports Hub, on Aug 16, 2016. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

Sometimes a measure of a man is not just what he does but also what he says. Joseph Schooling's performance in the pool in Rio was fantastic but his words in the press room later were as gripping.

Exhausted and triumphant, he could have been excused for lapsing into cliches or launching into a gooey Oscar-style thank-you speech.

Instead, he was very clear about what he wanted to say, able to articulate what he had achieved and what it meant. It was as if he knew his purpose.


The golden handshake that marks a new beginning

Michael Phelps (left) of United States congratulating Joseph Schooling (right) of Singapore, as Hungary's Laszlo Cseh (centre) looks on, on the podium after the men's 100m butterfly final in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on Aug 12, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

Nothing for me beats the poignancy of the handshake between Joseph Schooling and Michael Phelps in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool, seconds after the 100m butterfly final.

The previous 50 or so seconds had felt like a blur of bodies splashing in water, heads bobbing up and down and Singaporeans - including me - holding our breath.

It was hard to comprehend the significance of what I had just witnessed until that handshake.


A family trying to make the most of their time together

Singapore’s Olympic champion Joseph Schooling (centre) with father Colin and mother May at a book-signing event for his photo book titled Hello, My Name Is Joseph Schooling, on Nov 20, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

It was just another lazy afternoon in the Schoolings' Marine Parade home. Joseph had just wrapped up another public engagement and was home for a quick nap.

He went into his bedroom and emerged minutes later, holding a watch. "Happy birthday dad," said the Olympic champion, passing the gift to a surprised Colin as his mother, May, looked on.

At a loss for words, Colin kissed his son and began fiddling with the dual time watch, which shows the time in Singapore and in Texas, where Joseph is based.