Epic change & upheaval

2015 was a year of tragedies, disasters and terror. Some, like the quake in Nepal, were over almost instantly while others, like the European migrant crisis and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, were dramas that unfolded daily. But there were also uplifting moments, such as the Myanmar general election and the Paris climate deal.

Iraqi and Syrian refugee children celebrate Christmas during a ceremony hosted by His Beatitude Archbishop Michel Qasarji, Diocese of Chaldeans in Babdaa, Lebanon on Dec 19, 2015.
Iraqi and Syrian refugee children celebrate Christmas during a ceremony hosted by His Beatitude Archbishop Michel Qasarji, Diocese of Chaldeans in Babdaa, Lebanon on Dec 19, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

1. Refugee crisis places Europe in quandary

Syrian migrants crossing under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, in August. By the time this year ends, Europe would have received at least 1.2 million refugees. This is the biggest mass movement in a generation.

European Union leaders have held no less than five emergency summits but still, they keep on coming: by the time this year ends, Europe would have received at least 1.2 million refugees.

This is the biggest mass movement in a generation and the most controversial in at least half a century, for it could potentially destroy Europe's existing political arrangements.

Almost every EU country bears some responsibility for the continent's current disarray. The Greeks and Italians, at the forefront of this massive influx, are guilty of simply ignoring their European treaty obligations by pushing refugees through towards the richer, western part of Europe.


2. 1MDB scandal rocks Malaysian politics

Mr Najib (right) sacked deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin for raising uncomfortable questions.

The year in Malaysia started with the debt struggles of state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and how it got into the mess in the first place. And the same questions remain as the year draws to a close.

The 1MDB, which is owned by the Finance Ministry, was set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 and he heads its board of advisers.

In July, Datuk Seri Najib was confronted with another scandal when some US$680 million (S$961 million) in cash was discovered in his bank accounts by investigators probing 1MDB. The Malaysian government says it is working hard to erase 1MDB's debts. And Mr Najib has pointed to unnamed donors from the Middle East for the huge cash injection, adding they did not expect anything in return.


3. Regional haze one of the worst in history

A firefighter extinguishing a blaze on peatland in Central Kalimantan at the height of the crisis this year.

The transboundary haze crisis of 2015, which affected millions across South-east Asia, will go down as one of the worst in recent history - surpassing the 1997 and 2013 crises.

Forest fires, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia, raged for over three months despite a multinational effort to put them out. The smoke from the fires not only blanketed the skies over Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, but it also caused more than half a million Indonesians to suffer from severe respiratory illnesses. At least 19 of them, including babies, have died.

The air pollution levels broke records, often staying at hazardous levels for weeks. At its peak in October, total emissions from the fires soared to nearly 1.4 billion tonnes - resulting in Indonesia becoming the third-biggest polluter in the world, after China and the United States. This forced Jakarta to move into high gear to mitigate the problem - deploying thousands of troops and seeking international assistance.


4. 81-sec handshake with long-term significance

Singapore hosted the historic meeting between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov 7.

It was an 81-second handshake but the impact of the historic powwow on Nov 7 in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou could be far-reaching.

Both became the first presidents across the Taiwan Strait to meet since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 that saw the Kuomintang (KMT) losing to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and fleeing to Taiwan.

The two leaders shook hands, posed for photos, and held an hour-long meeting discussing issues such as China's missiles facing Taiwan and the island's desire for bigger international involvement.


5. Nepal quake a severe blow to its economy

Workers reinforcing the roof of a temple in historical Durbar Square, in Nepal, which had collapsed, following an earthquake in April.

On April 25, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal, killing 8,617 people and destroying up to 700,000 homes and 8,000 schools.

An avalanche that roared through the middle of Everest base camp killed two dozen people.

Hundreds of climbers were stranded on the mountain.


6. Paris attacks stress need for security, integration

People gathering on Nov 16 for a memorial at a restaurant attacked by gunmen days earlier, in Paris.

The gunmen who brought destruction to the streets of Paris, France, on Nov 13 left not only 130 civilians dead, but also sent shock waves through the entire European Union. For although Europe is no stranger to terrorist attacks, the Paris massacres were a turning point; they are a stark reminder of how much the continent needs to do to improve its security measures and ensure the peaceful integration of its Muslim communities.

The gunmen were mostly French citizens who frequently travelled to and from Syria and other Middle East terrorist hot spots undetected, although they figured on the radars of Europe's intelligence services.

They were also able to move from one European country to another without leaving any documentary evidence, and encountered little difficulty in purchasing the weapons they needed from middlemen in Belgium. In short, the terrorists of today are fully globalised; it's only the forces of law and order which are hemmed in by national borders.


7. NLD win a watershed in Myanmar history

The National League for Democracy (NLD) swept Myanmar's Nov 8 general election, the outcome surpassing the party's own expectations. It won a majority in the 664-seat Parliament and reduced the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party to a thin back bench.

The emotional wave stirred by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi highlighted the paradox of Myanmar's system: Under the current Constitution, she cannot become president because her two sons are British citizens.

But she made clear she would nominate the next president and hold real power as party leader.


8. Clash of the Titans over South China Sea

In the early hours of Oct 27, the USS Lassen, an American guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of two Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea - triggering weeks of heated diplomatic exchanges between the United States and China.

The move - called a freedom of navigation patrol by the US and an "irresponsible" and unprecedented act of provocation by the Chinese - caught many off-guard.

The US had dropped hints just hours earlier that the operation would take place and subsequently avoided saying anything at all about the voyage apart from confirming that it did take place.


9. World takes big step in climate change battle

This year started with big hopes - in 2015, the world would finally unite in a fight against climate change. It needed to.

The weather was getting more extreme and the planet was becoming hotter, with 2014 the hottest year in recorded history. Storms, floods and droughts were all growing in strength and millions of people were being affected.

Failed United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 had set back efforts.


10. Iran N-deal could head in any direction

It has the potential of transforming the Middle East.

Or it could go down in history as one of the most monumental failures of modern diplomacy.

With the nuclear accord between Teheran and world powers now in force, the verdict on this pact hangs in the balance.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Epic change & upheaval'. Subscribe