A year of disruption: Future shock is here and now

Old ways are being ripped up, from daily life to global affairs, and nobody is immune

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a stop at US Bank Arena on Dec 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. PHOTO: AFP

Amazon said this month that it will soon open its first grocery store. And why not? If you can do books, electronics and apparel, why should the company not also sell cornflakes and cheese?

Only this caveat: The Seattle-based company says those seeking positions as cashiers need not apply. Instead, customers will simply pick items off shelves and pay automatically through a smartphone app.

Drivers in America's trucking industry - "windshield wipers slapping time" sang Kris Kristofferson in Me And Bobby McGee - are not going to suffer monotony on the road in the coming years. Their jobs are poised to disappear as automated steering develops. Some Silicon Valley types think that day could arrive as early as three years from now.

As The Straits Times Asians of the Year award recognised, 2016 was the year disruption affected everyone in one way or another. Asia was no exception.

From the sweatshops of the world to how patients are treated, how politics is contested and the way restaurants treat customers, old ways were ripped up.

Just look at Singapore's Crystal Jade restaurant. Its chefs, whose principal preoccupation used to be quality and taste, are now also taught to be mindful of how the food looks when plated. That is because in the age of social media, customers love to share with friends pictures of the bao and wontons before them.

A half-century ago, the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote a seminal article called The Future As A Way Of Life. Today, the "too much change in too short a time" that Toffler spoke about is upon us, touching every aspect of our lives, in ways big and small.

Disruptions used to be unexpected events, like a clap on the back from someone who stole up on you unnoticed. But these days, they come at you from all directions, with attendant uncertainty - of social security, employment, changing mores, even in foreign policy.

In this era, nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted. Just see the insouciance with which US President-elect Donald Trump speaks of second-guessing the "one China" policy. Or how easily China, which learnt to use the World Trade Organisation's dispute-settlement mechanism to its advantage, got away by ignoring the arbitral tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea.

Others are testing disruptive policies on their subjects, and getting away with it in the name of a larger cause. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs is a classic case, and at the other end of the spectrum, so is Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi's cancellation of high-value currency notes.

You would have thought that in deeply uncertain times such as these - the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it "anomie" - people would reach for leaders of sound instincts and trusted experience. Instead, chameleonic characters are rising in many societies, building political fortunes on exaggerations and untruth.

The roadkill of this disruptive march includes not just jobs and social security, but also what were once considered universal virtues. Globalisation, open economies and free trade, to name but three, are being questioned.

Meanwhile, even as information technology and communications bring together people across continents, hostility and fear of "the other" are going up.

National leaders who have the responsibility of steering through the storm are vexed.

"Old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast, and we are having to adjust and to keep up, because of technology and globalisation," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August. "And the disruption will happen over and over again, relentlessly."

And yet we are only on the cusp of this wave: Futurists say that by 2019, a US$4,000 (S$5,700) computer will be able to match the human mind's ability to process information and analyse things.

It would be wonderful if we were just sleepwalking through a nightmare that will go away when night recedes as dawn breaks. But then again what was day is night these days; look at the unlit factories in Dongguan, China, where robots have replaced humans.

Of course, there may come a time when our work week is shortened, our leisure extended and people live off universal basic incomes. Who knows, life itself may be so extended that our dates, on occasion, could turn out to be people our parents went out with. Now, that would be really scary.


US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on Dec 17, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

When real estate mogul Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Jan 20, it will be the culmination of the most disruptive election campaign in American history.

The 70-year-old's path to the White House is strewn with the bodies of conventional wisdom, political tradition and historical precedent.

Only once before has a candidate with no experience either in the military or public office ever won the nomination of a major political party. And never before has one actually won the election. Utility company executive Wendell Wilkie ran on the Republican ticket in 1940, but lost badly to Franklin Roosevelt.

But Mr Trump won this year while wreaking havoc on all established ideas about what it takes to win an election and making a host of controversial remarks that would have disqualified a more conventional candidate. But perhaps most importantly, his greatest disruption this year was to see and tap into an anti-establishment sentiment among the American working class that few others understood.

Time magazine said it chose the billionaire as its Person of the Year for "empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow's political culture by demolishing yesterday's..."

And after the established order in US politics was unceremoniously upended, many are now looking to see what sort of impact Mr Trump will have on the world. Thus far, the signals from his campaign and transition team have raised some alarm.

At the heart of the concern is the potential disruption from Mr Trump's repeated mantra of an "America First" approach to the world. Though a rise in nationalism and isolationism is not a uniquely American phenomenon, the endorsement of it by a country the size of the United States could have far-reaching effects.

If the US is largely credited with laying the foundation of globalisation, Mr Trump's remarks suggest that the country might soon want to turn its back on it.

Mr Trump's America is not necessarily one that sees itself as a keeper of international order and peace, or at least not without getting compensated for it accordingly.

He has often raised questions about the US' commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and said that the likes of Japan and South Korea need to pay more for the defence the US provides.

His phone call with Taiwan's President and subsequent questioning of the US commitment to a "one China" policy also suggest a volatile approach to foreign policy that will keep foes and allies on their toes.

Similarly, Mr Trump's promises of tearing up trade deals suggest a belief that trade is not an activity that could benefit all, but a game where the winner triumphs over the loser.

Reneging on deals signed, such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, would also threaten to undermine US credibility as a negotiating partner in the future as well as its standing as a defender of an international rules-based order. It would, in the eyes of foreign policy experts, be a stunning disruption indeed.

Jeremy Au Yong


A mourner clutches a picture of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej after the hearse carrying the body of the late monarch passes the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Oct 14, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK • Thailand turned the page on a 70-year chapter on Oct 13, when 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital.

With it, the nation lost a revered and unifying figure whose stature had only grown through decades of political turbulence and coups.

Thrust onto the throne at the age of 18 in 1946, King Bhumibol acquired moral authority by improving rural livelihoods and publicly intervening against unpopular military dictators.

His death turned a colourful nation monochrome overnight, as billboards went silent and people were asked to refrain from entertainment for 30 days.

Amid widespread grieving, his son Maha Vajiralongkorn took a seven-week pause before ascending the throne. With Thailand under firm military rule, the 64-year-old King Rama X included three junta- linked men in his Privy Council. But he has also kept 96-year-old former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda as Privy Council president, signalling some continuity.

The government is closely watching for any insult or defamation of royalty. Two days after the King ascended the throne, an anti-junta activist was arrested for allegedly sharing on Facebook a biography of the new monarch.

Tan Hui Yee


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is seen before the departure for Cambodia, at the Ninoy Aquino International airport near Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines on Dec 13, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA • The Philippines has not been the same since Mr Rodrigo Duterte, a brash, tough-talking mayor, became President nearly six months ago.

In so short a time, the 71-year-old has unleashed a war on crime that is shocking the world for its brutality, but which keeps boosting his ratings at home.

He has shown no tolerance for critics of his anti-crime drive, as the body count nears 5,000.

Mr Duterte has also shoved aside an issue that deeply divided Filipinos for nearly 30 years. With his blessings, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who died in 1989, was finally laid to rest last month in Manila's national heroes' cemetery.

Beyond the Philippines' shores, Mr Duterte's shadow looms large.

He has set aside a hard-won ruling from an international tribunal meant to check China's aggressive expansion in the South China Sea. He has also threatened to cut ties with the United States.

Mr Duterte remains popular but his critics, put off by his brusqueness and sharp tongue, are digging in. That may lead to an even rougher year ahead for him. A robust economy, though, could boost his presidency and take some of the sting out of his critics at home.

Raul Dancel


Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pausing during an interview with AFP at his office in Putrajaya on Dec 6, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR • One of the biggest threats to Prime Minister Najib Razak's seemingly unshakeable grip on power is a 91-year- old blogger.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's constant lobbing of vitriol at his successor has kept the pressure up on the Malaysian leader, who is being dogged by claims, which he has denied, that US$700 million (S$997 million) found in his personal accounts came from state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Dr Mahathir is revered among the Malay majority, having spent 22 years as prime minister and head of the dominant Umno party.

Three months ago, he formed the Malay-based Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia along with other Umno rebels, including Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was ousted as deputy prime minister after attacking Datuk Seri Najib.

While Umno now calls Dr Mahathir a hypocritical traitor, he is seen as the opposition's best hope to connect with rural Malays, a crucial vote bank that controls a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats.

Dr Mahathir's pulling power will be tested at national elections expected next year.

Shannon Teoh


Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not pictured) at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Dec 16, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Notwithstanding his carefully nurtured macho image, Russian President Vladimir Putin is ruling a country beset by fundamental problems.

Its population is ageing and declining, its economy has failed to diversify and is hit by low oil and gas revenues. The country is also subjected to financial sanctions by the West. And even the military, whose modernisation is one of Mr Putin's pet projects, is suffering from a lack of financial resources.

Still, he is a master tactician in using weakness to gain strength: His decision to get involved in Syria has transformed Russia from a marginal player in the Middle East into the region's key arbiter.

Contrary to American predictions, Mr Putin did not get bogged down in the fighting, and his troops did not suffer heavy casualties. And unlike the Americans, the Russians proved determined and resourceful, even if their Middle East policies are opposed by most regional Arab nations.

With Mr Donald Trump heading for the White House - and whose election Mr Putin believes he had some input - and with Russia- friendly candidates leading next year's presidential polls in France, Mr Putin has had a good year, and might be expecting an even better one next year.

Jonathan Eyal


Choi Soon-Sil being escorted after questioning at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in Seoul on Nov 19, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • For 40 years, Choi Soon Sil hid behind the scenes to play the role of friend, confidante and adviser to Ms Park Geun Hye.

Ms Park has been South Korea's President since 2013, but it was only in October this year that Choi's presence became known publicly. In a matter of weeks, Ms Park's presidency was largely destroyed in the nation's worst political scandal.

Choi allegedly manipulated the President and meddled in government affairs for her own gain. Ms Park trusted her so much that she would let Choi edit her speeches - a fact that Ms Park admitted in a national apology on Oct 25.

Outraged that their President appeared to be nothing more than a puppet, millions of South Koreans demanded her resignation.

The opposition bloc has successfully led a parliamentary vote to impeach Ms Park, and the final decision now lies with the Constitutional Court. Ms Park's powers have been suspended, but she remains President in name until then.

Choi has been indicted on charges, including abuse of power and extortion.

For now, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn is trying to reassure the nation and financial markets that South Korea is stable.

Chang May Choon


Former British Prime Minister David Cameron attends the annual Hindustan Times 'Leadership Summit' conference in New Delhi on Dec 3, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON • He entered politics determined to finally settle Britain's troubled relationship with the European Union by first persuading other European governments to grant Britain a special status in the EU.

He followed this with a referendum that asked voters to reiterate their pledge to be good Europeans.

It was a risky strategy, and it failed spectacularly. Instead of embedding Britain in Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron ended up with a decision to leave the EU.

And instead of going down in history as the man who united his nation and his party over the European question, which has haunted Britain for over half a century, Mr Cameron left a deeply split nation, ruined his personal career and will go down in history as one of Britain's least effective prime ministers.

Mr Cameron believed the referendum would take the sting out of the UK Independence Party, a populist, anti-EU movement which was eating into his voter base.

Britain's anti-EU vote was part of a broader rebellion against globalisation, political elites and open borders. Mr Cameron was a pioneer: Being the first to be toppled by the current popular backlash and watching helplessly as his nation shot itself in the foot.

Jonathan Eyal


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a joint media statement with visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo after their meeting at the Hyderabad house in New Delhi, India, on Dec 12, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

NEW DELHI • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in a landslide victory, promising decisive governance with measures to curb corruption and boost growth.

Midway through his five-year term, Mr Modi has taken his boldest step yet, cancelling high-value banknotes that make up 86 per cent of the currency in circulation.

In an address to the nation on Nov 8, he said he wanted to capture billions of dollars in unaccounted wealth held by the rich and powerful. He struck a chord with a population fed up with corruption. Still, lives of ordinary citizens have been disrupted, as the government struggles to replace old notes.

Mr Modi had announced that the situation would ease within 50 days, but there is little sign of normalcy.

State elections are due early next year in a handful of states - including Uttar Pradesh, a politically important state Mr Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to win. If cash shortages continue into the new year, analysts warn it could hurt the BJP. But for now, Mr Modi still has popular backing.

"Up to now, people are with him because they have realised he is the only person doing something about black money and is serious about corruption. He is okay for the present," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

Nirmala Ganapathy

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline A year of disruption: Future shock is here and now. Subscribe