Looking back: People who shaped the year

Top global newsmakers this year

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visiting her constituency in Kawhmu township, Yangon division, in October during a campaign rally. Her party swept to a stunning victory in the Nov 8 polls.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visiting her constituency in Kawhmu township, Yangon division, in October during a campaign rally. Her party swept to a stunning victory in the Nov 8 polls.PHOTO: REUTERS
Standing out this year are (from top) Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull, China's Dr Tu Youyou and India's Mr Nitish Kumar.
Standing out this year are Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull (above), China's Dr Tu Youyou and India's Mr Nitish Kumar.
Standing out this year are (from top) Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull, China's Dr Tu Youyou and India's Mr Nitish Kumar.
Standing out this year are Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull, China's Dr Tu Youyou (above) and India's Mr Nitish Kumar.
Standing out this year are (from top) Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull, China's Dr Tu Youyou and India's Mr Nitish Kumar.
Standing out this year are Australia's Mr Malcolm Turnbull, China's Dr Tu Youyou and India's Mr Nitish Kumar (above).
(From top) Mr Luhut Pandjaitan and Mr Donald Trump are making waves in the Indonesian and US political scenes, respectively.
Mr Luhut Pandjaitan (above) and Mr Donald Trump are making waves in the Indonesian and US political scenes, respectively.
(From top) Mr Luhut Pandjaitan and Mr Donald Trump are making waves in the Indonesian and US political scenes, respectively.
Mr Luhut Pandjaitan and Mr Donald Trump (above) are making waves in the Indonesian and US political scenes, respectively.

From global power players acting out of character to underdogs taking on entire regimes, 2015 saw some stunning comebacks, upsets and turnarounds.

1 Staggering challenges follow a stunning win


Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent close to two decades in detention under successive military regimes in Myanmar, led her party to a resounding win in the Nov 8 general election.

To millions of her supporters, The Lady - who won the prestigious Nobel Prize in 1991 for her single-minded defiance of the erstwhile military dictatorship - finally got her due.

But the ultimate test lies ahead for Ms Suu Kyi once she forms a government at the end of March next year: How to deliver on expectations in running a diverse and fractious country of some 50 million while leading a party - the National League for Democracy - that has never held power.

And the 70-year-old must do all this most probably by proxy since the Constitution bars her from becoming president as her two sons are British citizens.

While she enjoys a huge reservoir of public and international goodwill, the task awaiting her will challenge the capacity for statesmanship of a leader who is not known for compromise.

As a civilian leader, she has to cohabit with the powerful army, and coax into line a bureaucracy stacked with retired military men.

As a leader from the Burman ethnic majority, she must earn the trust of powerful minorities who want more autonomy under a federal system.

And as leader of a chronically underdeveloped country seen as one of Asia's last frontiers for investment, Ms Suu Kyi will have to ensure that democratic and market reforms bring benefits to all rather than to just a small entrenched elite.

She must also assuage the international community's human rights concerns over persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims, while managing the influential Buddhist right- wing movement at home.

Nirmal Ghosh

2 From pariah to power broker



Much is made of the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin's career in the KGB, the Soviet Union's feared intelligence agency, shaped him into a cunning leader.

Mr Putin is clearly a good tactical operator, as his handling of the Ukraine crisis indicates: He invaded Ukraine last year and absorbed part of that country into Russia while maintaining, at the same time, the element of surprise against the West.

As a result, Russia had to endure diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. But Mr Putin broke out of this isolation by undertaking another audacious military intervention, this time in Syria.

So it is that 2015 ends with Mr Putin being courted by Western politicians for his potential contribution to the stability of Europe and the Middle East. For a man once derisively dismissed by US President Barack Obama as a leader "with one foot in the past", Mr Putin has succeeded in presenting himself as very much the man of the future.

Nor is his domestic position under threat. His popularity ratings have never sunk much below 60 per cent, figures Western leaders can only dream of.

Mr Putin's Achilles' heel remains the Russian economy. While Russia's national wealth has more than doubled in size since 2000,  the country is more dependent today on sales of oil, gas and other raw materials than ever before, and the prices it gets for all these commodities are at their lowest in decades, with no relief in sight next year.

The truth is that Mr Putin is aspiring to make his country a global power again while running a Third World economy. The new year may provide him with evidence that it is not a sustainable policy.

Jonathan Eyal

3 On the brink of an avalanche



As leader of the European Union's biggest and wealthiest nation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no stranger to controversy - almost everything she does ends up being resented by one European country or another.

But the woman who has run Germany for a decade is now facing a wave of resentment from an unexpected quarter: her own electorate.

Dr Merkel has opened up her nation to a million asylum-seekers this year. While this won her innumerable plaudits, it has also made her vulnerable to a domestic anti-immigrant backlash that she seems unable to address.

The coming year will either define or destroy her political career.

The secret of Dr Merkel's success is that she embodies the key virtues of ordinary Germans. She is no great orator and is a poor political campaigner.

But she is a hard worker and a superb master of detail; her daily media briefing amounts to 100 pages of text. She never acts on impulse. "Mutti", or mother, as Germans have nicknamed her, takes decisions only after carefully weighing all arguments.

Why Dr Merkel threw caution to the wind by opening her country to migrants remains a mystery.

The fact is Germany cannot keep admitting an unlimited number of migrants. In the months to come, Dr Merkel will have to close the country's borders to them or persuade the rest of Europe to increase their own intake. Neither will be easy or popular.

As Dr Wolfgang Schaeuble, her finance minister, recently put it, the cautious Mutti had recently acted like a "careless skier" who started "an avalanche". And one which can ultimately overwhelm her.

Jonathan Eyal

4 Clinging on to power



Things were so bad at one point this year for Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak that many people were asking when, not if, he would step down.

That was five months ago in July.

To say the government was shaken by the twin funding scandals of the US$680 million (S$960 million) donation and the debt troubles of state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is an understatement.

The government under him was forced to form a multi-agency investigation into the issues. This was the first time that a Malaysian prime minister was investigated by officers below him from the central bank, the anti-corruption commission, police and Attorney-General's office.

And then, a besieged Datuk Seri Najib broke away from his image as an overcautious politician. He shockingly sacked deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin for asking too many questions. He also replaced the Attorney-General and the head of the Special Branch intelligence agency. And in a move seen as a delaying tactic, he promoted four Barisan Nasional MPs - who were part of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee that was carrying out a separate probe on 1MDB.

Today, the two scandals are still raging in Malaysia. But Mr Najib is seen as being able to cling on to power. He has come out repeatedly to say that the funds found in his bank accounts were from Middle East donors, not from 1MDB. And he has made moves to erase 1MDB's RM42 billion (S$13 billion) debt. Last week, he also showed his ability to keep his party Umno, the biggest political party in Malaysia, behind him - at least in public.

But while he has managed to get his party to rally behind him, convincing Malaysians that the issues are about to be settled and to move on is another matter.

Reme Ahmad

5 There's steel in Flanby's wobble


French President Francois Hollande has won praise for his skill in handling the terrorist attacks on his country this year, but he is unlikely to be re-elected as president in 2017 unless he manages to jump-start the stagnating economy. PHOTO: REUTERS

Reaching the pinnacle of France's politics never seemed quite the thing for Mr Francois Hollande.

A mild-mannered figure with a boring dress sense and a rounded physique, he earned the nickname of Flanby, a French brand of caramel pudding that wobbles when served.

And notwithstanding his election as France's president in 2012 - a victory more by accident than design - Mr Hollande did nothing to dispel his dull image. His personal popularity ratings quickly sank to single digits, the lowest levels ever recorded in modern France.

Even his amorous escapades attracted more giggles than gossip.

However, Mr Hollande proved his mettle as France came under the repeated blows of terrorists. In January, he earned praise for his skill in presiding over the coordinated response of the French military, police and intelligence agencies in eliminating the terrorists who hit at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.

And last month, he reacted with the same vigour in stamping out terrorists who went on a rampage in Paris, killing 130 people. There was steel after all in that wobble.

The French President also displayed an uncanny ability to anticipate popular concerns in the wake of these tragedies. He ignored his Socialist party's traditional reluctance to use force by authorising draconian measures against anyone suspected of association with violence.

And he has taken the war to France's enemies by deploying troops in a variety of missions in Africa and the Middle East; the French now have more overseas military deployments than the British, who used to hold the record on this score.

As a result, Mr Hollande ends the year with a 50 per cent approval rating, an astounding achievement by his standards.

Few believe that this new-found popularity will last long or help his party; the Socialists polled badly in the recent regional elections.

As for his chances of re-election as president, they remain poor, with the economy refusing to take off after years of stagnation.

Still, the presidential ballots are not until 2017, so Mr Hollande still has the full year ahead to spring a few other surprises.

Jonathan Eyal

6 Fulfilling his 'destiny'



When Mr Malcolm Turnbull ousted the unpopular Mr Tony Abbott as Liberal Party leader in September, he became - somewhat embarrassingly - the third Australian prime minister to take office via a political coup in just five years. But this time, something was different.

It was not merely Mr Turnbull, 61,  a former lawyer and investment banker, who believed he was destined to become the nation's leader: The Australian public seemed to share his belief. 

He is known for his progressive views and was long rated one of the country's most popular potential leaders. He is a strong supporter of action on climate change while holding firm pro-market economic views.

Since taking office, however, the changes to the nation have been mainly in political style, rather than substance.

Mr Turnbull has stuck with Mr Abbott's hard-line approach to refugees and avoided committing to a market-based carbon emission scheme. But he has tried to adopt a more measured approach to policy and public engagement than Mr Abbott. For instance, he has abandoned Mr Abbott's fiery rhetoric denouncing Muslim extremists.

As yet, Mr Turnbull has been limited in his ability to stamp his mark on the country's direction, having not won a mandate through elections. He will get a chance at the next general election, due next year. Polls show his coalition to be in a strong position.  

Jonathan Pearlman

7 Putting TCM in the spotlight



When scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel prize for medicine this year, it not only gave her long-overdue recognition for discovering a cure for malaria, but also cast a spotlight on the potential of traditional Chinese medicine.

Dr Tu, 84, is the first Chinese to win a Nobel prize in medicine for work done in China and the first Chinese woman to become a Nobel laureate. She was credited for the discovery of the drug artemisinin, a part of standard anti-malarial regimens that saved millions of lives in Africa and Asia.

Trained in pharmacology and traditional Chinese medicine, she joined a secret research unit in 1969 to find a cure for malaria, which was killing Chinese troops fighting in the jungles alongside communist ally North Vietnam against the United States.

Studying a 1,700-year-old handbook of prescriptions led her team to discover that sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) has been used to treat malaria. The team extracted artemisinin from it and Dr Tu volunteered to be the first human to test it.

The team published a paper anonymously in 1977. But Dr Tu's contribution was not known until 2011, when she won the prestigious Lasker prize for medical research. At the Nobel lectures this month in Sweden, she described artemisinin as "a gift from traditional Chinese medicine to the world".

Kor Kian Beng

8 Winning with pride 


Nitish Kumar (left). PHOTO: REUTERS

Low-key Indian politician Nitish Kumar is known as a man of few words. Yet, the leader of the Janata Dal (United) Party engineered the most stunning electoral upset of the year by defeating the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had pitched Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the face of its campaign in the Hindu heartland state last month.

Mr Kumar's winning strategy was to invoke regional pride and create a "grand alliance" with his one-time rival Lalu Prasad Yadav's party and Congress. The alliance won 178 of the 243 assembly seats, reducing BJP's tally to just 58.

His strong governance record was also a winning factor.

In his 10 years at the helm from 2005, he wiped out criminal gangs that had overrun the state, built roads, improved healthcare and increased education access.

One of the first things Mr Kumar, 64, did after winning the election was to announce a ban on the sale of alcohol from April 1 - a promise he had made to women voters. In rural areas, men are known to spend their earnings on alcohol while their wives struggle to feed the family.

With Bihar one of India's poorest states, his challenge is to push growth by revitalising industry.

Many are watching to see if Mr Kumar will emerge at the core of a possible opposition alliance that can challenge Mr Modi and BJP.

Nirmala Ganapathy

9 Billionaire is no sideshow



When he first took that escalator ride down to the stage to announce his candidacy in June, real estate mogul Donald Trump was dismissed as an election sideshow - a joke candidate that would entertain for a few weeks and then flame out.

Yet, in the six months that followed, the billionaire has only seen his popularity go up.

The brash, outspoken 69-year-old has been a suffocating presence in the crowded Republican field, sucking up all the attention and oxygen from his hitherto more electable colleagues such as Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

His dominance has been so complete that, earlier this month, party leaders met privately for a discussion on how to stop Mr Trump from becoming the nominee at the party convention in July.

Just exactly how he is winning more support has been a matter of much debate, as has the question of whether he is simply shining a light on the country's worst tendencies or actually encouraging them.

He has now accumulated enough outrageous, xenophobic and racist statements to sink multiple campaigns and, yet, he continues to thrive. At the start of his campaign, he called Mexican immigrants "rapists and murderers".

He has made disparaging remarks about women, insulted a war hero and told multiple lies - from the number of refugees the US would take in to crime rates in the black community. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and California, he called for a ban on Muslims entering the US.

It is unclear how all of this is going to pan out in the coming months, but Mr Trump has already made an indelible, often ugly, stamp on US politics.

Jeremy Au Yong

10 Man of action



When a New York Times reporter called him Indonesia's second most powerful man recently, Mr Luhut Pandjaitan was visibly uncomfortable, saying "that is too much". Observers, however, say the former Special Forces general is undoubtedly a central figure in President Joko Widodo's government.

The close ties between them were forged long before Mr Joko entered politics; it was Mr Luhut who encouraged Mr Joko to run for Jakarta governor.

Now Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mr Luhut has been tasked by the President, among other critical matters of state, to maintain a cohesive relationship with the Parliament, where Mr Joko's coalition controls only 207 of the 560-seat house.

Mr Luhut remains a leading figure within the opposition Golkar party, a link which has enabled him to engage opposition politicians to push through legislation, such as a recently passed anti-corruption Bill.

He has also been proven to be a man of action, from working behind the scenes on the President's behalf to leading Indonesia's efforts in combating forest fires and fighting terrorism.

His relationships with power brokers and leaders in countries such as the United States and Singapore have also been put to good use.

Tempo magazine reported in October that Mr Luhut played a key role in opening doors for Mr Joko's visit to the US that month, where the President stayed at the Blair House where visiting dignitaries to the White House stay. Mr Luhut said he was able to arrange for the stay because "I have many friends".

Francis Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'The year of the unlikelies'. Print Edition | Subscribe