Asia’s bad to good for 2014

There goes the Year of the Horse. As 2015 and the Year of the Sheep unfolds, it’s time for one last look at the year we left behind.

A year ago, taking a page from Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza’s awarding U.S. President Barack Obama the dubious distinction of “Worst year in Washington,” we took to the digital pages of Fortune Magazine.

The challenge — naming who had the “Worst year in Asia” — and the “winner” then of that least desired of 2013 prizes: Obama also, for what proved to be his lost year in Asia, marked by canceled trips and persistent questions of where’s the substance to a much ballyhooed pivot to Asia amidst China’s rise and seemingly never-ending talks toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

In December, Cillizza returned to Obama, and not in a good way. 2014 may well have offered numerous contenders, but the prize of “Worst year in Washington” went again to the U.S. president — this time “for losses at home and crises abroad” as midterm elections saw the president’s political party lose control of the U.S. Senate.

“His sixth year in office was, inarguably,” Cillizza wrote, “his worst, when the problems that had been building throughout his second term all came crashing down around him.”

When it comes to Asia though, let’s not count Obama out. He fails to make an appearance on our “Worst Year in Asia 2014 edition,” and the year ahead awaits. Below, we give our take on who took that “honor,” and — in ascending order — who had a really bad year, a bad year, a not-so-good-or-bad year, a good year and the best year in Asia.

Congrats, of sort, to all.
The Rohingya people

Stateless. Marginalized. Persecuted. These are the words used to describe the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minority the Rohingya — a people whose very identity Myanmar’s leaders and would-be leaders including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi decline to recognize. Sectarian riots have killed hundreds. Thousands have fled, easy targets for human traffickers, and at least dozens have drowned, fleeing on rickety boats to Malaysia or Indonesia.

Those that stay in Myanmar face restrictions on movement, marriage and education. 2015 is unlikely to bring any respite as the nation’s primarily Buddhist and majority Bamar (or Burman) ethnicity electorate and all too many foreign investors, enamored of a new Burma, look the other way.

Asia’s once-anonymous CEO

Can it get it much worse for Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya or Sony CEO Kaz Hirai?

In a region all too often stereotyped as the realm of crony capitalism and secretive CEOs — shareholder accountability, what’s that? — 2014 saw tragedy and a cyber attack bring to Asian executives the sort of scrutiny that Western business executives have grown accustomed to in a world dominated by social media and a 24-hour news cycle. In Kuala Lumpur, CEO Yahya continues for now as head of an airline still struggling in the wake of one missing airliner and another shot down over Ukraine.

In Tokyo, CEO Hirai has had a lot of explaining to do, first over the struggling conglomerate’s billions of dollars in losses in five of the last six years. Now comes the “mother of all email leaks,” deriving from a cyber attack suspected to be of North Korean origin and detailing tension between Hirai and its Hollywood subsidiary Sony Pictures Entertainment — one of its few, if not only profitable units.

Not everyone can be a Jack Ma, the founder of China e-commerce pioneer Alibaba who saw a 2014 initial public offering turn him into China’s richest man, or AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes whose performance so far in the midst of the latest air tragedy to strike Asia has so far been hitting the right notes.

Cho Hyun-ah

And then there’s Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, the one-time Korean Air vice president. We know that air travel has become a drag.

Just ask Cho, whose father Cho Yang-ho runs the airline, and who took it upon herself to order a plane back to gate in order to remove a steward who failed to ensure that her macadamia nuts were served to her on a plate, not in a bag. The incident of “nut rage” went viral, and has brought unwanted attention to South Korea’s conglomerates, the families who run them, and the power they wield. The only winner: sellers of macadamia nuts who saw sales jump after the incident became public.

Umbrella Man

In late September, thousands took to Hong Kong’s central business district demanding fully free elections only to be met by police using pepper spray and tear gas to disperse them.

Thus was born the “Umbrella Revolution,” and an image of “Umbrella Man” — that of a defiant protester clutching an umbrella amidst tear gas — was beamed across the globe to became the symbol of the movement.

Much more than a symbol of Hong Kong’s struggle to find a way forward under Beijing’s heavy hand, the Umbrella Man though speaks to the plight of democracy in the region. The parallels to images of a lone man staring down tanks near Tiananmen Square in June 1989 were obvious. Whether it was the jailing of pro-democracy bloggers in Vietnam and anti-coup activists in Thailand, or stalled reforms in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, 2014 was not so good for democracy in Asia.

Kim Jong Un

They say there’s no such thing as” bad press,” and perhaps this whole blow-up behind Sony Films’ political comedy “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un by a newsman and producer (played by actors James Franco and Seth Rogen) may have been exactly what Kim wanted to announce his return, and relevance, after disappearing from public view earlier this year.

Joining the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the pages of popular magazines that normally don’t cover diplomatic news, Kim is now a household name to people who had no idea who he is or what’s going on in the Korean Peninsula. His nation’s economy may be falling fast, and his conventional arms rusting away, but there’s no questioning that Kim had made headlines from Hollywood to Washington to Tokyo at year’s end.

India’s space program

Many Asian nations talk about moving up the knowledge and value chains, but no one did it in such a dramatic fashion as India with its first interplanetary mission, officially called M-O-M, for Mars Orbiter Mission.

Launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in November 2013, its Mars craft — “Manglyaan” in Sanskrit — after a 298- day journey, entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 24.

In doing so, India became the world’s fourth nation to embark successfully on an interplanetary journey, and did so in its first attempt — something, the U.S. and other space powers can’t claim — and in a triumph of low-cost engineering, at a $74 million price tag.

That’s less than the cost of the Hollywood movie “Gravity.” Meanwhile, China’s Chang-e moonlander and Yutu rover faded from the headlines due in part to technical difficulties with the crafts after their 2013 soft landing on the lunar surface.

Asia’s new management

Jokowi, Modi, and even Xi and Abe. Best year in Asia goes to leaders of countries representing the vast majority of Asia’s populace. “Under New Management,” a sign often signaling changes to come, would also be appropriate across a map of Asia as China, India and Indonesia, home to a third of the planet’s population, have undergone a change in leadership these past two years.

India’s Narendra Modi, and Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are seen as pro-business and reform minded. Their agenda have the potential to kick into high gear their respective economies.

They will face a tough, uphill battle to root out corruption and improve each country’s business environment, as will Xi Jinping in China and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, but if successful, together will assure the region’s critical role in growing the global economy, and accelerate the rise of the “Asian Century.”
Honors for 2014

Worst year: the Rohingya people

Really bad year: Asia’s once anonymous CEO Tony Fernandes

Bad year: Cho Hyun-ah

Not-so-good year: Umbrella Man

Not-so-bad year: Kim Jong Un

Good year: India’s space program

Best year: Asia’s new management

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group.