From The Straits Times    |

China: Diane Wang Shutong, Founder of

Diane Wang is one to know about bucking trends. The visionary entrepreneur founded in 2004, an e-commerce platform that allows businesses to trade across borders – this despite physical channels being de rigueur for international trade.

Today, her company is ranked right up there with Alibaba. Entering the cross-border e-commerce game early has been a boon. “I’m proud that we foresaw this trend, which helped us cement our place and gain an advantage in what turned out to be an extremely competitive environment,” she said, in an interview with China Daily.

Among’s unique selling points is connecting Chinese SMEs with buyers from all over the world through an online marketplace. To date, it has 10 million buyers from more than 230 countries and regions. These are linked with over 1.4 million suppliers who collectively offer 30 million products.

The 49-year-old cut her teeth in tech MNCs such as Microsoft and Cisco, affording her a global perspective. As a result, she can be found getting involved in associations such as the APEC Business Advisory Council and the ABAC SME Working Group.

At the end of 2015, DHgate helped to negotiate the first Sino-Turkish cross-border e-commerce treaty, where the signing ceremony was officiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It represented the digital extension of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Naturally, Wang also ASEAN and Latin America firmly in her radar, which she describes as having “huge potential”.

Hong Kong: Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong

The politically divided city of Hong Kong voted in a new chief executive on 26 March 2017. 59-year-old Carrie Lam succeeds Leung Chun Ying and is the first female to ascend to the position, where she will govern for a five-year term. Widely known to be pro-Beijing, she won the race against former financial chief John Tsang and retired judge Woo Kwok Hing.

Immediately after announcing her win, she grabbed the bull by its horns and declared her intention to reinstate peace. “Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustration. My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration – and to unite our society to move forward,” she said at the press conference.

Her comments are in response to a landscape that is fraught with fear about China’s increasing influence and interference in the autonomy of Hong Kong. Back in 1997, when the British colony was returned to China, the central government had promised to let the status quo remain, citing a “one country, two systems” method. However, many in the city feel it has reneged on that agreement.

Lam’s challenge, in the months ahead, will be to juggle Beijing’s demands, while placating Hong Kongers seeking greater democracy. The latter she hopes to do by becoming more engaged with the public, and involve the youth, who have been very vocal, in the crafting of government policies. Only time will tell if she can live up to her promises, but it seems she is already making a step in the right direction.

Japan: Yuriko Koike, Governor of Tokyo

In July last year, in the elections to vote for Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike ran as an independent against the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate and won. The LDP is the dominant political party in Japan. To say it was a surprising move is an understatement. Koike used to be part of the LDP and her move caught everyone by surprise.

Since then, the former newscaster-turned-politician has set out to refresh the LDP in the hope of throwing out the old and introducing the new. This she is doing through Kibo no Juku (School of Hope), which the 64-year-old has established to groom the next generation of candidates of her party Tomin First no Kai (Tokoyoites First Group). Graduates from the academy will work with her in the hope of taking over control of Tokyo’s city assembly from the LDP in elections in July this year. Her intention: to eventually take on the LDP nationwide, and, if she succeeds, become Japan’s prime minister.

Within Tokyo, Koike walks her talk. Among the items on her to-do list include putting a stop to the relocation of Tsukiji Market to a disused gas works site that is alleged to be toxic. She has also spoken out against the spiraling costs of the city hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 2020, which could reach US$27 billion, or four times more than the original budget. She is also planning for more kindergartens and considering ways to reuse 820,000 empty houses in Tokyo. A recent poll found her approval rating to be 84 per cent. Enough said.

Cambodia: Srey Thy, Founder of rock band The Cambodian Space Project

Srey Thy might have been born in 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but that did not prevent her from leading a life of poverty and trauma. From growing up in Prey Veng, one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, to being abused by her husband, and kidnapped to be a sex worker in Phnom Penh, her life was nothing short of turbulent.

Contrast it against where she is today, and all that seems like a really bad dream. The 37-year-old is the founder and lead singer of rock band The Cambodian Space Project. She started it with the help of Australian musician Julien Poulson, who had taken a fancy to her voice when they met in 2009. From performing in seedy bars, she has now “graduated” to concert venues in Texas, Melbourne, London and Hong Kong.

Her style of music is described as 1960s Cambodian rock and roll. Under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, the era was often regarded as a golden age of the country. As a music genre, it all but disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took power. It is influenced by sounds from the West, tweaked with Asian rhythms and melodies. Thanks to Srey Thy, it is gradually seeing a comeback.

In the early days after The Cambodian Space Project was formed, she loaded her band and their equipment on a bus and travelled the country, staging shows in villages, rice fields and rural communities. Understandably, she was a hit. Today, she writes music based on her colourful past experiences. Among the more popular songs include “Have Visa, No Have Rice” and “House of the Rising Sun”.

Vietnam: Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, President and CEO of VietJet Air

Mention the name Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao and the first image that comes to mind for many is bikini-clad flight attendants. The 46-year-old Vietnamese is the founder of VietJet Air, a budget airline launched in 2011, which famously used swimsuit models in its controversial advertising campaign.

But those raised eyebrows have since then been lowered, especially as this year, Nguyen became the only woman from Southeast Asia to make it onto the FORBES World’s Billionaires list. Her net worth is estimated by Forbes at US$1.7 billion.

Among her recent success is taking VietJet Air public in February. Since then, the share price has risen by 47 per cent. This is bolstered by the fact that the company dominates 40 per cent of the industry in the country, and has revenues of US$1.2 billion. It operates 300 flights daily, executed by 45 planes that fly 63 domestic routes.

To date, VietJet has welcomed more than 35 million passengers onboard, and that momentum does not seem to be stemming anytime soon. It recently confirmed an order for more than 200 planes worth nearly US$23 billion from Airbus and Boeing – they are part of her ambition to turn the airline into an international one.

In an interview with CNBC, she said: “Some say that anything I put hands on will be profitable. But I don’t think it’s that simple. There’s no easy path to success. I studied and I did my research. It was a lot of hard work, and to be successful you need to be passionate about the business that you invest in.”

Thailand: Sirikan Charoensiri, Co-Founder of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights

Sirikan Charoensiri will go down in Thailand’s history books as being the first lawyer charged with sedition by the Thai military junta. This happened in October last year, after she provided legal services through the firm she co-founded, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, to 14 student activists from the New Democracy Movement, who were anti-junta. The practice was established after the coup in 2014 to help those arrested under martial law to have access to justice. If she is found guilty, she could be jailed for up to 15 years.

Earlier in the year, in May, Charoensiri was also charged with criminal offences. The police had wanted to search her car after her clients were detained but did not have a warrant. She therefore refused the request and was later charged with not complying with orders and for “concealing evidence”.

The silver lining in this cloud is that she has since been recognised by Amnesty International as one of six women who are leading human rights activism in Southeast Asia. “In [the region], there are few governments who can be proud of their human rights records, but there are countless women across the region who have braved great dangers to take a stand against injustice,” said its director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Champa Patel.

The human rights organisation also issued a statement asking the Thai government to drop the “unfair” charges against Charoensiri, where it said the public should take part in “urgent action” to pressure the junta.


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