SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): A 50-year-old South Korean film-maker, who captured the world's imagination with a dystopian survival drama that throws up uncomfortable questions about contemporary society, has been named The Straits Times Asian of the Year.
Every year, the editors of The Straits Times pick a person, a group or an institution that in their judgment has significantly impacted Asia in the year past.
Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, was chosen this year for an expression of creativity that, while fictional and not without flaws, holds up a useful mirror to society.
The Netflix series created by Hwang has emerged as more than a mere television show, said the citation to the award.
The drama involves a group of people, caught in dire personal circumstances, who contest in a series of win-or-die games for 45.6 billion won (S$52.9 million) in cash prize.
"As social commentary, it has sparked soul searching about capitalism, inequality and how societies treat the less fortunate. As a commercial enterprise, it makes a compelling case to Hollywood for the viability of non-English content... Above all, as a vehicle of soft power, it has taken South Korea's global cultural influence - already high - to the next level," said the citation.
Hwang, educated at Seoul National University and at the University of Southern California, won notice with his graduation thesis film Miracle Mile, which picked up several awards. With Squid Game, he found commercial success.
Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH Media's English, Malay and Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, said: "This year's choice for The Straits Times Asian of the Year award might seem an unusual, even surprising, one to some. But in an unreal time when many were confined to home amid the pandemic and sought release through streaming content, a troubling and thought-provoking series got the world talking about deep issues of inequality and inhumanity in some societies.
"The global reach the show attained so quickly spoke not only of the influence of the new media platforms, but also of the impact that ideas, creativity and cultural soft power can have, across borders, even in a world shut up at home. Like it or loathe it, Hwang's creation struck a global chord and resonated with many, because it made us reflect on what happens when societies lose their humanity."
Bhagyashree Garekar, foreign editor of The Straits Times, said of this year's awardee: "In Hwang, we honour a brilliant Asian artist's honest reaction to the times we live in. Squid Game reveals to stunning effect the desperation and alienation that fester in the fraying edges of society, and even our own psyches. The award validates the unprecedented resonance Hwang's creation has had with millions across the world, the next step would be to address the frailties the show has exposed."
The Straits Times Asian of the Year award, now in its 10th year, has become an important part of the Asian calendar since 2012.
The inaugural award went to then Myanmar President Thein Sein, followed by a joint award for Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, before the award went to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.
In 2015, the award was given posthumously to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister. In 2016, seven Asian pioneers working at the intersection of technology and commerce were honoured as The Disruptors - the first time the award went to a group.
Xi was Asian of the Year in 2017, and editors picked The First Responders, a bunch of people of courage and commitment who stepped up in the moment of greatest need during natural disasters, as Asians of the Year 2018.
In the following year, the award went to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the steward of South-east Asia's biggest nation and economy, for the dexterity and nous he showed in navigating the tricky cross-currents of domestic politics and international affairs.
Last year, the award captured the trajectory of response to the Covid-19 pandemic, recognising a group of six researchers, scientists and businessmen at the forefront of developing and producing vaccines against the virus.
Past winners of The Straits Times Asian of the Year
2012: Myanmar President Thein Sein
2013: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
2014: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
2015: Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (awarded posthumously)
2016: "The Disruptors": Grab co-founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, Flipkart co-founders Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal, Gojek founder and chief executive Nadiem Makarim, Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma and Razer co-founder Tan Min-Liang
2017: Chinese President Xi Jinping
2018: "The First Responders": Singaporean paraglider Ng Kok Choong (awarded posthumously), Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, Indonesia's national disaster management agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, Singapore's Mercy Relief, and Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management
2019: Indonesian President Joko Widodo
2020: Six researchers, scientists and businessmen who helped find ways to contain the Covid-19 pandemic:
• Chinese researcher Zhang Yongzhen, who led the team that mapped and published online the first complete genome of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that sparked the pandemic;
• Three scientists - China's Major-General Chen Wei, Japan's Dr Ryuichi Morishita and Singapore's Professor Ooi Eng Eong - who were among those at the forefront of developing vaccines against the virus; and
• Two businessmen - South Korea's Mr Seo Jung-jin and India's Adar Poonawalla - whose companies enabled the making and dispensing of the vaccines and other Covid-19 treatments to the world