Asia Tomorrow

Architects of change – the people shaping Asia's future

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Asia, home to some of the world's biggest and fastest-growing economies, is a region of change.

Analysts say that in the decade ahead aging demographics, geopolitical tensions and generating inclusive growth are just some of the issues Asia will have grapple with.

In this slideshow we take a look at key players in politics, business, technology, science and culture that are shaping the Asia of tomorrow.

By Dhara Ranasinghe and See Kit Tang. Follow them on Twitter: @DharaCNBC and @SeeKit_T

1. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister, Japan

Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Time Magazine ranks him in their list of the world's 100 most influential people and he's number 57 on Forbes' list of most powerful people. So just how is Shinzo Abe shaping Japan's future?

For starters, Abe has raised the game for world's number three economy – stuck in a rut for years thanks to deflation.

Armed with a rare mandate to rule with a majority in both houses of parliament – something no Japanese prime minister has enjoyed since 2006 – Abe is determined to turn around Japan's fortunes after years of deflation and weak economic growth.

The economy has received a heavy dose of monetary and fiscal stimulus and early signs suggest it will weather the impact of a rise in the consumption tax in April.

In April, Japan hosted the first official state visit by a U.S. President in 18 years and last year Abe took a gamble in backing Tokyo's plans to host the 2020 Olympic Games – a bid Japan's capital city won.

Critics say Abe has yet to deliver on long-term structural reforms, with key measures such as an overseas trade pact yet to be sealed. He's also come under fire for a visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo.

Whether he fails or succeeds, there's little doubt that Abe will leave his mark on Japan for some time.

2. Xi Jinping, President, People’s Republic of China

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Philip Reynaers | Photonews | Getty Images

Born in Beijing in 1953, Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers. Given his "princeling" status, Xi grew up in relative comfort until his father fell from grace in 1962 and was eventually imprisoned.

After graduating from China's prestigious Tsinghua University in 1979, Xi became an active military service member and personal secretary to his father's former comrade, Geng Biao. There he began climbing the ranks, eventually ascending to the top position in the Chinese Communist Party.

Xi officially became China's president in March 2013 and was also appointed military chief. He was named the world's third most powerful person by Forbes Magazine that year, behind Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Xi has been impressive, compared to (former president) Hu Jintao, in consolidating his power and getting control of the key committees," says David Lampton, Director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Since taking office, Xi has kindled hopes of change with rhetoric about the "Chinese Dream" and his vow to fight corruption. A trip to the Southern boom town of Shenzhen located in the Guangdong province in 2012, which was akin to Deng Xiaoping's famous "southern tour" in 1992, has further reinforced Xi's image as the harbinger of reform.

Xi's pledges at the Third Plenum in 2013 to abolish and relax controversial decades-old policies such as the one-child policy have also left their mark on the world's second-largest economy.

As Beijing juggles a host of domestic and external issues, from its frothy property market to territorial disputes, Xi is leading China at a time of great change. The size and importance of the Chinese economy means that Xi's steps will be watched closely not just in Asia, but by the world.

3. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister.
Vivek Prakash | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Modi, India's Prime Minister, has good reason to believe he can alter the future of Asia's third biggest economy.

His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has just landed the biggest election victory in the world's largest democracy in 30 years.

That gives Modi a strong mandate to push through his economic agenda and hopes are high that he will revive economic growth that has fallen to a decade low of below 5 percent.

A Hindu nationalist who critics fear will be divisive, has toned down religious issues and that is a positive sign, analysts say.

"Modi has said very clearly that its 'toilets over temples.' For a deeply religious man, that kind of very stark statement is an interesting indication of his commitment to develop the country," Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to India told CNBC in May.

Modi, credited with boosting investment infrastructure in the western state of Gujarat which he governed since 2001, is expected to bring that success to a national level.

India's stock market rallied to a record high in the wake of Modi's election-win.

For the country's new Prime Minister it's time to deliver and shape the India of tomorrow.

4. Joko Widodo, Jakarta governor, Indonesia’s presidential hopeful

Joko Widodo, Indonesian presidential candidate.
Jefri Tarigan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Joko Widodo is the heavy metal fan tipped to be Indonesia's next president.

More popularly known as "Jokowi," the Jakarta governor previously served as mayor of a small town and has won over many with his down-to-earth personality. His hands-on approach and "regular guy" image have made the 52-year-old a popular figure among voters who find him a refreshing change from Indonesia's elite politicians.

"He represents to a lot of people hope that there will be change in the political system and he's able to tap into that because he's a newcomer and represents a party that has been out of power for 10 years," Cameron Hume, U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia between 2007 and 2010, told CNBC in May.

While the 'Jokowi' effect may have fallen short of expectations in the legislative elections where his Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) failed to secure 25 percent of the total vote, the rising political star remains the frontrunner for the July presidential elections.

Widodo has tightened his grip on the race by teaming up with former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, a member of Golkar, Indonesia's second-largest political party. According to Reuters, recent opinion polls show the Jokowi-Kalla pair currently leading.

5. Raghuram Rajan, Governor, Reserve Bank of India

Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images

India's top central banker has been in his post for less than a year but long enough to have a significant impact.

Rajan became Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor shortly after the rupee sunk to a record low versus the dollar last year and is widely credited with restoring stability to Indian markets and bringing more credibility to the RBI's fight against inflation.

A former chief economist and director of research at the International Monetary Fund, Rajan is also well known for predicting the 2008 global financial crisis.

His book, 'Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy,' was awarded the Financial Times-Goldman Sachs prize for best business book in 2010. In 2003, the American Finance Association awarded Rajan the inaugural Fischer Black Prize for the best finance researcher under the age of 40.

In the local press, some have referred to Rajan as the "sexy" central banker. And at the height of last year's crisis in Indian financial markets, the RBI chief made the time to return $20 to a student who had offered up her savings to help out the economy.

"I am deeply touched by your kind gesture. I am aware that this is a challenging time for the country and I have no doubt that the economy will emerge stronger," the RBI chief wrote back to the student.

6. Jack Ma, co-founder Alibaba Group

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

He was told to give up; his friends reminded him that he knew nothing about technology. That didn't stop a fascination with the Internet from preventing Ma, a former English teacher, from setting up Alibaba Group 15 years ago.

Today Alibaba is China's largest online retailer and it's is about to make history with a listing in New York that could top Facebook's $16 billion initial public offering in 2012.

That would make Ma a titan in the tech world. Yet, unlike his Silicon Valley peers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, Ma does not have a background in computing. He's also unique for an entrepreneur in Asia, taking risks in a culture where risk-taking is generally shunned.

Ma, it could be argued, has reshaped retail in the world's second biggest economy. Alibaba has also expanded into personal finance, games and video.

In March, the tech giant was one of 10 companies picked by Beijing to set up China's first privately financed banks since the communist revolution in 1949.

Ma, aged 49, has an estimated net worth of $8.5 billion. In April, Ma and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai created a charitable trust focusing on the environment and health that could be worth as much as $3 billion.

7. Pony Ma, co-founder and CEO, Tencent

'Pony' Ma Huateng, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Tencent Holdings.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Tencent co-founder Pony Ma is often described as low-key and media-shy but the internet heavyweight still gets a lot of media attention.

Ma, whose full name is Ma Huateng, was named one of the world's most influential people by Time Magazine in 2007 and 2014. The Tencent CEO is also a recurring name on China's rich lists with an estimated net worth of $13.2 billion.

Founded in 1998, Tencent is the world's fourth-largest web firm. It became a household name when its first product, the QQ instant messaging service, became a hit with young Chinese. Tencent is now worth $139 billion by market capitalization and boasts nearly a billion users.

"He's a conservative leader who manages expectations and lays out risks. The company is in a risky industry and he once said that one wrong move is all it takes for the firm to go bust," said Jackson Wong, Vice President of Tanrich Securities. "So far, he hasn't moved in the wrong direction."

Mobile messaging has been Tencent's most successful venture. In 2010, the 42-year-old Ma pitted two of his engineering teams against each other. One emerged with the mobile messaging app Weixin, also known as WeChat, which was launched in January 2011 and has about 396 million users globally.

"Ma adapts to change well. QQ was very popular but he knew it wouldn't last forever. Even though WeChat is a competitor to QQ, he went ahead and it proved hugely successful," says Wong.

8. Cher Wang, founder, HTC, Taiwan

Cher Wang, chairwoman of HTC Corp.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Wang is one of the most powerful women in technology and no, she's not based in Silicon Valley, but Asia.

She is the co-founder and chair of Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC, which at one point made one in every six smartphones sold in the U.S. but is now battling a perilous sales slump.

Wang aims to revive HTC in China with high-end smartphones designed for Chinese consumers, who in the past few years have ditched their HTCs for iPhones and Samsung Galaxys, as Europeans and Americans have.

Her lifelong highlights include funding a not-for-profit college in southwestern China to provide free or low-cost education to students from poor families.

Wang is ranked number 22 on CNBC's list of 25 people we judge to have had the most profound impact on business and finance since 1989, the year CNBC went live.

9. Michelle Simmons, quantum physicist, Australia

Michelle Simmons, Physics Professor at the University of New South Wales.

Simmons, an Australian quantum physicist, became an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April. She joins the likes of Stephen Hawkings, Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell as a member of the prestigious body.

Take a look at Simmons' track record and it's not hard to see why. Her research has focused on harnessing the power of atoms to develop incredibly fast, tiny devices that can process a great deal of data.

Simmons' research team at the University of New South Wales developed the world's smallest working transistor, a key component of a future quantum computer, according to 'The Sydney Morning Herald'.

The research was published in 2012, 10 years ahead of predictions by global chip manufacturers. Her team was also the only one in the world able to make atomically precise devices in silicon, including the thinnest conducting wires yet produced.

In 2005 she was awarded the Pawsey Medal by the Australian Academy of Science, becoming one of the youngest elected Fellows of that Academy in 2006. In 2012 she was named New South Wales Scientist of the Year.

"We are working to achieve the ultimate in computer miniaturization - to develop components for the world's first quantum integrated circuit where all elements are constructed on the atomic scale," Professor Simmons said.

If this can be achieved her team will have the potential to build a computer based on entirely quantum principles with a predicted exponential speed up in computational power. "That is a complete game changer in computing with the potential to transform all information intensive industries," she said.

10. Mayday, rock band, Taiwan

Taiwanese rock band Mayday's members Stone, Ashin, Masa, Ming and Monster.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

"One day I want the world to call us the Beatles. Even if we fail, we'd have had the wildest dream."

Titled "John Lennon", this 2004 song was a tribute to the British band. Ten years on and the song lyrics appear to ring true.

Since embarking on their first concert tour in the U.K. and U.S. this year, Mayday has been hailed as the "The Chinese Beatles" by Western media. Known for their riveting rock tunes and upbeat lyrics, the quintet, who debuted in 1999, is one of Taiwan's greatest musical acts.

The group has eight records to its name and has sold over 8 million records worldwide.

Mayday is also a 4-time winner of the "Best Band" at the Golden Melody Awards – the Chinese equivalent of the Grammy's.

"They've been a band for nearly two decades now. Apart from music, the appeal of Mayday is their image as a group of friends striving together for what they want in life," says Dr. Szu-wei Chen, adjunct assistant professor, Graduate Institute of Musicology at the National Taiwan University.

Mayday also holds the record as the first 'Mandopop' group to stage two consecutive sold-out concerts at Beijing's Bird Nest stadium, with 100,000 tickets sold out in less than three minutes.

Mayday made a leap for the world when they became the first ever Taiwanese band to perform at YouTube's headquarters in 2012. The band is also the first in the 'Mandopop' scene to spinoff 3D movies from their concerts.

"They are musicians and also entrepreneurs. When they create an album, it's not just an album. It's a show concept that lasts more than a year with concerts in different cities and other spinoff products and that makes them representatives of not just music, but also the culture creative industry," says Chen.

11. Jet Li, action star, China

Jet Li, Chinese actor.
TPG | Getty Images

Best known for his heroic roles in Chinese and Hollywood movies such as "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Romeo Must Die", action star Jet Li is also a philanthropist.

Appointed as the International Red Cross's first-ever Good Will Ambassador in 2010, the 51-year-old who has an estimated net worth of $13.2 billion, has become a celebrity patron of philanthropy in China.

Li, who narrowly escaped Indonesia's 2004 tsunami while on holiday with his family, founded the One Foundation in 2007 with the aim of building a fund that could be used to aid non-governmental organizations in times of need.

The foundation has raised over 190 million yuan (approximately $30 million) to date and distributed nearly 140 million yuan (approximately $23 million) to various deserving causes. The scale of donations is huge considering that flows into China's charity sector fell following a 2011 charity scandal.

Li also helped out during China's Sichuan earthquake and Taiwan's Typhoon Morakot in 2008 as well as last year's Lushan earthquake in Sichuan, China. His efforts have increased interest in philanthropy in the world's second-largest economy.

"Jet Li is a superstar in China and internationally (so) he easily influences common citizens which is very good because he has made more Chinese realize that we should care more for each other," said Xijin Jia, an associate professor for Civil Society and Governance at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.

"Most importantly, he did it professionally. His One Foundation also did a good job because it is transparent," she added.