Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has topped this year’s Fortune list of the World’s Greatest Leaders. The honour is a result of her impressive handling of the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in her country which was also a major reason behind her resounding victory in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Ardern was also among Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women in 2020 list for the same reason.
But even before the COVID-19 crisis, Ardern received consistent praise for, what her admirers call, her leadership with empathy. When she came to power for the first time in 2017, Ardern was the world’s youngest female head of the government. She created history in February 2018, by walking in the Pride Parade in Auckland. She has been praised for her quick response to the Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption in the country’s Bay of Plenty in December 2019. And earlier in the year, she made headlines for showing empathy with the victims’ families of the Christchurch Mosque shootings. Following the shooting, the Ardern government swiftly passed a law banning semi-automatic weapons. Over 62,000 banned weapons were then collected from their owners.
Her government has also banned single-use plastic bags in the country, passed a bill granting 10 days of extra paid leaves a year to victims of domestic violence, passed the Climate Change Response (Zero-Carbon) Amendment Bill, and she took a 20 percent pay cut as a gesture of solidarity with those who lost their jobs or were forced to accept a reduced salary during the pandemic.
Here’s a look at some other female leaders from Asia making their mark in the world politics.
Tsai Ing-wen, President of Republic of China (Taiwan)
Tsai has been universally hailed for her government’s outstanding efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 virus on the island nation. Tsai’s government took measures to tackle the disease as early as January 2020, which was months before the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled COVID-19 as a pandemic. Taiwan has recorded less than 4,350 cases and 23 deaths — a clear indication of the tremendous success of Tsai’s leadership and management.
When she was elected in 2016, Tsai was the first female leader of her country. She has been working to increase Taiwan’s significance to the world economy especially in the fields of defence, biotechnology and green energy. At the same time, Tsai has also been praised for standing up to Beijing. Her strong leadership led to Tsai’s thumping victory in the 2020 presidential elections.
Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Finance, India
When she was selected as the finance minister in 2019, Sitharaman became the first woman to head the office full-time. One of the most influential leaders in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she was listed among Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women 2020. Besides the finance ministry, she also serves as the Minister of Corporate Affairs. Sitharaman has also served as the country’s defence minister in the past, becoming the second woman after Indira Gandhi to head the crucial ministry.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar
Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi was the State Counsellor of Myanmar before the military seized power in a coup in 2021. This was after her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide in the November 2020 elections. Suu Kyi has been one of the biggest champions of human rights in the world for decades. She was, however, criticised for her inaction and defence of the army at the ICJ hearing in the Hague as State Counsellor when the Rohingyas were being persecuted in her country.
On May 24, 2021, Suu Kyi appeared in person in court for a hearing on the charges levelled against her by the military. This was the first time she was seen in person since her detention.
Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
Currently serving her fourth term, Sheikh Hasina is the longest-serving prime minister in her country’s history. In fact, Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has been in power for the third consecutive term. Though her government has been criticised for gradually turning Bangladesh into a one-party rule, her strong leadership continues to be a key factor in her popularity in the country. Her government has been praised internationally for its unparalleled assistance to the Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Close to a million Rohingyas live in camps scattered across southeastern Bangladesh.
Bidya Devi Bhandari, President of Nepal
Bhandari has been the President of the landlocked Himalayan country since 2015 as its first female head of the state. Even before taking up the highest office, Bhandari had made history by becoming Nepal’s first female minister of defence. Before she was elected President, she was the vice-chairperson of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist.
On May 22, 2021, Bhandari dissolved parliament and fixed general elections for November. Her decision was the result of a major political crisis in Nepal which has led to a situation where neither caretaker Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli nor opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba have been able to whip up numbers enough to form a majority by the May 21 deadline set by the president.
Halimah Yacob, President of Singapore
Halimah Yacob, the country’s first female president, has a history of firsts for all the good reasons. She was the first woman speaker of the Singapore parliament before becoming the head of the state. When she was elected to parliament from Jurong GRC in 2001, Yacob became the first Malay woman to do so. And she was also the first Singaporean elected to the governing body of the International Labor Organisation (ILO).
The longest-serving female Muslim politician in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), Yacob was also the minister of state in the Ministry of Social and Family Development. A Master in Laws from NUS, she is a strong supporter of the rights of women and labour.
Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advance Technology, UAE
Al Amiri is the first Minister of State for Advance Technology of her country. At 33 years old, she became an international icon in February 2021 when UAE successfully inserted its Hope spacecraft into the orbit of Mars. The achievement was significant as UAE became the first Arab country to reach the red planet and joined India and EU to do so in the first attempt. Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri was the leader of this mission as chairperson of UAE’s space agency Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.
Born in Iran and educated in the UAE, she is the youngest person to lead a space agency. She has previously worked on UAE’s satellite projects DubaiSat-1, DubaiSat-2 and DubaiSat-3. Al Amiri is also the first citizen of UAE to have spoken at an international TED event.
(Main and featured images: Michael BRADLEY / AFP)