The Future is Now

The future has arrived, and we are living it. If, like me, you grew up watching the Back to the Future trilogy, then last year we were supposed to see hoverboards and flying cars. Although these have not quite materialised (yet), we have achieved many other technological advances that we could not even have imagined just 20 years ago.

Exponential Times

We now live in unprecedented times where the pace of evolution is no longer linear but exponential. In the 20th century alone, the population of the world grew from 1.65 billion to six billion people. Today, 15 years into the 21st century, we number more than seven billion.

The environment around us, be it built, natural or social, has also transformed tremendously as urbanisation envelops the world. Throughout most of human history, people lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. In 1800, only three per cent of the world lived in urban areas. A hundred years later, it was about 14%, with only 12 cities having more than a million inhabitants. By 1950, that figure doubled. Today, for the first time in history, slightly more than half – 54% of the world to be exact – live in urban areas.

Urbanisation is taking place more rapidly in the emerging world, especially in Asia and Africa. Here in Malaysia, according to the National Physical Plan, the population will be 75% urban by 2020. And like many other developing nations, Malaysia also has a young population, with more than two-thirds of the population being under the age of 40. This is an important dynamic that has significant consequences for the development of the country.

While it may have taken years if not decades for the billionaires of yesteryear – such as the oil barons and industry magnates of the 20th century – to reach their pinnacle, 21st century tech billionaires are created in a relative instant.


As alluded to earlier, technology has also evolved at a furious pace. Moore’s Law, for example, projects that computing power will double every two years, and this has been true for decades although there is now talk that a saturation point has been reached. Regardless, there is no denying that technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. Imagine that the microchip in a greeting card that plays music when it opens has more computing power than the entire Allied Forces in 1945. Our mobile phones today contain technology far superior to what Nasa was using in 1969 – the same technology that put man on the moon. In fact, the latest PlayStation has more computing power than a military supercomputer from 1997, just less than 20 years ago.

The New Economy

This technological age has of course caused profound changes in the way the economy works. Never before has there been so much opportunity for so many people as we see today. Not only are there so many new jobs that did not existed before – such as app developers, social media administrators and even cybertroopers – but the opportunity for entrepreneurialism is also unprecedented.

Just take as an example Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook empire that began just 11 years ago as a university social study tool. Today, it has a market cap of over US$300bil and more than one billion active users. Do you even know anyone who is not on Facebook?

Another fast-growing service is the WhatsApp application that almost all of us have installed in our phones. Developed just a few years ago in 2009 by two down-on-their-luck software developers, it is now the world’s most popular messaging application with a user base of up to 900 million users, and was acquired by Facebook last year for US$16bil.

From Mark Zuckerberg to the two founders of WhatsApp to Jack Ma of Alibaba.com, a Chinese e-commerce portal now worth about US$145bil, this new economy has given birth to previously unimaginable wealth in short spans of time. While it may have taken years if not decades for the billionaires of yesteryear – such as the oil barons and industry magnates of the 20th century – to reach their pinnacle, 21st century tech billionaires are created in a relative instant.

According to Wealth-X and the UBS Billionaire Census 2014, there have never been more billionaires in the world than now. In 2013 there were 2,170 billionaires. In one year, this number increased by seven per cent to 2,325, with a collective net worth of US$7.3tril – just under half the annual GDP of the US.

Interestingly, this new economy has also changed global wealth dynamics. The 2015 Billionaires Report by UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, states that Asia now has more self-made billionaires than Europe, and is second only to the US. In fact, the same report posits that a new billionaire is created weekly in China.

New Social and Political Challenges

This new world of exponential change does not only bring good tidings. Along with it also come many great challenges. Rapid urbanisation and population growth have resulted in serious food security problems, as previously agrarian communities find themselves displaced and marginalised in the harsh modern world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around 842 million or more than 10% of the world currently suffer from chronic hunger.

Karen Lai

Sunrise over KL. Malaysia's population is expected to be 75% urban by 2020.

In addition to that, the world is also now facing a crisis of inequality that has never been experienced before. Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that half of the total global wealth is held by just one per cent of the population, while Credit Suisse finds that 3.4 billion people or over 70% of the global adult population have wealth that is less than US$10,000. A further billion people, or a fifth of the world’s population, have wealth less than US$100,000.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Jack Ma of Alibaba.com, a Chinese e-commerce portal now worth about US$145bil.

The remaining 383 million adults, making up eight per cent of the world, have more than US$100,000 each. This includes about 34 million millionaires, of which 123,800 individuals are worth more than US$50mil and 45,000 have more than US$100mil.

In the face of such looming inequality, technology has turned out to be a socioeconomic bridge. Where there used to be hopelessness against the economic monopoly of the elite, today economic opportunity has been democratised by technology, so much so that individuals are able to become billionaires from their own homes.

Getting rich is not all that people can do from their homes. Technology has also facilitated social and political activism. Two recent examples come to mind. In early 2011, the death of 26-year-old Tunisian hawker Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring and the eventual fall of longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, diminutive 18-year-old Joshua Wong – named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2014 – became an unlikely hero when he led a mass movement of civil disobedience against the almighty Chinese government.

At Independence in 1957, the average age of the Malaysian Cabinet was 43 years old, with Tun Abdul Razak being Deputy Prime Minister at 35. However, there is little hint of youthfulness today, with the average age of the current Cabinet being close to 60.


In both cases, popular uprisings, though with vastly different forms and outcomes, were not only inspired but also largely driven on the ground by young people who felt disaffected, marginalised and disenfranchised by the system. Crucially, they were all connected and organised by technological tools that were beyond the reach of Big Brother.

Youths as Change Agents

While technology is a useful enabler of social and political action, the central role of youths in the instigation of change is not a new phenomenon. In fact, history around the world has shown that it has often been the young who have pioneered fundamental social and political changes.

One of the great episodes of history, the American Revolution from 1765 to 1783, was led by young men. George Washington himself was in his early 30s when revolution first broke. In fact, while the average age of the signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence was 44, more than a dozen of those entrusted to sign what is perhaps one of the most famous democratic statements in human history were below 35 years of age.

Besides George Washington and his allies, many other great revolutions were also led by young people. Nelson Mandela was 34 when he became leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. American civil rights activists Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were both 39 when their lives were taken at the height of their leadership.

In fact, it is the same story for Malaysia. At Independence in 1957, the average age of the Malaysian Cabinet was 43 years old, with Tun Abdul Razak being Deputy Prime Minister at 35. However, there is little hint of youthfulness today, with the average age of the current Cabinet being close to 60. Juxtaposed against a young population with a median age of 27 and high Internet and social media penetration rates, it is no wonder that many in the country feel that the political leadership is not in tune with the aspirations of the people, stuck instead in the old models of the past. Hence, it is no surprise that the last General Election in Malaysia saw the far more youthful opposition coalition winning the popular vote against the government.

Carpe Diem

We live today in the age of possibilities. With technology as an enabler, the challenge for us is how to make ourselves relevant in this volatile and socio-political and economic climate.

I believe that the responsibility for shaping the future lies with us, the youth. It is we who best understand the fast-changing world around us, and it is we who should decide its direction. Just like the revolutionaries of history, it is the youth who have the heart, tenacity and courage to not only want change for better, but also to affect it. After all, idealism and readiness for sacrifice are traits that typically wane as one ages.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who turns 50 this year.

All around the world, the trend of youth leadership is once again making itself apparent. In 2010 the UK elected a Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Opposition Leader who were all in their early 40s. As I have often contended, had David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband been Malaysians, they would only have been party youth chiefs, and not the three most powerful leaders of their country.

In fact, as Malaysia’s youngest MP, I feel old whenever I visit my colleagues in Europe. Earlier this year I became acquainted with a junior minister in the UK government who is younger than me. Last year I was introduced to the then-Serbian Minister of Finance, who was only in his 20s. In Sweden, the current Education Minister, Health Minister and Schools Minister, three key portfolios, are all younger than me. In Austria, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is not even 30.

Just like the revolutionaries of history, it is the youth who have the heart, tenacity and courage to not only want change for better, but also to affect it.


That said, I truly believe that the future is for us to win. Those of you who have watched the movie, Dead Poets Society, will be familiar with the term carpe diem. It is a Latin phrase that means “seize the day.” In the movie, the late Robin Williams plays an unorthodox English teacher who encourages his students not to be afraid of life and to, instead, seize the day and be masters of their destiny. The message he tries to convey is that we will only be young once, hence we should do what our heart wants. Become a writer, save the trees or start a revolution – do what your heart tells you is right. If we want change, then we have to be that change, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi.

I end by quoting John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams: “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don't be resigned to that. Break out!”

In the same spirit, I appeal to all the youths of today. Carpe diem. The future is today, and it is ours to seize.

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and executive director of Penang Institute.



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