2016 was the Year of Lost Identity: ANN Columnist

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a Victory Tour Rally, on Dec 8, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.
US President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a Victory Tour Rally, on Dec 8, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

There is a common thread running through Brexit, Trump and this week's Italian referendum - not a populist revolt, but a question of identity.

In a world full of uncertainties, which threaten our jobs, our future and sense of security, we go back to very basic questions - who am I? What do I really care about? How do I cope with the uncertain future?

This insecurity in an age of prosperity results in localism and anti-globalisation that many elites who benefited from globalisation have not quite understood.

They dump on Trump, Putin, Duterte and Erdogan, but they forgot that these leaders got to where they are because they listened more to the common people than the elites.

Rightly or wrongly, the silent majority remained silent until it exploded and new leaders emerge to represent that identity aspiration.

Most of us feel good or bad by identifying with our environment.

Liberals may not like President Duterte, but he won his election because enough Filipinos hated the drugs and violence that was corroding their daily lives.

Recent migrants to cities are angry about how cities have become sources of drugs, prostitution, violence and unemployment for them.

They yearn for the peace and quiet and sense of community in their home villages, where people cared about each other.

Throughout Asia, politics are dominated by the rural/urban divide, and even in urban Japan, the agricultural and rural vote matters hugely in national policies, including in protection for rice production.

But as rural/urban migration reaches a tipping point of 50% in many Asian cities, the identity of cities become crucial to their stability and prosperity.

No longer can cities treat rural migrants as outsiders. Cities are beginning to reflect as well as shape their inhabitants' values and outlooks. In the modern age, individuals identify with their city more than their nation - they simply want a better place to live in.

Cities have always been the centres of culture, civilization and science. Their architecture, parks and green space reflect different social and cultural values and the competition between cities generate urban pride. If we think carefully, failed states have always been associated with failed cities. Aleppo is an example where differences in ideology have resulted in civil war that destroyed its culture, economy and heritage.

Paris has always been a city of romance; Hong Kong a city of entrepreneurship; New York a city of energy.

Today, Shenzhen exudes a city of technology, where the young with creative ideas can become the new icons of innovation and "cool". Competition between Shenzhen is not just with Shanghai or Hong Kong, but with Silicon Valley/San Francisco, Bangalore or Singapore.

The condition of a nation therefore is reflected in the condition of its cities. Increasingly, people are waking up to the idea that community is often built up in cities.

Very often, the architecture of a city reflects its communal spirit. UNESCO Heritage cities like Kyoto or Penang enjoy a revival when her citizens realize that their history is a source of pride for preservation and conservation.

But communities are not easily built, but easily riven. Hong Kong today is deeply divided because those who benefit from high real estate prices forget that the young feel increasingly marginalised by their belief that they cannot afford decent housing, feel insecure in getting good jobs and are driven by the idea that they can change the system.

You sometimes wonder what a city with huge fiscal surpluses and reserves intends to do with such funds. Why is such wealth not used to deal with the challenges and aspirations of the young?

The capitalist dream is that communities are strong because of the importance of property rights. Everyone should be a property owner. But do we really own property or are we stewards of such assets for future generations?

Each generation must realise that it cannot take such assets when they pass on.

The 73 million baby boomer generation in the US, born between 1946 to 1964, created the greatest wealth the world has ever known, but will also leave behind the largest debt ever.

Over 10,000 Americans per day are retiring, but half are still paying off their mortgages and may not have enough retirement income. Such retirement costs will mean more deficits and more debt - to be borne by future generations.

Hence, it is understandable why the young are frustrated and often angry - they are inheriting not wealth, but huge debt burdens.

Many young students are graduating with crushing student loans and the daunting prospect of large mortgages if they buy their own home.

This is when they start questioning the status quo. They may not be expressing it right, but their questions need good answers.

What is the establishment going to do? There are some who decide to give charity. As a wise friend told me, it is important to give with warm hands (rather than dead ones). But charity is not sustainable.

This is where those who create socially responsible corporations can change the landscape of our communities and cities.

Real estate firms should not be building ghettos of gated communities for the affluent, but eco-systems that engage all levels of society, with jobs for all. In many new development zones, high rise apartments are sold like dreams for the affluent, but I seldom see the mix of spaces for healthcare, education, old age homes and markets for all to support the whole sense of community.

Are we surprised therefore if our cities do not create identities of community, but one of alienation and frustration? Social responsibility begins with each of us becoming aware that whatever we do, it is not individual interest but the social interest that is in the long-run sustainable. Thus, social divisions begin by bridging the social gulf, between generations. Change in all communities begin with individual change.

2016 has been a landmark year of Black Swans and shocking surprises. We have been mostly surprised because we have found the enemy within us - it is our own alienation and uncomfortable identity.

As the New Year approaches, time to reflect on how to re-build our sense of community.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.