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Nidhi Eoseewong: The middle classes and the political system

One of the regions where the middle classes are increasing rapidly is Southeast Asia. Certain countries like Singapore may be able to fully claim that they are middle-class countries, no different from England or the United States. Malaysia is following behind.
Despite that, the politics of most countries in this region have still not changed direction. The “systems” of government in almost all countries have been around for over half a century, with only a few exceptions such as Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, but they are exceptions that require explanation. Other than these 4 countries, the current “systems” of government all resulted from the “systems” when these countries achieved independence, during a time when almost all of the population were self-reliant agriculturists who were destitute ... it has already been more than 2 generations that the people of Southeast Asia have been living under the same “systems”.
To explain the 4 exceptional countries, even though Laos and Cambodia have been through a “revolution”, the “system” of government of both countries has persisted for longer than a generation. There is also no effective opposition. Even if the leader changes according to term of office or age, the “system” still remains as before. Myanmar has in fact changed to a “system” with elections, but decisive power still remains with the same institution, which is the army. As for Indonesia, it seems that it most strongly faced a transitional period to democracy, but if this transitional period continues without end, there may be widespread calls for “law and order” until an elected president or army leader dictates power again.
Nevertheless, when we say the “system” doesn’t change, we could be overlooking all the internal changes in the system. The existence of the old “system” does not mean there is no change in the “system” at all. We may have looked at the role of the middle classes too much from the perspective of the past experience of western Europe.
Within the same framework, the internal components have continued to change more and more. We cannot deny that the framework or “system” of government of these countries is highly flexible. Aristocrats or upper-class people, according to the tradition of these societies, are strong not just because of their birth. There are various routes for a middle-class person to climb into “aristocratic” circles. Not only that, there are also various routes leading towards political power: through election (from local to national levels), investing in a political party or a coup party, bribery, etc. Until today, opportunities to raise one’s economic status still exist. At least it can really happen to some groups of people, and can really be dreamed about by people in general (and causes corruption to spread in all circles … viewed from this perspective, it is corruption that has one role in helping to nourish the old “system”).
Political change that does not change the previous framework is found not only in Southeast Asia but also in China and India– they are two other places where the middle class is rapidly expanding.
Who are the middle classes and where are they from?
One research study of the middle classes in this region, excluding the Indochinese countries and Myanmar, found that only in Singapore and Malaysia have more than half of middle-class people made their way up from the working class or farmers, but in the other countries they are all children of people already in the middle class. (The economic status of Thaksin Shinawatra is not that of the son of a coffee vendor as he claimed in his campaign propaganda, but of the child of a rather well-off family in Chiang Mai.) The statistics for middle-class people in these countries which have made their way up from lower classes is not more than 25%. (This is the figure for Thailand).
What does this fact mean (if it can be considered a fact, since this research is flawed for collecting data only from capital cities, where middle-class children are able to get priority access to education, so the conclusion is distorted to some degree)? When compared with the middle classes in East Asia. i.e. China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, most of their middle class rose from the working class. If we don't include China, the political changes in these countries had a clear effect on their “system” of government. That is to say, democracy, which responds to the diversity of the middle classes, has stability, but as long as the Chinese and Singapore government are able to protect their economic successes, a “system” that refuses to change will continue to exist.
The fact that most of the middle classes in Southeast Asia developed from the handful of middle-class people already in existence may help explain why the “system” of government hasn't been under pressure from the middle classes to adjust to the expansion of the economy and the middle classes.
Nevertheless, in Thailand, the broad expansion of the lower middle class which rose from small-scale agriculture in rural areas is changing the components of Thai middle-class people. This group has different political dreams. Even if at this time they have not established their own independent political organisations, they have already learned how to manage political organisations. Therefore, the Thai “system” of government that has refused to adapt for a long time now will have to face greater pressure to the point where it might not be able to continue.
It is the same in Malaysia. Middle-class political movements may not have undermined the stability of UMNO in rural areas, but how long will they be able to last when they have lost the support of the rapidly expanding middle class?
But changing the Thai and Malaysian “systems” in the future will probably be different. If we look at the present political situation, it is very likely that Malaysia will have a more peaceful “transition”, not least because they have no elite which will be able to bring out the military in support of their own power. It is frightening that the “transition” in Thailand will not be as peaceful.
All Southeast Asia academics have the identical opinion that the middle classes of this region are highly fractionalised. They not only have different roles and duties in the economy, but they also have different ways of life, wide disparities in income, education, recreation, etc. to a point where their political and social dreams are completely different.
They are all nationalists but display their patriotism very differently. They are adherents of the same religion but believe in different moral standards and practices. They’re different kinds of democrats, oppose corruption from different perspectives, conserve forests in different ways, etc. It’s not just a difference between two sides; there are tens, hundreds of different sides.
That's why the politics of the middle classes in Southeast Asia is not about joining forces to fight a common enemy, but joining forces to fight amongst each other – between Muslims supporting Ahok to be the governor of Jakarta for another term and Muslims that together protect Islam from Ahok, – between middle class people who praise the revival of “law and order” with violence and decisiveness of President Duterte and middle class people who worry more about their rights and freedoms.
Of course, those blowing whistles and calling for the military to take power were middle-class people, but those holding up three fingers were also middle-class people.
Many academics are of the opinion that Southeast Asia has only middle-class people but no middle class (as western Europe has had) because middle-class people in Southeast Asia don’t have class consciousness. The differences that result from fractionalisation make it difficult for class consciousness to occur.
For this reason, the political power of middle-class people who continue to increase is very high, but it is not a power that will lead to changes in the “system” of government in Southeast Asia.
What is more, middle-class people of this region truly grew up under the care of the state. Apart from education, which the state provides very unequally, since it is difficult for people living outside urban areas to access it, in the initial stage of industrial development, all countries tended to focus on creating industries for import substitution which required high levels of support from the state (both honest and dishonest), such as tariff walls, basic communications infrastructure, sources of credit and industrial standards (for both products and production processes) that are not too strict. (Singapore was lucky to be ousted from Malaysia in 1965, resulting in there being no domestic market to support import substitution industries and so it had to aim immediately at export industries.)
It was not just the bourgeoisie (owners of capital) and the upper middle class, but even the lower middle class also made their way up from being land-owning farmers or village tradespeople through various state projects, some directly and some indirectly.
It wasn’t until after the domestic market had become saturated that all had to turn towards export industries. The bourgeoisie of all countries still demanded and received high levels of support from the state. State mechanisms and good timing with the state of the global economy caused capital inflows and commodity marketing support in other countries. Success seemed to come from the skills of the state rather than from competitive skills.
In western Europe in the 18-19th centuries, by comparison, the bourgeoisie and middle class in industrial capitalism saw the state as their opponent rather than as their supporter. This resulted in them wanting to control the state by being allies with labour, while industrial and financial capitalists in Southeast Asia see the state as their true ally or sometimes just as one department in their own companies.
State support is not something that comes for free. Generals in the army, high-level bureaucrats, including technocrats of ministries, bureaus and departments, and politicians all have a share in the profits. Even more than sharing the profits is investing in business, one of the guarantees that they will receive “special rights” in various forms that are even more stable than commissions. People of the state and large businesses are involved with each other in both personal life and business life, heavily so in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar and less so in Malaysia.
Due to that reason, middle-class people continue to increase in number. So in Southeast Asia, it is not their power that will bring change to the “system”, at least maybe not directly. But the middle classes are the dynamic that will cause the internal “system” not to stall. Within the existing framework, there are movements of change because the middle-class people are always there and continually increasing, to a point where it becomes questionable whether the framework or “system” will be able to continue or not, since it was created for use in a society with almost no middle-class people at all.
When the “system” reaches the end of its flexibility, the “system” must change. But just how much of a role middle-class people, who have never been a decisive political power at all, will have in creating the new “system”, and how, is still in doubt.