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Joel S. Kahn is Professor of Anthropology at the School of Sociology and Anthropology, La Trobe University, Bundoora Campus, Victoria, Australia. He has authored several books, including Constituting the Minangkabau: Peasants, Culture and Modernity in Colonial Indonesia, Minangkabau Social Formations: Indonesian Peasants in the World Economy, and edited, with Francis Loh Kok Wah, Fragmented Vision: Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia
For some time we have lagged behind Indonesian stratificatory realities under the impression, once quite true, that the middle classes (or whatever we choose for the moment to call them) were too minute to make a difference. Now, suddenly, when they appear to be making some difference, or anyway are substantial enough to compel notice, we are at a loss to figure out who exactly they are, why they are important, and what difference they actually make.
Daniel Lev’s remarks about Indonesia are doubly true in the Malay-sian context, for in spite of the well-documented growth of, if anything, a relatively larger middle class, as yet there has been remarkably little interest among social scientists in the phenomenon. With a handful of exceptions, very few Malaysianists in Malaysia or overseas – have done more than mention the middle class in passing; and there have been even fewer attempts to clarify the use of the concept in Malaysian conditions, or to assess its impact on the taken-for-granted contours of Malaysian society.
In the scholarly literature on the Malays, with which I am most familiar and which for better or worse tends to predominate, we This paper is based on research carried out on the emergence of an indigenous middle class. I am grateful to the Australian Research Council which has provided funds for my ongoing research in Malaysia for the last several years. I would also like to acknowledge my debt to Maila Stivens, my co-worker in this study with whom I have discussed many of the ideas in this paper, and who has given me many suggestions based on her research.
I would also like to thank Pat Young and Lucy Healey for their bibilographical work which proved very useful in putting this article together, and Gaynor Thornell for help with the typing. instead continue to witness an outpouring of studies of peasants, factory girls, ethnicity, and Islam – not unimportant in themselves, but in their distribution far from fully representative of current trends in the Malay community.
As for studies of Malaysia’s other main ethnic groups, lamentably fewer in number, the growth of the middle class is similarly largely ignored. But consider the following. According to one observer: In Malaysia, where the non-Malay component of the middle class had continued to grow as a result of economic development since independence, in the 1970s Malay representation in the middle class rose sharply following the introduction of the New Economic Policy….
And depending on the interpretation of census data, the size of that “substantial and prosperous” middle class was as high as 24 per cent of the work force in 1980 (ibid, 31-32).
The class grew in significance in the 1980s, so that, using the same calculation, Saravanamuttu estimates that by 1986, 37.2 per cent of workers were in middle class occupations. And doubtless the 1990 census will show continued growth in both the absolute and relative size of the Malaysian middle class.