Let’s talk about that ‘middle-class’ thing

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When a vision is qualified as mid-ranged, not reaching it would be overly disappointing for many among the middle class, observes Nicholas Chan.

Many times I have heard people saying that attending a foreign university, particularly one in the West, is a middle-class thing.

In a sense, I can understand why, given that it is the aspiration and experience which forms the cultural backbone of the group we all come to know as the Malaysian ‘middle class’.

Yet, I have to admit this term always bothers me because of the word middle. It implies that the middle class is supposed to be a snapshot of the average Malaysian: not quite earning billions, yet not touching rock bottom.

After all, when we want to make generalisations, we always sample from the middle to obtain the mean and median.

However, it would appear obtaining a “Western” education has nothing ‘middle’ about it at all.

Using my own postgraduate experience in King’s College London, the annual cost would easily exceed RM100,000 a year. The annual tuition fee alone, as a non-EU resident, costs about RM80,000.

Which was why, I could only go there when I was close to my mid-20s with a full scholarship.

Bear in mind, this was four years ago when the ringgit was stronger. My course now costs £21,750 (RM139,000) per annum for a Malaysian student.

The torturous path taken to get a taste of ‘middle class’ makes me wonder if it’s a case of us doing worse than the average (despite my dad’s reassurance that we are ‘middle’ when I asked about our class positions during childhood) or if the term ‘middle class’ means something else altogether.

Not so ‘middle’ class

Statistically speaking, it would be the latter. According to the Household Income Survey 2014, the mean and median monthly incomes of Malaysia’s middle 40% households are only RM5,662 and RM5,465 respectively.

The annual household income cannot even cover the tuition fee, let alone other expenses.

Before one rushes to the conclusion that perhaps it’s the upper-middle class that can afford it, please be reminded that for the top 20% households, the mean and median monthly household incomes are only RM14,305 and RM11,610 respectively.

Even such households might find it a tall order to cater to such expenses unless the family have other sources of wealth or sizeable savings.

In other words, to be able to attain a ‘Western’ education is an extremely privileged experience. The lifestyle, aspiration, and sometimes accent we consider ‘middle’ is actually a minority position.

If it has to be counted as a ‘middle-class’ attribute which many urban, middle-income families clamour and expect, heartbreaks are abound.

Without any external sources of funding, they simply cannot afford it. They need not be Bruce Wayne to attain it, but it is still miles apart for the average Joe or Jane.

Middle class as policy aspiration

This piece does not intend to serve as one of class envy.

Instead, the term “middle class” must be questioned because it now has policy significance.

Our policymakers have middle-class aspirations, too. This is not surprising, given that having a sizeable middle class is a benchmark for most advanced economies.

The 11th Malaysia Plan explicitly mentioned that it aims to “uplift the bottom 40% households towards a middle-class society” by enlarging the middle-class composition to 45% by 2020, although it does not o define middle class.

That said, it is safe to conclude that an income-based definition is now employed as opposed to the aforementioned aspiration-based ones.

Some sources can offer a glimpse of how the Malaysian middle class can be defined.

The Malaysia Human Development Report 2013 (MHDR) published by the United Nations Development Programme defines the middle-class households as those earning +/-20% of the national median household income.

A World Bank report recommends using the definition that middle (and upper) class households are those earning above the national mean income.

Using the above definitions, two traits of the Malaysian middle-class can be seen. They are not particularly affluent (as our median income is rather low), nor abundant (middle-class households form at most 20% to 25% of the total households in Malaysia).

However, according to data quoted in the World Bank report, more Malaysians (41%) actually see themselves as middle class, most likely due to people underappreciating their class positions.

The multiple divergences that exist between the reality, definitions, promises, and identity markers of the Malaysian middle class are bound to generate many problems, of which I will highlight two.

Problematic middle-lass lens

First, it might explain the perceivable disconnect between the public and policymakers.

If most senior government executives – and politicians (considering the double-digit pay raises lately) – forget their privileges and see themselves as only ‘middle-income’ earners, they might feel that the grouses from the urbanites, for example, with regard to the toll hikes, are merely ‘middle-class’ whines and that these people can actually take it.

This cannot be further from the reality if middle class only means middle income.

At this point, it is worthwhile to raise one hardly talked-about fact, which is that civil servants are disproportionately represented in the top 60% households by income. The public sector employs close to 10% of the workforce, but one out of five top 20% households identify themselves as ‘government servants’.

This also explains why Putrajaya has the second highest median household income (RM7,512) after Kuala Lumpur (RM7,620).

Second, if the ‘middle-class’ trophy is to be saturated with symbols and idols of high culture and conspicuous spending, can the government withstand the backlash if the people come to the realisation that none of this – be it shopping mall goods or glitzy houses or the mandatory foreign education – matches their pay grade?

As the government restricts funding for overseas scholarships in view of a weaker economy, what will happen to the many ‘middle-class’ aspirants who see that as their only ticket?

To clarify, I am not arguing a case for entitlements here, but merely highlighting the fact what a distorted view of the ‘middle’ entails.

Do bear in mind that when a vision is qualified as mid-ranged, not reaching it (as opposed to a top-tier target) would come off as overly disappointing for many.

This might be a stretch but I won’t discount that the nihilism, rejectionism and philistinism of our many angry youth (epitomised by the ‘red shirts’) stem from this mismatch of aspirations and reality.

The idolisation of Youth and Sport Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who carries an approachable middle-class image (which clearly requires more than a middle-income wage to sustain), can be another hint.

No doubt the New Economic Policy (NEP) years have given birth to a middle class (and many tycoons), but many from the actual Malaysian middle-income class still rely on statist intervention for survival and class reproduction.

Worse, many who have made it have voted with their feet as a result of our racialised, natural resource-driven and clientelistic economic framework, thus making it even harder to sustain a critical mass of middle-class households capable of organic expansion.

At the same time, our institutions and economic competitiveness are still wanting in terms of fostering a First-World worthy middle class.

Until that happens, the middle-class project in Malaysia is bound to be an expensive one: a price the government must pay if it is to sustain its ethno-developmentalist rhetoric.

Until we break away from an economic model that perpetuates our structural inequalities (an hourglass class structure would explain why our supposedly middle class is so small), Malaysia has a stark future – when the developed world laments about disappearing middle-class jobs, we are still struggling to build ours.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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