Who are members of the middle class in Malaysia?
Theoretically, they consist of those in the middle income distribution. The middle class is a relative position between the poor and the elites, however both are defined.
But it is not that simple. On Wikipedia alone, there are plenty of dimensions to be considered beyond income. Among the factors are education, nature of employment, social status and even as fluffy a factor as lifestyle. Wealth is another marker, which is related to income but perhaps better except its data is not as easy to get.
In Malaysia, perhaps for over 10 years now, we have chosen a specific way to define it. We do it through income distribution. We have the bottom 40 percentile households in terms of income distribution defined as the poor (the B40), the next 40 percentile households are understood as the middle class (the M40), and the top 20% household income earners are taken as the rich (T20).
The classification is needed to operationalize certain policies like conditional cash transfer that Malaysia has. Household income, whatever its weakness, is an easy proxy of status. It is needed for targeting purposes. You lose something, but it does the job. Arbitrary, but convenient and it works.
Our problem is that the same convenient arbitrary classification that works is beginning to have an unintended negative effect on social discourse. Familiar to the definitions used by the government for implementation convenience, the public is beginning to associate the M40 as the middle class, and the middle class as M40, when in fact, there are middle class people falling outside of the M40 group. Additionally, there are people inside the M40 who are not really members of the middle class. The shorthand of B40-M40-T20 is dividing the middle class crudely and consider some members of the middle class as members of the elites.
It creates a class war against the middle class just through misattribution arising from arbitary statistical definition.
The middle class is special because they are largely the flagbearers of progressive values. With such values, they function as a check-and-balance mechanism in any society. Members of the middle class are not poor and that allows them to spend more time on matters other than livelihood issues. Things like corruption, environment or something that is well above something that is similar to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the same time, they individually are not rich enough to have outsized influence on society like few elites. Yet collectively, they check the power of the elites thanks to their education level. They are the bulwark preventing the elites from abusing power. They are the ones crucial in keeping a democracy from becoming crass majoritarianism.
When members of the middle class are considered as elites, middle class values would be condemned as elitist. Once identified as so, the same values would be rejected by the majority because they feel the values are meant for the few.
This is the danger of the M40 classification. The misattribution makes the middle class alien to the poor as the elites are, but without having the same influence the elites have. This weakens the roles of the middle class in protecting democracy from abuse by the elites, and from majoritarian excesses.
That is one of the costs of the B40-M40-T20 classification. It breaks the middle class, and then artificially and implicitly labels middle class values as elitist. With that, the roles of the middle class as the moderating force in our society gets weakened.
In short, the M40 classification mischaracterizes the middle class, and weakens the middle class’s role in moderating Malaysian democracy.