A Critical Review of Malaysian Middle-Class Studies 1
Academic discussion and analysis of the middle class in Malaysia is fairly recent, starting in the late 1960s, but only really gathering momentum in the late 1990s. During the last three decades, Malaysian social science research has justifiably focused more on those pressing issues faced in the immediate post-independence years – such as development and underdevelopment (with particular emphasis on factors impeding development of the Bumiputera), culture, Islam, ethnic relations, inter-ethnic imbalances, national unity, and so on. Most of these studies made only passing references to the middle class. The proliferation of studies on some of these themes – particularly of peasants, factory women, ethnicity and Islam – led some scholars to label it as ‘an outpouring’, suggesting that these studies ‘in their distribution (are) far from fully representative of current trends in the Malay community’ ( Kahn 1996b: 49). However, the claim that ‘the growth of the middle class is ... largely ignored’, that ‘there has been remarkably little interest among social scientists in the phenomenon’, so much so that there has existed a ‘yawning gap’ ( Kahn 1996b: 49, 67), and that the advertising industry had discovered the middle class before the academics ( Kahn 1996a), has to be examined critically against the available evidence. While the middle class has not been given prominent attention by scholars in studies of the preceding decades, there was no such yawning gap, for there had been several studies of the new middle class in Malaysia even during these years. A review of the literature will bear this out.
In general, studies of the new Malaysian middle class thus far can be grouped under two broad categories. First, there were a number of earlier studies on the administrative middle class (that is, the new middle class