In a paper published almost three decades ago, Hans-Dieter Evers (1973: 108–31) argued that the framework of a theory of class formation and class conflict could be used to analyse a major trend in the modernization of Southeast Asia – that is, the emergence of new social positions and class formations. In his opinion, by the early 1970s Southeast Asian societies had already developed, or were in the process of developing, a rather specific type of class structure and this class structure and its inherent conflicts provided the framework within which political activities and economic efforts would have to take place. He contended that the dynamics of class formation itself will influence if not determine future social, political and economic developments in the area.
To my mind, this observation, made at around the time when Malaysia – an important country in the Southeast Asian region – had just begun to implement its New Economic Policy (NEP) (1971–90) and rapid industrialization, was not only insightful but has also been borne out by subsequent historical developments. Today, when class formations and conflicts have crystallized with the emergence and expansion of the capitalist, the middle and the working classes in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian societies, class theory from either the Marxist or the Weberian tradition, or from a convergence of both, still has a heuristic value and relevance.
My study, shaped to some extent by both the Marxist and the Weberian traditions of class analysis, is of the new Malay middle class in Malaysia. Together with their non-Malay counterparts, the new Malay middle class, comprised of managers, professionals and administrators, has become very visible in Malaysian towns and cities over the last three decades, a