Asia's Rising Middle Class: Not a Force for Change

December 1, 1994 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: BusinessSlavic countries

Asia's Rising Middle Class: Not a Force for Change

Mini Teaser: The ethic that has governed the East Asian Miracle and formed its middle class is antithetical to pluralistic liberalism -- and to change.

by Author(s): David Martin Jones

In a recent issue of The National Interest, Eric Jones cast a skeptical eye over the Singapore school of authoritarian rule. Concluding his timely critique, Jones reassures those of a liberal disposition that the creation of a new middle class will ultimately transform the prevailing social and political reality of East Asia. "Some elements of that class," Jones argues, "start to demand those effete and non-material things which are associated...with Western lifestyles and philosophies. The items include political participation, multi-party politics, an end to corruption, a freer press, environmental clean-up. Already these things and others can be seen emerging on the East Asian scene."

Having earlier observed that the East Asian Miracle occurs within "quite another ethic," it is perhaps a little surprising to find Professor Jones endorsing this commonplace of modernization theory. In this view, readily familiar to readers of The Economist, economic modernization creates an irresistible pressure for political liberalization. Initially, authoritarian rule offers the necessary stability for economic growth. However, as a fully developed modernity approaches, an increasingly redundant authoritarianism withers away. The invisible hand guiding this change is a self-confident, and increasingly articulate middle class. In other words, the middle class, itself the Frankensteinian creation of the Asian developmental state, constitutes its liberal democratic nemesis. But does it?

The Character of the New Bourgeoisie

Assessing the East Asian Miracle, the World Bank recently reported that the various Asian dragon and tiger economies that inhabit the lexical jungle of developmental studies uniquely combine "rapid, sustained growth with highly equal income distributions." The most significant social product of the process was a materialistic, upwardly mobile and highly urbanized middle class.

This phenomenon owes nothing to constitutional democracy and little to neoclassical economic policy. The virtuous rule of one man or one party, mediated by an elite cadre of highly qualified technocrats, guided this socio-economic transformation. The model is one of planned development, what Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew refers to as "a step-by-step approach" where no aspect of social or political life is left to chance. Indeed, successful planning ultimately justified the rule of the autocratic generals or quasi-Leninist parties that governed post-colonial Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

This meticulously planned development, moreover, was supplemented ideologically by selectively re-invented "Asian values" in order to maintain the political stability central to export-led growth. These values, inculcated overtly in state education programs and mass media campaigns, emphasize community rather than autonomy, and conformity to rational rule rather than tolerance of pluralistic interests. It is claimed that specifically Asian practices of legalistic bureaucracy--Confucian hierarchy, harmonious balance, gotong royong (cooperation), and non-contentious consensus building in general--explain both Pacific Asian economic dynamism and social order.

It is, moreover, the middle classes in these nation-building states that are most exposed to these values, both in their state education and in their subsequent careers. Indeed, it is the ruling party in its various guises as government employer, political machine, and entrepreneur that remains the primary source of middle class employment in contemporary South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. This anxious pursuit of state dependency is even more evident in the moderately Islamized polities of Malaysia and Indonesia. In Malaysia, for instance, the ethnic Malay or bumiputera middle class has flourished under the affirmative action policy promoted since 1971 by the ruling United Malay National Organization (umno)-dominated coalition. The state bureaucracy or businesses with umno links are the primary sources of Malay middle class employment. umno, in the view of the World Bank, provides "political crutches" for the significantly unimaginative bumiputera entrepreneurs. Analogously, in Indonesia the middle class has emerged within the protective milieu of a corporatist state.

The Asian middle class that evolved under technocratic guidance is, then, effectively in its thrall. Exposure to state education and employment in the multifarious branches of the bureaucracy inures the Asian bourgeoisie to narrow specialism, group conformity, a lack of interest in wider political issues, and respect for their own and other's expert knowledge. Specialization and deference, combined with the neurotic joys of group conformity, promote social practices that have significantly illiberal political implications.

In Singapore, these factors, concentrated and exacerbated by the claustrophobic character of life in the city without a soul, favor a middle class identity composed of political indifference mixed with high anxiety. Its most significant manifestation is the local cultural practice of kiasuism. Kiasu, from the Hokkien "scared to lose," maintains that "If you are not one up you are one down." It condones otherwise anti-social activity provided the progenitor succeeds in achieving collectively desired but scarce social goods whilst maintaining conformist anonymity. The arriviste selfishness central to kiasu behavior stems not from self-confidence but its absence, which makes fear of failure the dominant concern in a competitive and over-regulated society. The government-controlled media is notably ambivalent in its response to displays of Singaporean kiasuism. In fact, the middle class angst that such behavior represents, amplified by a migrant heritage, actively facilitates the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) claim to rational, managerial omnicompetence.

The small size of the city-state and the capacity of its mandarins to control every aspect of the island's development crystallize in a particularly vivid way aspects of Asian behavior less obviously apparent in the aspiring bourgeoisie of Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. Nevertheless we find the unconfident burghers of Taipei notably inarticulate, politically pragmatic, and with an overriding interest in preserving the status quo. As F.C. Wang, chairman of Formosa Plastics observes, "When you have money you need stability." In South Korea, meanwhile, continuing political fragility reflects a middle class culture whose defining feature is the continuing search for order, certainty, and security--a social fact that casts doubt on the view that its resistance to the military autocrat Chun Doo Hwan in 1987 announced the arrival of a new era of liberal democracy. For, somewhat surreally, in June 1987 the Korean middle class took to the streets chanting the decidedly unrevolutionary slogan, "Order."

Again in Malaysia Professor Mahadzir Mat Kir observes that, "The nouveau riche do not have the same reasons for speaking out because they would rather not change the system so long as they are the beneficiaries." In Indonesia the all-pervasive bureaucracy provides its four million members with all of their physical and most of their spiritual needs and receives slavish adherence in return. Indeed, to the extent that the Islamic middle class of Southeast Asia asserts itself at all, it finds its identity not in any decadent individualism but through a retreat into the more fundamentalist versions of their faith. Recently, the Malaysian government, which favors a market-friendly version of Islam, dramatically suppressed Al-Arqam, a fundamentalist Sufi sect that had become increasingly attractive to anxiety-ridden, young, urban Malay yuppies yearning for authenticity.

The sugar-coated bullets of the new Asian bourgeoisie are then notably blank when it comes to shooting down the autocratic barriers to a tolerant and liberal modernity. As the major beneficiaries of thirty years of economic growth, the new middle class is highly dependent upon state largesse. Its defining characteristic is the deracinated anxiety of the arriviste, and the consequent search for political and social ties that offer reassurance and security. In return, dominant single parties or paternalistic leaders expect their middle class dependents to support actively their latest technocratic initiatives. Mere acquiescence is insufficient. Traditional understandings of harmony, balance and virtuous rule, suitably modified for mass consumption, reinforce rule by rational technocracy, on the grounds that the only alternative to bureaucratically determined consensus is unwanted and destabilizing conflict. There is in this evolving understanding no place for the articulation of competing interests, or the autonomous activities of an open society.

Managerial techniques derived from contemporary corporate capitalism further reinforce this intolerant political culture. The techno-paternalism of Pacific Asia postulates an economic rationalism in which state managers, entrepreneurs and administrators collectively develop the population as a resource. Monologue is the preferred mode of discourse and when the technocratized mandarin speaks, the people had better listen. In the Asian understanding of democracy, elections constitute a test of the rationality of the electorate rather than a verdict upon their rulers.

Maintaining the Balance

Rather than conflict between a ruling elite and an increasingly assertive bourgeoisie, we discover instead governments that are ideologically, economically, and sometimes ethnically homogeneous with the new Asian middle class. The problem of development consequently does not necessarily entail the resolution so eagerly anticipated by critics of the Asian model. Clearly neither the middle class nor their rulers wants pluralism and diversity. Rather, the central political concern reflects a traditional Asian preoccupation with how to continue the rule of virtuous men and rational bureaucrats, in political cultures that have no understanding of the rule of law or the constitutional machinery to ensure smooth leadership transition.

This is most evidently the case in contemporary Indonesia and Malaysia. Political debate, to the extent that it exists, reflects oligarchic concern about how best to continue the stability that attracts economic investment and avoid the errors perpetrated in the West, by what Mahathir Mohamad terms the "fanatical" advocates of liberal democracy--an arrangement which he and like-minded Asian nationalists associate with the real or imagined oppression of the colonial era. Paradoxically, both Mahathir and Suharto have become the unwitting victims of their own successful destruction of competing attachments in forging an increasingly centralized state and a new national consciousness. The very effectiveness of this modernization strategy has generated difficulties in managing increasing complexity in the context of generational transition.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan and South Korea the orthodox understanding of events--as a process of middle class pressure leading to constitutional reform--actually conceals the evolution of an elite strategy to renew consensus, stability and harmony. Thus, in South Korea the current constitution (the sixth since 1948) instituting civilian rule merely represents the latest attempt to guarantee moral and political certainty, this time through civilian as opposed to military patrons. An equally ambivalent search for a solution to the question of how to maintain stability in the face of an unwanted dilemma also explains constitutional innovation in Taiwan. In fact, it was the ruling Kuomintang (kmt) that promoted the change from autocracy to accountability, in order to guarantee smooth transition from Chiang Ching Kuo to the current indigenous President Lee Teng Hui and to address the daunting problem of Taiwan's political identity. For, rather worryingly in a political culture that craves certitude, the otherwise omniscient kmt cannot decide whether it is the de jure authority for all China or merely the de facto ruler of a small island state.

The problem for the kmt, then, as for Kim Young Sam's Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) in South Korea, stems not from any obvious middle class pressure for autonomy and political pluralism, but from elite uncertainty about how to proceed in the new world disorder. It is an uncertainty ill-suited to a parvenu, insecure, and intolerant middle class. Indeed, after almost a decade of liberalization we find the usually apolitical Taiwanese middle class taking an increasingly captious view of democratic reform. They find violent confrontation in the national assembly and the Legislative Yuan distastefully unconfucian. As Diane Ying, editor of the influential Commonwealth magazine observes, the Taiwanese do not want "greater freedom and democracy." Instead they admire "Singapore, run like a corporation with a common vision, a sense of mission, and visible strategies." A similar admiration for Singapore's apolitical managerialism has recently inspired Kim Young Sam to establish a governmental committee to transform South Korea into a clean and disciplined Northeast Asian version of the city-state.
In contrast to modernization orthodoxy, it seems that the continuing ability of the pap to dominate both Singaporean politics and socio-economic development peculiarly suits the needs of the insecure, materialistic new middle class of Pacific Asia. In the course of its thirty-year management of government, bureaucracy, and economy, the pap syncretically has blended a seemingly liberal market economic policy with a reinvented concern for Asian values of hierarchy and deference in order to create, as one Ministry of Community Development song has it, "One nation, one people, one Singapore." Just as one-party rule was--as the World Bank notes with admiration--"integral to Singapore's rapid industrialization and growth," so this style requires the continuing management of every aspect of Singapore's identity. In a recent National Day rally speech, emphasizing the centrality of filial piety and family values, Premier Goh Chok Tong sought to "stake out the moral markers twenty to thirty years in advance." In this understanding, the efficient Asian polis constitutes an enterprise association mobilized continually towards technocratically designed goals. Its efficacy consists in directing its members toward a collectively achievable vision. The relatively uncorrupt technocratic capacity to direct environmental and social policy constitutes a model of apolitical public administration to which the rest of Asia aspires.

The Asian Way

Political change in contemporary Pacific Asia, then, constitutes neither an authoritarian response to middle class pressure nor reflects a wider societal demand for the polymorphous pleasures of a free media and a pluralistic civil society. Instead, such change represents the anxious and often proactive attempt by a virtuous mandarinate to maintain harmony, balance, and economic growth in a world that always threatens to dissolve into deracinating uncertainty.
Central to an understanding of what is going on is a realization that not only do the state managers require a leadership principle, the middle class also desires the certainty that techno-paternalism provides. This anxious pursuit of a hierarchically coded relationship is daily manifest in the ostensibly communitarian politics practiced in East and Southeast Asia, and is facilitated by an Asian understanding of power as the capacity to harmonize, balance and transmit an ethical understanding. Power is necessarily concentrated at a personal and geographical center, and subjects, particularly middle class ones, actively solicit dependency relationships. This means that any alteration in the distribution of power should not, in an Asian context, automatically be regarded as progress from rule by good men to the rule of law.

Indeed, Asian constitutions represent the mutable by-products that eventuate from the search for new "men of prowess" modified according to the current requirements of an apolitical technocracy and a neurotic middle class. Given the Asian understanding of leadership as the power to absorb difference and maintain consensus, the military autocratic style favored by a variety of Asian states in the early 1980s disturbingly intimated the actual or potential threat of violence. In East Asian political thought, such conflict implies imminent dissolution. Consequently, in the course of the 1980s, East and Southeast Asian states devised a series of managerial strategies not only to maintain the authority of the state but also to assuage the anxieties of emerging middle class groups, thus rendering these social groups both more visible and more pliable in order to establish the desired equilibrium--an equilibrium that gives the civil societies of East Asia their peculiarly ersatz and group conformist character. In other words, it is political technique reflected through a paradoxically conservative weave of tradition and national development that explains the differences in the political arrangements of modernized Pacific Asia.

Just as the ethic that has governed the East Asian Miracle and formed its middle class is antithetical to the pluralistic liberalism that shaped the historically contingent civil societies of Western Europe and North America, it also favors political arrangements that are both stable and inimical to Western civil understandings of tolerance, complexity, and diversity. Thus with regard to that truism of developmental economics that modernization brings about liberalization, Professor Jones might do well to meditate upon the Zen aphorism: "When we observe the incongruity between theories about life and what we feel intuitively to be true on the non-verbal, non-judging plane, there is nothing to do but laugh."

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