The Rise of New Urban Middle Classes in Southeast Asia:
What is its national and regional significance?

Author Name SHIRAISHI Takashi  (Faculty Fellow)
Creation Date/NO. February 2004 04-E-011
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Middle classes in East Asia are a product of regional economic development which has taken place in waves under an American informal empire, over half a century, first in Japan, then in NIEs, then in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and now in China. They are a product of developmental states and their politics of economic growth. Their life styles have been shaped in complex ways by their appropriation of things American, Japanese, Chinese, Islamic, and others. Though created in one generation, they nationally occupy different social, political and cultural positions: Thai middle classes are coherent socially, hegemonic culturally and intellectually and ascendant politically; their counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia are socially divided, dependent on the state, and unable to shape politics in any significant way; and in the Philippines, middle classes are socially coherent, less dependent on the state, culturally ascendant, but politically weak.

Yet there is no question that new urban middle classes are there as important forces in all these countries. Their emergence as social and cultural formation is significant for the East Asian region making in three respects. First, being a product of financial globalization and regionalization of production, they have vital stakes in their countries remaining open for those forces. Second, they provide regional markets for MNCs. Whether in fashion, life style, music, or other businesses, firms successful in capturing regional markets thrive. The novelty of the familiar is the key to capturing regional markets or their segments. And third, regional middle class markets open up the possibility for the construction of market-mediated national and regional cultural identities. What remains to be seen is who produces what to further integrate the region economically and to construct an Asian identity for economic and political gains.