Middle Classes Prompting Change in the Political Landscape of East Asia

Takashi Shiraishi

The year 2004 was an an election year in East Asia. In March, Chen Shui-bian was re-elected president of Taiwan by a narrow margin. In Malaysia, the ruling coalition National Front, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, coasted to a landslide victory in a lower house election held the same month. In Indonesian parliamentary elections in April, Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle fell into second place while Golkar, the party of former strongman Suharto, emerged as the largest party. The newly established Democratic Party and the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party also gained in the poll. In South Korea’s National Assembly election the same month, President Roh Moo Hyun’s Uri Party won 152 of the 299 seats up for contest. In May, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was re-elected president of the Philippines. And in September, former Indonesian Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated Megawati in presidential runoff polls.

All these elections were reasonably free and fair. What has become clear from them is the rise of the middle classes in East Asia. When the region was enjoying economic development from the 1970s through the 1990s, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore witnessed the emergence and rise of the middle class (1970s and 1980s), followed by Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia (1980s and 1990s). As a result, politics has been greatly influenced by a new class of people who, unlike their parents, have had affluent lives from their childhood, received higher education, and feel confident of their abilities. Of course, their political clout varies from one country to another.

 The Quest for Clean Government

In Malaysia, Abdullah’s National Front scored an overwhelming triumph, winning 198 of the 219 seats up for election in March. One of the reasons for such a lopsided victory was Abdullah’s policy of making himself look different from his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. The new prime minister, inaugurated in October 2003, has demonstrated political initiatives of his own – having second thoughts about the large-scale public works projects the Mahathir administration adopted in its final years and changing government procurement procedures. Abdullah has thus gained the confidence of Malaysia’s middle class, especially middle-class Malays, who are in favor of clean government.

In Indonesia’s parliamentary elections, presidential candidate Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party garnered 7.5 percent of the votes, winning 57 of the 550 seats contested in the race. The Prosperous Justice Party polled 7.3 percent of the votes – compared to just 1.4 percent and seven out of the 450 seats vied for in the 1999 election. The advances of the two parties were supported by urban middle-class people who felt alarmed by the economic doldrums, continuing social crisis, and rising crime rate since the 1997-1998 economic crisis.

However, the Indonesian middle class still accounts for only a small portion of the country’s population. In rural areas, Islamic groups, traditional political parties, and government apparatuses remain influential in mobilizing voters. That is why Yudhoyono eventually gathered a lower-than-expected share of 34 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election (versus 26 percent for Megawati), thus necessitating a runoff.

Yet, Malaysia and Indonesia can no longer ignore the political clout of the middle class. This trend is increasingly visible in South Korea and Taiwan, which have become more middle-class oriented societies than Malaysia and Indonesia.

 A New Nationalism in South Korea

In South Korea’s April election, the ruling Uri Party made gains. As a result, the group of pro-Roh lawmakers known as the progressive force or faction secured a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. In other words, the era of the “Three Kims” (former South Korean presidents Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung, and Kim Jong Pil) is over, prompting generational change in the country’s top political echelon. Such evolution has been accelerated by the rise of the so-called 386 generation – 3 refers to people in their 30s in the 1990s, 8 to the 1980s when they were enrolled at universities, and 6 to the 1960s when they were born.

South Koreans of this generation did not experience Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the 1950-1953 Korean War. But they did live through an authoritarian system and economic development during the term of President Park Chung Hee. When they were students in the 1980s, they fought battles to topple the authoritarian regime that succeeded Park’s. People of the 386 generation take both peace and affluence for granted, but are less enthusiastic about “growth first,” unlike the earlier generations. They also reject old-school networks and hometown ties and doyens in society; they are critical of the traditional notion of nationalism.

What, then, are their political goals? Three common traits stand out:

First, the 386 generation is anti-American, pro-North Korean. Unlike their parents, they regard North Koreans as compatriots, not as enemies, and want their relationship with the United States to be on equal footing – neither protection or assistance. Second, they are pro-Chinese. A survey of newly elected Uri Party lawmakers found that 63 percent considered China the most important diplomatic and trading partner for South Korea. Third, they prefer hard-line policies on such issues as the Japanese prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and Japanese textbooks.

In short, Koreans of the 386 generation are nationalist in a different way than their parent’s generation. But they have not yet been able to spell out their notion of nationalism. Therefore, these people welcome the progress of democracy in South Korea while displaying pro-Chinese, anti-American sentiments and demanding the purging of pro-Japanese old-timers from their country’s establishment – more than half a century after the end of Japanese colonial rule.

Today, South Korea is the world’s 11th-largest economy. It also has one of the most powerful armies in the world. South Koreans of the 386 generation have to define an international role appropriate to their country’s economic and military strengths.

Taiwan’s New Sense of Identity

In Taiwan, too, nationalism has become pivotal. The main factor behind Chen Shui-bian’s re-election was the upsurge of a Taiwanese identity. But what is important is the implication of this nationalism. Two states face each other across the Taiwan Strait, both calling themselves “Zhonghua” (or Chunghua, China). Despite the extreme divergence of their political systems, they have averted military clashes for more than 30 years.

But according to Tokyo University professor Masatake Wakabayashi, a renowned specialist on Taiwan affairs, the prerequisite for the continuation of this status quo is now being lost. One reason is the rise of nationalism in Taiwan, which is seeking its “independence.” Nationalism of this kind is certain to gather force in line with the rise of younger generations. The second reason is the fast expansion and deepening of economic relations between China and Taiwan. Currently, more than 1 million of Taiwan’s 22 million people reside in China. More Taiwanese businesses are likely to make inroads in the continent in the years to come. Under these circumstances, Taiwan now has to ask itself where it is heading.

In many countries in East Asia, the growing influence of the middle classes is having a tremendous impact on the political sphere. The future of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments hinges on middle-class people to a considerable extent. In South Korea and Taiwan, the question is how a new, mature form of nationalism can take firm hold.

Takashi Shiraishi
Takashi Shiraishi is professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
This article is a slightly abridged version of a 2004 Daily Yomiuri column “Insights into the World.”

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6 (March 2005). Elections and Statesmen