Over the past few years, it has become common to hear Indonesians complaining about the “awful middle class”, or kelas menengah ngehe. Despite the popularity of the term, there is no consensus on how to define it. It is certainly not listed in the official Indonesian dictionary, and if you searched online you would come up with a grab bag of seemingly unrelated attitudes and behaviours that Indonesians consider awful, annoying, or ngehe. In other words, it is a fluid and socially constructed definition, and reflects growing discomfort with social changes associated with economic growth.
Among Indonesians, the term “middle class” is often used to describe people who are, by local standards, rich or very rich. Their assets are starting to accumulate, they are often well educated, with advanced degrees and they hold senior positions. Although they are comparatively wealthy, many have mortgages and are still dependent on a regular income to maintain their lifestyles.
Internationally, the most common way to define the middle class is to use economic boundaries. The World Bank uses an income of US$2-20 per day. According to these figures, the number of Indonesians in the middle class increased from 134 million in 2010 to nearly 170 million in 2015, equivalent to about 70 per cent of the population. McKinsey Global Institute, meanwhile, refers to a “consuming class” of 45 million (based on 2010 figures), including anyone with an income greater than US$3600 a year, or about US$10 a day.
Using the low threshold of $2 per day has been criticised because it is not enough to safeguard economic security. In Indonesia, the middle class is dominated (about 71 per cent) by the lower spending group ($2-4), while only a small proportion (3 per cent) belong to the higher spending group ($10-20). This large group of people in the lower-middle class is vulnerable to falling back into poverty, and as such is often called the “fragile middle”. They are not poor, but their income is insecure, corresponding to low levels of consumption and a lack of financial stability. Their lifestyle is not what one would typically associate with the middle class.
Regardless of the economic definition used, it is more useful for this discussion to define the middle class by its key characteristics: middle class Indonesians typically have high purchasing power, they are more knowledgeable, and have a high degree of social connection. They are also overwhelmingly urban. By some estimates, 26 per cent of Indonesia’s urban population is middle class, compared to only 9 per cent of the rural population.
With increases in affluence comes higher buying power. Middle class consumers have started to shift their preferences from basic commodities to more luxurious, discretionary purchases. Having only recently started purchasing beyond subsistence levels, they remain price conscious and often critical and risk-averse consumers. But they also have international tastes – they seek prestige, purchase branded products and enjoy global entertainment.
It is this conflict between thriftiness and a desire for status that often sees them derided as ngehe. Fuel subsidies, for example, were originally introduced to support low-income families. But as many analyses pointed out, the majority of the benefits were enjoyed by car owning, price-conscious middle class families. Online commenters took great pleasure in mocking the middle class consumers who complained when the fuel subsidies were withdrawn but simultaneously bragged about purchasing prestige products on their social media feeds. Typical ngehe behaviour, yes, but it also reflects the tension between their often precarious economic positions and their aspirations for “a better life”.
The second defining feature of the middle class is higher levels of education. With improved income levels and more opportunities for scholarships, some have earned advanced degrees abroad. They are connected to, and interested in, global politics, economics, and culture, and share their views actively on social media. The middle class is often dismissed as politically indifferent and obsessed with consumption. But this characterisation is too simplistic. Historically, the Indonesian middle class played an important role in democratisation. Edward Aspinall notes that although their influence has been modest in the post-transition period, there is still an enthusiastic middle class base for democratic rule and liberal reforms.
A contemporary example of the middle class’s engagement with politics is Teman Ahok (“Friends of Ahok”), the supporter group that emerged to back Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s run for a second term in 2017. Its members are politically engaged and draw attention to widespread failures in public service delivery. But because of their middle class status, their concerns are largely those of the middle class, and they are often insensitive to the needs of poor and marginalised Indonesians. We saw this in the responses of Ahok’s supporters to recent evictions in urban districts such as Kampung Pulo or Pasar Ikan, which were typified by an apparent indifference to the plight of the newly homeless poor.
Similarly, middle class people often contribute to the problems that they are so vocal about. They whinge about Jakarta traffic, for example, while still preferring to use private vehicles. They complain about flooding but their environmental awareness is low – they contribute to the litter that clogs waterways and are often reluctant to participate in community activities to clean up or rehabilitate drainage channels. This hypocrisy and apparent lack of concern for social justice is what makes others brand them ngehe.
The final dominant characteristic of the middle class is its connectivity. With advances in communication technology and transport, the middle class is increasingly connected – domestically and globally. With the rapid growth in budget airlines, more Indonesians can now take domestic flights. The explosion in cheaper brands of smartphones has made them affordable for many members of the middle class, even those at the poorer end.
The Indonesian middle class is very active on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Path, and Instagram. Indonesia is, in fact, often described as the Twitter capital of the world, and there are more than 77 million Facebook users in the country. Social media is used not only to stay connected but also for seeking acknowledgement of middle class status. Many Indonesians document their domestic and international travel, social events and daily routines on social media. When this behaviour is seen as excessive then it is described as ngehe.
The definition might be loose and socially constructed, but the emergence of an “awful middle class” is a real phenomenon. If Indonesia benefits from its demographic dividend, or “demographic bonus”, the middle class will grow even faster over the coming years. Rather than an occasional annoyance, the kelas menengah ngehe may soon become the norm. Good luck to us all!