A common definition of the middle class involves simultaneous ownership of a television, refrigerator, and motorcycle or car. This couple is from Ternate, North Maluku. Photo by S. Chris Brown.

A common definition of the middle class involves simultaneous possession of a television, refrigerator, and motorcycle or car. This couple is from Ternate, North Maluku. Photo by S. Chris Brown.


Counting words can be fun. Google’s Ngram Viewer lets you do this for millions of English-language books around the world over the last 200 years. Take the words democracy and corruption. The word democracy took off in the early twentieth century. It peaked and dipped again around the two world wars, but since the 1980s, it has been shooting up. Corruption, on the other hand, used to be a big topic in 1800, but has been in steady decline since then, and hasn’t rivalled the popularity of democracy since 1907.


Indonesian data doesn’t go that far back but at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) we do have digitised newspaper data since the end of the New Order. Curiously, the worldwide pattern is reversed in Indonesia. Both corruption and democracy were big words in 1998, when presumably D was seen as the antidote to Suharto’s C. Once democracy took hold, however, the C word didn’t go away. It came to dominate media discourse, far more than democracy.


Why do these two go together so persistently in Indonesia? Many Indonesians flagellate themselves with cultural reasons for the corruption. That seems circular (corruption = culture of corruption = corruption), and sheds no light on democracy. Our project “In Search of Middle Indonesia” looked for strategic explanations to connect them. Both democracy and corruption have their origins in a middle class that has grown rapidly over the last two to three decades.


During the New Order, the middle class was routinely depicted as tiny – less than 10 per cent of the population – and uninterested in democracy. That picture now needs serious overhaul. The reform movement, reformasi, was driven by a much larger group within society than the small national bourgeoisie that kept the New Order going. Today, using the same consumption criteria (of simultaneous household possession of a television, refrigerator, and either a motorcycle or car), the middle class constitutes nearly half the population.


They are interested in democracy; and even more in decentralisation. They are to be found everywhere, but they really dominate the larger provincial towns and cities, of which there are over 200 in Indonesia. Democracy and decentralisation are for them the perfect way to hold national elites over a barrel. Without their protests in 1998, and their not always subtle threats to abandon Indonesia if they didn’t get what they wanted, Indonesia today would still be a militarised state. Jakarta has been made to see that it is this provincial middle class that holds the country together. Without them, it would have to use military force – unworkable in the end – or just let the provinces deteriorate.


In exchange for their loyalty, the provincial middle classes want money. A good slice of that gets wasted. Institutions outside of Jakarta are fragile; there is less industry and more poverty. Moreover politics – of which there is a lot – costs money. A provincial governor’s election campaign, for example, can cost up to Rp 100 billion (AU$10 million). The winner will want to use their public office to recoup their expenditures. Jakarta knows this and tries to curb it, but can’t afford to alienate their friends in towns stretching from Kupang to Banda Aceh.


In a way, the provincial middle classes – a social zone we call “Middle Indonesia” – hark back to the birth of the nation in the 1950s. They can be loud, they love their largely unproductive jobs in the bureaucracy, but at least they will always stick up for Indonesia, and because of them, central state subsidies for healthcare, education and infrastructure development reach areas that might otherwise be neglected.



We acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which our campuses are situated.

Phone:13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +(61 3) 9035 5511
The University of Melbourne ABN:84 002 705 224
CRICOS Provider Code:00116K (visa information)