Our middle-class syndrome

[Aliran published an edited version]

The middle class is less of a definition, more of a self identification. Its distinction from the upper and lower classes is based not so much on income, capital or net worth. The cut-off point promoting or demoting one to the middle class is gray and blur, but the size of self-professed middle class is growing in Malaysia (and elsewhere, albeit with different flavours).

I recall the time when I was viewing a candidate new home. The owners couldn’t wait to introduce themselves (retiring in Singapore), the son (graduated from Manchester) and the neighbours (‘also doctors’). Would I mind where the couple is retiring, where the children studied or what the neighbours are — more than the moldy wet areas? But that’s the standard handshake of the Asian middle class.

They are quite happy remaining in the middle class, with little aspiration to be upgraded to the upper class — even as there is no limit to the amount of wealth they aim for. No matter how rich they become, they will still self-classify as middle class.

In this context, the term ‘middle class’ is defined not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. It is just neither upper nor lower class. The middle class deserves what they have — unlike the scandalous upper class, who does not deserve. The middle class feels they have the right to having and getting more — unlike the undeserving lower class, who should stay where they are in their rightful place.

The upper class is unworthy of what they have already got. The lower class is unworthy of what they haven’t got anyway.

Corruption

Thus coined, the middle class marks the most righteous and deserving lot. We feel robbed, so we must put this right. When wrapped into a movement or campaign of sorts, the blueprint would be to reclaim what the scandalous class deprived the middle class of. Equal redistribution of resources is absent from the agenda.

Ongoing corruption in the country is indeed unacceptable and must be overturned — but we can afford some optimism in the process. It is time to put things in context. Whether Malaysia ranks as the top, the 20th or the 50th most corrupt, corruption has to be overturned — without capitalising on vengeance, without charging people with emotions, and without sinking everyone’s morale.

Alternative media should be free, fearless and civic enough to put things in context. Disclose to the people what those rankings and numbers do not tell. Take the readers by the hand and help them feel the texture. We can afford some optimism.

There are nations where corruption flows in the blood. Postgraduates sent abroad queue outside the professor’s door not to learn but to solicit signatures for anything under the sun, so that they may claim more from their sponsors. This is not the case with Malaysians.

There are places where corruption is baked into the system, in a systemic scale across a longer history not comparable to ours. There are still more places where people routinely hand cash-filled envelops to the doctor so that he/she lifts his finger to save their dying family member. We know Malaysia was and is never like that.

Making new friends, I have had the experience that within 15 minutes I could confidently guess their country of origin before they even told me. I picked that out from their characteristic need to bribe even friendship — from the first moments. Malaysians are nowhere there.

Can we fight corruption with our heads held high? Can we do that without mocking and spitting?

Fairness versus equality

Combating corruption is hard; equal redistribution is far harder. Decades after decades of re-adjustments, many developed nations still make a mess of it. So far only the Scandinavians managed. Is there anything we can learn from there? There seems to be no interest. The challenge is downplayed as something that will naturally fall into place, or that so-and-so is such a great leader that he will certainly manage — we must trust and give him our full support. Do we settle for such simplistic illusions?

If it is fairness, not equality, that is being sought after, we need to be clear. Do not claim to be paving the way for equality. Mixing up equality with fairness only divides and depresses the nation further.

Equality is objective, simple and unconditional. It is elementary mathematics, of dividing the pudding by the number of tummies. One equation fits all. No multiple equations loaded with a full suite of factors and conditions.

What’s fair and what’s not? That is entirely subjective. Fairness implies strong elements of who deserves and who doesn’t. That depends on whatever baseline one deems as fit for others — according to familial traits, education, profession, even the accent with which one speaks a language — just about any attribute we can rope in as a criterion. What you think I do not deserve may well be exactly what I think you do not deserve.

I was the first to reach an empty classroom, so I am entitled to 5 seats and 6 desks rather than one. The street belonged to my grandfather, so I claim my birth right not to think of others. My looks match a preferred corner of the palette, that sets me to a higher baseline. My family tree shines greener; of course I deserve more.

Those who reached the classroom later, whose grandfather never owned the street, whose looks match the wrong edge of the palette, whose family tree appears slightly different — of course they ought to get less. Their baseline and mine can never be on par; certainly not.

Polarisation

Revisiting the needles I mentioned in an earlier article [link to ‘Migrant workers and us: both a little scared’], why do some Malaysians not know what needles I’m talking about? Not that Malaysia is cleaner, but that Malaysia is so gravely polarised. At this point I might have lost some readers by the word, ‘clean’. Here is the context. Germain asked me for two dollars so that she could have a meal, repeating over and over, “I am clean. I am really clean.” I looked into her eyes and saw that she was unmistakably clean; I wished her a good meal. A fortnight later she found me on a nearby street; we recognised each other. This round she asked for ten. This round I lost that beam from her eyes — she was no longer clean. She was back on drugs.

That was in Vancouver. The point here is that Malaysia is no alien to drugs, but our society is so polarised that many of us over this side of the divide are completely out of touch with what life really is. We like packing our families into nice and clean cars, driving to nice and clean places of worship. We even spare our energy to find each other’s kids too noisy, and to set catching each other as our KPI (key performance indicator). We feel so generous for dropping a few ringgit to ‘the poor’. We almost need them there. In fact we need them to remain where they are, so that we could fulfill our almsgiving duty — without which we earn no tokens for the next life. We do no better than atheists, who get their values right. In the name of charity we break all solidarity.

The flip side is that polarisation did protect many of us somewhat. As a Malaysian female of my age, there was no chance whatsoever that I could be a smoker. The option was blanked off as unavailable. It was not in our dictionary. Along with my peers from those classes in those schools, of that bracket of families, we were simply not capable of smoking. No cigarette was within reach. We were shielded by polarisation, but the time has come for us to go beyond.

It is always a good practice to be aware of any symmetry. Whereas I was conditioned not to smoke, many others are conditioned to — as the default option and the low-hanging fruit subscribed by everyone in their circle. I can claim no merit for not making to the headlines for driving against the traffic and being tested positive.

Solidarity

Back in SRJK (C) Yuk Choy, Ipoh, teacher told us to bring two ringgit the next day. We were to go home and explain to our parents that the two ringgit was the premium towards an insurance scheme. Teacher cited the example where there were 40+ of us in the class, in an unfortunate event that anyone meets with an accident, the pooled money could then be used to cover the medical costs for that anyone-of-us. We would be able to afford what an individual would not be able to afford alone. Insurance was about a shared pool, not self protection. That was my first understanding of insurance.

Decades later, during staff induction at CERN (the largest laboratory in the world) Human Resource explained that each month we should expect x% to be deducted from our salary, as compulsory contribution towards medical insurance. It was introduced as a solidarity scheme — that the Director General contributed the most, but he never consumed medical services by the same proportion. The idea was consistent with that first introduced to me by my primary-school teacher.

Look around. So many strive to insure themselves to the max, with no one else in mind except themselves. We hoard and we hoard, trying to feel secure but feeling insecure still. What if I get cancer A, plus cancer B too, contract HIV, hepatites A, B and C too, suffer a stroke, and become dependent on dialysis at the same time …? We have lost all sense of probability theory and practical risk assessment. Our thinning solidarity. Our mounting insecurity.

We no longer draw strength from solidarity. We lost the ability to zoom out, to see ourselves as part of a bigger whole, to gain support and security there. Mention the word, ‘solidarity’ and the reflex could be, “What do you want from me? How much do you want from my pocket?”

The question is do I see kinship with myself only, or just within my nucleus family, or just among my extended family, or just with folks sharing the same ethnicity, or … Do I consider fellow countrymen and women my own people?

Scan the classified ads for home rentals; some specify as being open to a selected ethnicity only. Arrange for viewing, and you would soon recognise the face. Did she not just post a selfie on social media — a selfie flanked by a complete multi-racial complement, flagging a banner, “We are Malaysians. We don’t discriminate. We are not racist. Stop dividing us!” Shirts, banners, photos and profiles all in a sea of yellow.

United by a common enemy. So loud, yet so shallow. Tell the same people about having Germans and Italians as flat-mates and they instantly light up, “How cool!” Flat-sharing with Germans and Italians is awesome. Renting out to fellow countrymen and countrywomen is pantang.

Where does our circle of inclusion stop? Where does our border for exclusion begin?

Without an agenda for fair redistribution, revolutions could just be for vengeance sake — a sterile motion giving life to nobody. Punishing for punishment sake provides a more-like-it finale to fables and fairy tales. We can aim for a higher level of maturity.

Even with Tony Fernandes’ bold vision of ‘now everyone can fly’, we are far from flying. Handles for change are in the people’s hands. Solidarity within the middle class is not solidarity — that’s exclusivity. We either believe that every life is precious, or we don’t.

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