Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Middletown comes to Malang

Published: Sep 30, 2007

JASON PRICE talks with the new middle class and discovers they love progress but keep the poor at arms length.

Of late, much has been made of Indonesia's `new middle class'. This new social strata is variously seen as a measure of economic success, a force for liberal politics, a sign of globalisation, and an indicator of the wealth disparities in Indonesia. It comprises those who derive a privileged position in the labour market from the possession of educational skills: doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, university lecturers, high school teachers, and mid-level civil servants.

These are the people who run the country, teach the children, control the media, heal the sick and manage the corporations. They are also the people who live in modern, high density housing complexes, buy cars, frequent shopping centres and supermarkets, and patronise the expanding consumer financial institutions.

I lived in the complex I have called Villa Aliran Indah, in Malang, East Java, while researching a PhD in Anthropology.


Historically speaking, the new middle class are largely descended from aristocratic (priyayi) families, both in terms of actual parentage, and cultural influence. Many of the families I spoke to who were descended from priyayi families no longer employ their honorific titles, as they consider them part of a bygone age.

The middle class household usually begins with privileged access to education, a result of the privileged position of one's parents.

Traditionally the most desirable career was with the civil service, as it offered stability in a turbulent political and economic climate. However, with the declining economic and social status of the civil servant, employment in one of the state-owned companies became more desirable. Now, with economic stability a real possibility, employment with large corporations in the private sector is becoming more attractive.


The 'Villa Aliran Indah' housing complex contained about three hundred houses, built between 1987 and 1993. The designed nature of the complex stands in stark contrast to the meandering tangle of the surrounding kampung. There is a palm-lined avenue at the entrance, tidy streets laid out on a grid pattern, houses all neatly arrayed on either side of the road, and small gardens and maintained public facilities.

Villa Aliran Indah is not just an accumulation of houses. It is a clear entity: physically, socially and administratively. The housing complex is separated from the surrounding kampung and paddy fields by high walls, and the few entrances are watched at night by security guards.

The community is also socially rather well integrated. People cooperate to maintain facilities, most participate in the community mosque, and all in the local neighbourhood associations (Rukun Tetangga).


Many Villa residents explained to me they preferred living in the Villa to the kampung, as it was much neater here. Everyone had higher levels of education, and so were easier to get along with. As one of the residents, Pak Widodo, put it, `buying in Villa Aliran Indah was not just buying a house, but a lifestyle'.

The occupants of the housing complex are mostly government employees. Civil servants, university lecturers, and state company employees are the most significant male occupations. Two thirds of women are also employed outside the household.

The vast majority are university educated. They are mostly young families, the parents being in their 30s, and having one or two young children. The small family sizes in the housing complex are a result of the parents being relatively young, and a testament to their participation in, and commitment to, the national family planning program (KB).


The one characteristic that most typifies these new middle class households is their assumption of progress. As many have stable, career-tracked, salaried positions with the state or state-owned companies, this assumption is justified. They can anticipate a steady growth in their income and income-earning opportunities throughout their career, right up until retirement at the age of 55.

This stands in contrast to the lives of the bulk of the Indonesian population, whose economic fortunes vary each year depending on capricious agricultural factors, insecure employment, and global economic cycles. While the kampung dwellers may occasionally have incomes comparable to the middle class, they lack the stability and progress, being more prone to suffer from the wheel of fortune.

A stable, and provable income is also essential for access to formal credit facilities. Hence members of the new middle class account for the vast majority of residents of housing complexes such as this.

Home improvements

The very nature of the housing complex assumes progress. Most of the occupants have bought a small house on a large block of land, about 100 square metres on average, anticipating they would eventually be able to afford to renovate.

The little houses usually began with one living area, two bedrooms, a bathroom and an outdoor kitchen. They grew to include a formal lounge (kamar tamu), a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, four bedrooms, and, perhaps, a room for the servant.

Most of the houses are in a constant state of renovation, having a bit more work done as sufficient money is accumulated. As one resident phrased it, his was a `growing home'. As a result of this constant renovation, at any time of the year it is not unusual to see several houses in the one street having work done on them, the street cluttered with piles of sand and other building materials.

Soon after the men in the housing complex had graduated and gained employment, they married, usually well educated women, and usually a few years younger than themselves. The first few years after the wedding commonly involved saving for a deposit on a home, and saw the arrival of the first child. Once they bought their home, they then began the long process of saving money to renovate it.

Most people I worked with were in the final stages of renovating their homes and were looking forward to completing it. After that, they could furnish the home properly, and buy a car. Then they would have to make sure they could provide for the education of their children. With the household established, financially secure, and educational obligations to their children provided for, good Muslims could then contemplate going on theHaj.

Income strategies

One of the interesting aspects of middle class households is the truly amazing and complex nature of household income strategies. While a few households draw income from just one or two significant sources, most rely on an elaborate and shifting combination of income strategies to meet the household financial needs.

A civil servant household head will typically rely on his salary and official supplements, gratitude payments for extra service (`tips'), productivity bonuses, honoraria for participating in special projects or committees, teaching part- time at universities, and running a small business. His wife will often work full-time outside the household, even though it is generally considered undesirable.

The desire to always increase one's income is clear from the way that everyone considered their income to be `just enough' (pas-pasan). The phrase also indicates a consumer culture, encouraging levels of consumption to rise to the limit of income.


The extent of globalisation was brought home to me while sitting down to a cup of tea with some Javanese friends. The thought occurred to me that very little in the whole room was not derived from, or influenced by, foreign sources: the house we were in, the tea service, tea itself, the furniture, the clothing of the hosts, and so on. Of course, there are far more apparent forms of globalisation: McDonald's and other fast foods, foreign, largely American, television and music, and the ever-growing number of shopping centres.

The changing economic fortunes of the new middle class bring with them their own motor for social change. Affluence has necessitated changes in traditional social patterns. One example is the middle class practice of giving gifts at weddings, in contrast to the village practice of giving money.

With growing affluence and the consequent size of weddings, however, the number of multiple gifts received by the wedding couple became ludicrous, causing increasing pressure for change. Rather than adopting the Western solution to this same problem, the bridal registry of gifts, they opted to return to the practice of giving money at weddings, now writing on the elaborate wedding invitations that they `do not accept gifts'.


The superficial impact of globalisation on patterns of consumption can be seen in television viewing. The most popular shows are foreign. Men prefer Western films, generally action movies. Women generally watch the Brazilian soap operas or Chinese kung fu series in the evenings. Children prefer the Japanese television shows and cartoons, such as Ksatria Baja Hitam and Doraimon. The Japanese-style Power Rangers were the latest fad when I was doing my research.

Indonesian productions are regarded as too boring and predictable. This was demonstrated to me by one man who successfully predicted a sequence of events in an Indonesia film which he claimed to have never seen before. The residents of the housing complex found the government-run television so boring they collectively organised to install a community satellite dish, so they could watch the commercial stations before they began direct broadcasts in Malang.


The most important drivers of consumption are children. They initially motivate the mother to deliver the child in a private maternity hospital, to buy expensive milk formulae, disposable nappies, and a pram, in contrast to the traditional practices of allowing children to urinate freely, and carrying them in a sling (slendang) off one shoulder.

As they grow older, the milk continues to be pressed upon the children, and their desires are generally indulged, and include such things as Western fast foods, especially McDonald's, KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts, vast quantities of merchandising from their favourite television shows, and the latest fads, such as Reebok Nightwear and other novelty items.

Children also quickly become socialised into the household financial rhythms. It is amusing to see a four year old getting excited when he knows it is his mother's pay day. Indonesian is generally their first language, rather than their ethnic group language (usually Javanese). Children also often start learning English before Javanese as their parents desire their children to get a head start on future employment prospects.


The new middle class rarely identify themselves as middle class, but betray the fact that they are a different social class in the way they speak and act. This difference manifests itself in middle class reference to the mass of the population as `them'. The `them' to whom they refer are conceived of as a largely ignorant mass who need to be protected from their own ignorance by paternalistic measures such as censorship.

It was explained to me that as the masses do not understand `what is really going on', and are rather poorly educated, they would probably react rather badly if they were not protected by censorship.

The new middle class do not believe that censorship applies to them. Indeed, they believe they can actually read the euphemistic codes in the newspapers to understand `what is really going on'. This paternalistic attitude towards the masses is also reflected in their acts of charity, whether giving money to beggars, giving alms to the poor during Ramadan, or employing someone from the nearby kampung.


There is a suppressed tension between the kampung and the Villa. The kampung dwellers appear to resent the presence of the housing complex, a resentment usually manifest only in everyday forms of resistance such as petty theft and reluctant cooperation.

This was especially evident in the case of a funeral in the Villa where people from the kampung were very slow to help, and seemed quite casual in the way that they did so. There also seemed to be much reluctance to allow the residents of the housing complex to use the local graveyard. Examples such as this speak of a suppressed tension between the two groups which stands at odds with the Javanese ideals of harmony and cooperation.

Some of the characteristics of the Indonesian new middle class may sound eerily similar to the Western suburban dream. The similarities are particularly strong with the focus on career advancement, educating one's children, and the desire to spend as much leisure time as possible at home with the family.

There will, however, continue to be certain elements of Indonesian life which are different, such as the underlying nature of Javanese culture, extreme population densities, and, at least for the time being, the significant social inequalities inherent in the Indonesian socio-economic system.


The middle class currently support an authoritarian government that has delivered economic development, provides them with security, and employs them. Whatever their political leanings, for the sake of their own careers they are obliged to be active in Golkar.

As Indonesia modernises, the economy deregulates, and state- owned companies are privatised, the new middle class is going to be increasingly employed in the private sector. The implications of this may not be immediately obvious, but they have a far- reaching significance. In the future the interests of the middle class are going to lie less with the state and more with global capital. This shift is bound to have an impact on their political outlook.

Jason Charles Price recently completed a PhD in anthropology at the University of Western Australia, in Perth.

Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997

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