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THE RURAL CHALLENGES
Rise of Southeast Asia’s Rural Middle Class
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Identity; rural cosmopolitism; rural sage and philanthropy; rural innovation
Southeast Asia is the world fastest growing region for urbanization and industrialization. Even though such development has been taking place in both urban and rural areas, there remains an inferior image of the ‘villager’ on mainstream TV programs, films, fictions, and in other media (Keyes, 2010). A very high proportion of people still live in rural areas, particularly in Indochina, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. For example, at the end of the 2000s Thailand had a 66 percent rural population, the highest percentage among the other leading economies in the region and quite similar to its neighboring countries (See Chart 1). Rural identity has been passing through decades of major socio-economic transformation. This article attempts to explore in more detail the changing identity of rural people, those who won’t be moving into the big cities and mingling with their urban-dweller relatives.
The contemporary villager is no longer a traditional rice farmer who lives his/her life around a primarily agrarian existence with inadequate or misguided understandings of the civilized and larger world. ‘A rural middle class’ is a reflection of the identity revolution in process in Southeast Asia’s unfavorable regions influenced by a struggle around infrastructure justice, intercultural integration, and diffusion of technological innovations in the rural Southeast Asia.
Since the 1980s, basic education has been leveraged along with sanitation and other physical infrastructure in many villages. Currently, only around forty percent of jobs in the rural area of Southeast Asia are in the agricultural sector, and a quarter of the rural population has moved into the industrial and service sectors (See Chart 1). Differences in living standards and quality of lifestyle between the urbanite and the peasant have been reduced, although the general perception of rural backwardness still remains the same and has so for the last three decades. This marks the beginning of cosmopolitanism in the rural areas of Southeast Asia.
The rural cosmopolitan is a person who originates from the rural area and becomes a bearer of cultural versatility by turning their rural roots to some advantage, in either their home space or their non-rural place of destination (Gardner & Osella, 2003: 345). The rural middle class has intertwined their cultural roots with an urban lifestyle, while they still understand their origin and place within their communities and increasingly dignify their existence like other cosmopolitans.
In the future the time is coming for a reverse rural-urban cultural revolution. Penetration of ICT in to the village is not only supporting knowledge diffusion and economic opportunity for the rural middle class, it is also increasing a demand for greater connectivity among the rural residents and their relatives who work or live in the city. As a significant number of the villagers are already experienced and consume the tailor made local news and media in their own dialects, there will be more small scale local edutainment and community media to serve these particular groups of audiences. With better local logistics, connectivity and mobility, the rural culture and lifestyle will be moving closer and becoming diffuse as a part of the city life lived through their relatives, who live and work alongside the parochial urbanite.
Having foreign sons-in-laws is a rising trend, not only for Northeastern Thailand (Isaan region), where rural poverty still exists, but for other regions as well. This trend can be seen in the non-Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (exclusively among Koreans). ‘Foreign sons-in-law’ have received positive acceptance among the local folk, either because of their contributions of hard currency or simply due to the openness of the villagers towards foreign culture. They are very active in leveraging the physical means of living and shaping local attitudes. Currently, the majority of them are middle aged or of retirement age, but in the near future younger foreign sons-in-laws will become more visible, resulting from an increase in ICT connectivity and inter-cultural communication. The resources and returns of these global workers, together with their relatives and the other newcomers, will accelerate an emergence of rural cosmopolitanism.
Social development forums are often dominated by issues such as community welfare and poverty reduction. They tend to focus on the problems of the poor on the periphery, particularly the rural and urban poor led by public authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The emergence of the social well-being society concept, which has its foundation in Buddhism, is a new and Asian “Third Way” between neo-liberalism and socialism that takes into account the social and cultural capital inherent in traditional community and family structures, and paves the way for the role of the local sage, particularly in Thailand, while a Catholic version of local development agent comes through migrant philanthropy by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) (Opiniano, 2009).
Networks of grass-rooted movements on self-reliance among the rural middle class will be more active in order to re-negotiate on the range of social contracts, from basic rights to more weighty matters, like climate change. Sooner rather than later, the rural areas in Southeast Asia will increasingly be faced with an irreversible threat from government led mega-development projects. As just one example, there is a local campaign to reduce air pollution caused by the largest open lignite mine in Thailand at Mae Moh district in Lampang, which has destroyed the surrounding natural area, and has sacrificed local health and the environment for coal power production in support of national economic growth.
 The rural middle class identity was implied on Dr. Krissanapong Kirtikara’s interview in issue 3 of Trendnovation Southeast “Infrastructure Justice”.
 Comment of Martin Wheeler in the Kohn Kaen University National and International Conference 2011 Discussions (2011, January 27-29).