What Does It Mean To Be Middle Class In Malaysia In 2017

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When Budget 2017 was unveiled last year, Malaysians were already coming to grips with the rising cost of living, soaring house prices and deep levels of debt.

While the federal budget consolidated current personal tax reliefs into a lifestyle relief and introduced two new reliefs to assist young families, some critics say that the key people driving the country’s economy – the middle-income and top earners – have been forgotten.

For example, one tax consultant said he expected lower level tax bands to be widened to provide the M40 – or the middle 40% – with extra disposable income.

It is believed that this group of Malaysians are the one struggling with rising costs of transportation, education, healthcare and interest charges on cars and housing loans. In the same breath, they are the ones who drive the private sector.

So, what does it mean to be among the middle 40%?

Defining the middle class

A straightforward answer can be derived from the definition of the M40 group which refers to households with a monthly income of between RM3,860 and RM8,319.

But definitions of the middle class include a wide degree of subjectivity. What constitutes the “middle class” differ across and within the social sciences. From the perspective of economists, the middle class has been defined using absolute or relative levels of income or a combination of the two.

Also, subjective measures look at those who self-identify as being part of this group based on their own perceptions and aspirations. This manner of identifying the middle class can be seen through polls conducted by the World Values Survey, Pew Global and Gallup.

The World Bank, in its Malaysia Economic Monitor 2014: Towards A Middle-Class Society, proposed a definition that includes those households earning more than the mean income.

The Statistics Department, in its latest findings dated 2014, put the average household income of the middle 40% at RM5,662.

M40 through the years
Average incomeRM2,660RM2,875RM3,282RM3,631RM4,573RM5,662
Source: Statistics Department

The World Bank, however, said 33% of all Malaysian households with a monthly income of more than RM5,919 in 2014 fell into the middle class or beyond.

Putting the numbers in context

Since 2014, economists and academics have believed the term “middle class” did not have the same meaning it had more than 10 years ago, citing the challenges faced by this group in coping with the demands of life today.

What makes this harder to gauge is while disposable income or savings is a good indicator of how many people “live comfortably”, Bank Negara Malaysia and the Statistics Department stated in a media report they do not track such data.

Ong Wooi Leng, a senior analyst at think tank Penang Institute, believes that the monthly household income unveiled during the 2016 budget is a well-received indicator to determine the M40 or middle-class household.

“However, it needs to be carefully defined,” she tells iMoney in an email interview. “The ideal income range for M40 needs to take into account other factors contributing to household expenses.”

She cited household size, education qualifications, occupation and residential location among the factors that could contribute to whether the income range set by the Malaysian government was feasible.

“For instance, a household of four living in the Klang Valley with an income of RM4,000 per month would be classified as urban poor due to the higher cost of living,” she said.

Here’s our estimates of how much a family of four living around the Klang Valley would need to get by on a monthly basis:

Average monthly expenditure
Home loanRM1,342.75
Car loanRM1,195.76
Credit cardRM968.94
Clothing and footwear (adults)RM124
Communications (phone and Internet)RM600
General expenses for 2 childrenRM1,000
Overall totalRM7,769
Source: Statistics Department, Life Insurance Association of Malaysia, iMoney Millennial Survey.


This is just a rough estimate for a family of four to live comfortably in an urban environment. This would place them at the upper ranges of the M40 group and is certainly more than the average.

However, this does not factor in savings and other miscellaneous costs such as daycare fees, among others, which could easily cost upwards of RM1,500 a month.

Stuck in the middle?

According to Ong, the middle class faces two challenges: First, these households may face a tougher time landing their first homes. This despite government aid for affordable housing such as PR1MA for households with income not more than RM15,000.

The Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey Report published by the Statistics Department found that M40 households recorded a double-digit growth in median monthly household income from an annual 6.3% in 2013 to 11.8% in 2014.

“But, property prices have skyrocketed since 2010. House prices around Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Penang have drastically risen by 15.6%, 22.7% and 15.6% respectively year-on-year in 2013.

“Despite the fact that the hike has been moderate in the last two years, it has reached a level where younger households cannot afford to own their first home,” she tells iMoney, adding that the risk-to-debt service ability could be higher if the monthly income did not keep pace with the spike in house prices.

Second, middle-income households would be more cautious and softer on their expenditure due to the weekly floating fuel prices.

“Consumer sentiment would be high and M40 households who are largely tertiary educated could be more watchful to the changes in global oil prices. Those living in the urban area may opt for alternative transport such as GrabCar and Uber services for the ease of mobility and saving in petrol expenses,” she said.

Upskill, adapt or lose out

Needless to say, in the name of making ends meet, the middle class may need to work multiple jobs. We have written extensively on avenues where one can generate a side income, from ride-sharing to blogging to freelancing on platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer.com.

“Given the advancement of e-commerce, it may not be impossible. Many start-ups have created platforms for full-timers looking for a second income,” said Ong.

But even before one talks about multiple income streams, perhaps it is best to begin with paying down debt. Our survey showed millennials being neck-deep in debt, with credit cards being one of the main culprits. Household debt is also at an all-time high.

There is no easy way out. Sometimes, drastic measures may need to be implemented and we are not just talking about foregoing your morning Starbucks fix – you might need to alter your diet and go vegetarian and even rely on public transport to get around the city.

If property is on your mind, then expectations also have to change. One opportunity that might provide for some relief is PR1MA. If you are not selected, as the affordable housing scheme runs on a ballot system, then purchasing a property within your means might just be a feasible option.

But for households dreaming of upward mobility, the only route is upskilling.

“Upskilling is vital to ensure that the Malaysian workforces stays competitive and grows at the cutting edge of innovation and technology.

“Human capital development is believed to be the only solution to move this group of households upward,” Ong tells iMoney.

While there may not be an aggressive push to upskill from government or private sectors, you can certainly take the steps to further your education. One option is to use your EPF Account 2 and go back to school to do post-graduate studies such as an MBA.

If you are tight with money and prefer to leave your EPF account alone, consider enrolling for online courses. There are many platforms such as edX and Coursera where you can either learn something for free or pay a slight fee.

While these may not be as intensive as pursuing an MBA in a reputed college or university, you still get to take away new skills and use what you’ve learned to either seek a better paying job or even negotiate for a higher salary or even work your way to a promotion.

In economics, it is believed that it is easier for a low-income country to be middle-income, than it is for a middle-income country to be a higher-income one. In fact, only 13 of 101 middle-income economies in 1960 reached high-income status by 2008.

While Malaysia may be on the cusp of moving into high-income territory, its citizens will have to continue cutting costs as the country navigates through choppy economic waters.

Ong believes the answer for the country to step out of the middle-income trap is to retain local talent and recruit top foreign expertise to train the existing workforce.

For the average Malaysian, the first step is simply taking charge of his or her finances and being prudent with their spending.

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