Kiasu Culture

September 19, 1994

When I first came to S'pore, a local friend of mine was trying to explain this concept of "kiasu" to me. "Kiasu" is in Hokkien and it translates directly to "afraid to lose out." She used the example of queuing up overnight for things such as tickets and special events. Two examples were the kiasu burger special at McDonald and the special edition Translink card (for those who are wondering, there were people queuing up overnight just to get these items). At first I had a hard time grasping the concept. But the longer I stay here, the more I believe that this kiasu culture is interwined with and inseparable from the S'pore society. Before I go any further, let me just say that the content of this article is purely my own personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the majority or any other living creature in this universe. Maybe except for the particular jelly-like species on the 3rd planet in the Demoron system where with their brain mainly composed of matters denser than the nearest quasar, they tend to gravitate to the nearest and most convenient opinion and suggestion 8-)

Actually, the exact meaning of kiasu is very vague and controversial. For some people, it is defined as not wanting to lose. For other people, it might be wanting to have more than others. Then there are people who think kiasu also include bad behavior when lost, i.e. unsportsmen-like conduct. One example of this was when a particular weight lifter decide to retire early when he didn't win the sport person of the year award. Some people even think kiasu also includes over-engineering. Things like putting extra drains on the road and drill holes in bicycles to save a few grams.

It's hard to say if the kiasu culture is the cause or the result. Let me do a little speculation on its possible causes:

As for the result:

Personally, I think this kiasu culture exists in all societies, especially the Chinese dominant ones. It's just that it is more pronounced in S'pore. Most S'poreans recognize and acknowledge this kiasu syndrome. The bright side is that S'pore can make fun of themselves. The books on this comic character, Mr. Kiasu, are on the best seller list in S'pore. Kiasu culture has its good side and bad side. But I personally think there is a need to find the balance between the two sides.


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