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:
- Most Chinese parents want the best for their children. So they would try
to give their children the best start in life. The parents will try to
do their best, including queuing overnight to get them into the best
nursery school. The parents will also give them the best things they
could possibly have in order not to lose out to the next kid. Maybe
the government should have an IC-based ranking system for children to
make the parents' job easier 8-)
- S'pore is the most successful example of the countries in the region,
thus a certain kind of arrogance and superiority develops in its people.
The government doesn't help the situation by adding fuel to the flame.
You can always see in the Straits Times how S'pore is always ranked
highly or favorably amongst other nations in the world. If people
think they are the best then they should deserve the best. If you ask
other people in the region, you will hear that most think S'poreans
have the most inflated ego.
- The "paper chase" syndrome. S'poreans are brought up in the an education
system that encourages students to strive for academic excellence. This
means that grades are the most important thing when you are a student.
No good grades equal to no smooth future. In order not to lose out in
school, students have to be very competitive. Extreme competitiveness
leads to kiasuism.
- I feel that S'pore is a fairly materialistic society. Status symbol is
perceived as important. S'pore has one of the highest concentration of
Mercedes and Rolax in the world. Looking at the recent discussion on
the net regarding the 5Cs 8-) 5Cs (condo, car, credit card, club, career
or cash) are supposedly the prerequisite for getting hitched in S'pore.
The last thing a person who is still single wants is to lose out to the
next single person 8-)
As for the result:
- One of the result of kiasu is that whenever there is a limited supply of
items in S'pore, inevitably extremely long queues or skyrocketing prices
will result. Take COE and real estate for example. COE stands for
certification of entitlement. It is a piece of paper that allows a
person or organization to own a vehicle. The system started in the 1989
and currently the price of this single piece of paper is approaching the
car itself. For a car with 1.0 to 1.6 liter engine, the COE is a
whopping S$48K! For the fear of not being able to get a space in the
S'pore roadway system, the price of COE has been bid to new astronomical
height by the kiasu people. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone just bid
only S$2 for the COE? 8-)
- Another result is that S'pore has become a very competitive economic
power since people tend to excel under this kiasu system. But the
side effect is that these people won't take chances. Unless government
gives the initiative, these people will tend to follow the safest
route. Also these people will tend not giving out information to other
people. Kiasu students and colleagues are the worst kind of people to
- As you might have guessed, kiasu and courtesy do not go hand in hand.
You will see the bumper sticker "Beware of the kiasu drivers" on the
cars. Kiasu drivers will usually go for that little edge to make life
of other driver frustrating. Maybe it's one of the reasons that motor-
cyclists tend to weave between cars to jockey for a better position or
gain that few seconds for not waiting in traffic. Also, you can see
the kiasu people in the restaurant. They are the people hogging the
food by putting them in their own plate. I think government is
pushing the "courtesy campaign" basically to keep these people in
check annually 8-)
- Because of this mentality, kiasu people tend to take advantage of most
situations. One example is that kiasu people usually go for the most
expensive items whenever buffets are offered, i.e. sushi and lobsters.
Then there are these people who constantly pushing this little "close
door" button on the elevators 8-)
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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