Kiasu-ism - a Singaporean culture?

Edward B. Tyler defines culture as “the complex whole which includes … and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man (and woman) as a member of society”(Tylor, 1889). In this sense, I think Kiasu-ism can be defined as a Singaporean culture.

“Kiasu” is a word, though commonly used in many Asian countries, applies most to the Singaporean context and, often, one of the first few words that foreigners pick up in Singapore. It is not surprising that it has now been added to the oxford dictionary as an English word(Oxford University Press).

In a recent survey conducted by aAdvantage and British-based Barrett Values Centre, 2000 local residents were polled to see how they perceive the Singapore society today. ‘Kiasu’ was the top choice for the vast majority of the respondents in the survey(Chan, 2012).

Originating from the Hokkien dialect, Kiasu can be literally translated as ‘afraid of losing out’(Julia Sherstyuk). Singapore’s insistence on meritocracy resulted in its expulsion from Malaya in 1965. Speaking at the National Achievers’ Congress 2012, Robert Kiyosaki cited Kiasu-ism as a possible reason for Singapore’s meritocratic rise as a nation(Law, 2012).

However, one cannot dispute that there are negative connotations of this quality. Since the government rewards an individual based on his merit, Singaporeans have become obsessed with doing all that is possible to keep themselves ahead of their peers. This obsession has intensified with the influx of foreign talent due to globalisation.

In today’s highly competitive society, parents are going to great lengths to ensure that their children have all opportunities for success. Besides forking out on pre-school education, they are ever willing to move houses to increase their chance of enrolling their children in top primary schools which known for producing top Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) performers. They also tend to send their children to various enrichment classes to enable them to have an edge over their peers. It is not surprising that Singaporean parents spend around $6000 on enrichment classes(Koh, 2012). Technology has also helped foster Kiasu-ism among parents with kiasuparents.com, a platform for ‘concerned’ parents to ask questions regarding parenting and education in Singapore, which also provides another means for parents to keep track of their children’s potential rivals and understand how to outperform them(ChiefKiasu, 2011).

The Kiasu mentality has also introduced queuing, for practically anything in Singapore, be it for a freebie, discounted goods or simply good food. The longer the queue, the better the quality of the product or service; so a typical Kiasu Singaporean is likely to choose a restaurant with a long queue, even when another in the vicinity has plenty of available seating.

Another prevailing aspect of Kiasu-ism in eateries and hawker centres is the concept of ‘chope-ing’, where people use tissue packets, umbrellas or other items to reserve seats before they go off to buy their food(Yeoh, 2011). The concept of chope-ing is widely accepted, particularly in the Central Business District (CBD) areas during lunchtime, where it is common in eateries to see seats with tissue packets. This practice is understandable in situations when a person goes for lunch alone and does not want to be left standing with the plate of food he had bought; however, one would struggle to understand the logic in situations when people go for lunch in a group, when it is possible for one person to sit at the table while the others get their lunch. Chope-ing, though uniquely Singaporean, might have its roots from the conservative Asian culture that does not enjoy speaking up. With chope-ing, there is less of a need to ask a complete stranger if you can share his table; instead one is able to reserve his seat prior to buying his food. As a result, you can even argue that chope-ing has reduced social cohesion as the likelihood of sitting next to a stranger and striking up a conversation is greatly reduced.

Kiasu-ism, though may be frowned upon by many societies, makes Singaporeans unique. Kiasu-ism enables us, as a society, to reach greater heights as we try to outperform one another. It is for this reason that I feel that, in a competitive environment such as in Singapore, being Kiasu is more beneficial rather than detrimental to our lives.



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Chan, R. (2012, August 23). 'Kiasu' is top value in Singapore society, survey finds. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from Straits Times: http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/being-kiasu-top-value-singapore-society-survey-finds-20120823

ChiefKiasu. (2011, June 5). About KiasuParents.com. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from Kiasu Parents: http://www.kiasuparents.com/kiasu/content/about-kiasuparentscom-0

Julia Sherstyuk. (n.d.). KIASU: Singaporean by Origin, Global in Meaning. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from 103rd Meridian East Magazine: http://meridian103.com/issue-7/made-in-singapore/kiasu/

Koh, M. (2012, March 3). Parents, why so kiasu? Retrieved September 15, 2012, from The New Paper: http://www.tnp.sg/content/parents-why-so-kiasu

Law, M. (2012, June 3). Being 'kiasu' is Singapore's strong suit: Kiyosaki. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from Yahoo! Singapore Finance: http://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/being-kiasu-singapore-strong-suit-035654477.html

Oxford University Press. (n.d.). Kiasu. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from Oxford Dictionaries: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/kiasu

Tylor, E. B. (1889). Primitive culture. Henry Holt and Company.

Yeoh, S. (2011, June 1). The Art of Reserved Seating. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from FreshGrads: Graduates with fresh ideas: http://www.freshgrads.sg/index.php/articles/news-a-opinions/opinions/1260-the-art-of-reserved-seating.html

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