The Singlish word kiasu has been so overused that it is now a cliche to me. Sadly though many of my fellow Singaporeans still give truth to this overused term.
It makes me wonder if Singaporeans hold a monopoly on being kiasu. I am quite sure that at some point in my life I have fallen into this trap as well. Perhaps when I decided to grin and bear it and queue for something. Even while I was doing it I was embarrassed to be adding to the phenomenon and I comfort myself that I was doing it for someone else.
The Mr Bean character shows that being kiasu can be a very basic human trait around the world, but is probably not as abundantly practised as it is in Singapore. The humour is derived from the kiasu behaviour of Mr Bean who is totally self-absorbed and self-centred, and doesn’t give a hoot how this affects anyone else.
The classic definition of kiasu is afraid to lose, but I think it’s more of a case of, I want to win and deserve to win. I don’t think there is any real fear here. In a worldwide context it would be quite close to ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
The phenomenon of bad behaviour makes me not want to ever take another cruise from Singapore. The way the people rush at the buffet with make you hang your head in shame. It also makes me stay away from tour groups as well. It is embarrassing when a couple or family keeps the whole bus waiting, because they wanted to shop for another half hour. Usually these competitively priced tours intineries are mainly focused on shopping rather than the actual sights of the country.
The best way for me to illustrate kiasu behaviour is with these examples which can be hilarious at times when caught on video.
1. The man rocking his car up and down at the petrol kiosk in JB to get more petrol in? I wonder if that really makes a difference.
2. Trolleys being stolen from the supermarket. They probably figure that one dollar is a bargain. (In Singapore you now need to place a one dollar coin in a slot in order to get a trolley unlocked for use)
3. Dog-earred books with broken spines from being read cover to cover at Borders.
4. Teenagers hogging seats at Cafes for hours, after ordering just one drink. Leaving their bags on the chairs while they leave for a ‘study break’.
5. Parents hot-housing kids from as early at 15 months at pre-shool with the intention that they don’t fall back once they reach primary one as every other parent is doing this.
6. Renting a flat nearer the elite primary school of choice so that their kid can get in.
7. When you see a long winding queue there is probably a freebie at the end of it.
8. A wife standing in a parking lot to reserve it for her husband so that no one else can get it.
I could just go on and on, but I’ll stop here.
It’s truly embarrassing to see this behaviour when you are travelling abroad. You just don’t want to be associated as a Singaporean at that point. I hope visitors realize that not all of us partake or are proud of this behaviour. We are quite aware at how embarrassing it is. But sometimes I wonder if Singaporeans can be blamed when this behaviour is rewarded. It seems that the people who are the most kiasu at school or at work end up doing the best. This horrendous behaviour being rewarded makes it a thorn in our culture that annoyingly won’t go away too soon.