The Cliche of Being Kiasu in Singapore

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.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore & recently cancer too.
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8 Responses to The Cliche of Being Kiasu in Singapore

  1. Pingback: The Kiasu Phenomenon Caught on YouTube | Tiny Island

  2. Maria says:

    When I think of kiasu, it’s usually transportation-related. For example, drivers idling on the side of the road by the ERP gantries, waiting for the reduced toll rate to kick in; people on the MRT pushing onto the train without letting the riders off first; and the general mayhem on the highways (tailgating comes to mind!)

    I don’t think Singapore has a monopoly on this kind of behaviour, though. It’s pretty widespread. It seems that everyone wants to win, and that means everyone else must lose.

    Thanks for honouring my request. 🙂

    • bookjunkie says:

      Oh yes those definitely go on the list too. I guess they were so common & rampant I forgot. I noticed that where the population is denser behaviour gets worse….usually cities.

  3. Crystal says:

    I’m curious about the renting a flat near an elite primary school…I thought there was a lottery system and that they weren’t neighborhood-based?

    The quality level of a school system is a huge factor for many families when renting/buying in the US. And unfortunately, it often makes homes in those areas far more expensive than ones in surrounding areas. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to choose where you live based upon the quality of education your child will get. Ravi and I grew up 4 towns or so away from each other…and the difference in quality of education was astounding. I often wish my mom had put a little more thought into where we were living and how good the education offered by that district was as opposed to just finding a cheap apartment with a short commute to her work because school is school.

    In the US you (usually) don’t have to pay for a shopping cart. But many grocery stores have these electronic lock things on the wheels. If you get X distance from the store, the wheels lock and the cart is immovable. However, the set-up in Singapore would make that tricky…most of the grocery stores that employ this are suburban and have large outdoor parking lots. (see the 4th picture down in this entry to see what I mean…

    Teenagers being selfish asshats is a truism the world over. It seems to be a biological imperative, sadly. But I don’t see them hogging Starbucks and McDonald’s and such back home the way they do here–is it a privacy thing? I think statistically most 2 parent households in the US are ones where both parents work, so it’s generally easy to have alone time after school. Or perhaps there’s a cultural difference where most (and I say most, not all) Americans have a strong notion of privacy and a person’s bedroom as a private spot not to intrude upon? (I have no idea of the SG version of this, which is why I ask). Do they really have nowhere else to go? Does no one go to a library?

    The Borders phenomenon is a huge sore spot for me. Ravi and I mostly use Kindles these days, but Elanor needs physical books. Browsing the kid’s section at Borders is horrifying…so many of the books are damaged from people treating it like a library! Broken spines, torn pages (in the kids books), obvious signs of chewing and wear. It’s not that E won’t destroy the book with love regardless…there’s no such thing as a toddler book in good condition in my home…but I’d like them to start off without other children’s saliva and tears in them.

    I think “kiasu” things I’ve seen back home are

    –People who flash their high beams at you to move out of the lane so they can speed…especially when you’re already doing above the speed limit and in no way impeding flow of traffic

    –The way any plane (any place in the world, really) disembarks. Dudes, there’s only 1 exit for coach class…yanking your bag down and blocking the aisle so no one else can get their bag is not helping anyone…including yourself. You’ll eventually get off…there’s no risk of being left on the plane. Sit down and chill out!

    –Watching perfectly able bodied people shove onto an elevator instead of letting the mom with the stroller (who needs to use the elevator) on instead (even when she was there first)–I speak from experience.

    So many others, I’m sure, but I’m a bit tired so I’m not recalling them at the moment.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I don’t know the exact details but I do know 2 people who rented flats for a year just so their kids could get into the convent and top primary school near by. Maybe this is a prerequisite even before the lottery thing kicks in. I must find out more. Now I am quite curious about it myself. Googled and found this on the Ministry of Education website FAQ section, where proximity to schools seems to matter quite a bit:

      Proximity of Home to School

      I have purchased a yet-to-be completed property and should be moving in after the property is completed, can I make use of the new home address for the purpose of registration?

      Yes. The new home address can be used provided that you are able to produce evidence from the relevant authority that you have committed to the purchase of this property. In the case of private property, parents must produce the original copy of the Sales and Purchase Agreement. The date of commitment by the developer in T.O.P (Temporary Occupation Permit) must not be later than 31 Dec 2012. In the case of HDB flat, the document issued by the HDB. Parents must move into the new property within two years of the child’s entry into Primary One otherwise the child will be transferred out of the school.

      My house is more than 2km from the school I intend to register my child. Can I still register my child at the school?

      Yes, you can register your child at any school of your choice. However if there are more applications than vacancies, then balloting will be conducted. Balloting will be conducted according to the following order of priority:

      Children living within 1 km of the school of choice;
      Children living between 1 km and 2 km of the school of choice;
      Children living outside 2 km of the school of choice.
      How can I find out the actual distance between my school of choice and my residence?

      Parents may check with the schools directly on the distance between their home and the schools after 17 June 2010. Alternatively, parents may visit Singapore Land Authority’s OneMap SchoolQuery Service for a list of schools within 1km and 2km of your address.


      That wheel lock system on trolleys sounds good.

      I think perhaps their homes are not condusive for studying or they just like hanging out with their friends while they study. Makes me wish the cafes would place the reserve signs like they used to – just to discourage this hogging of seats. It can’t be good for business.

      I have even seen parents making the kids read the whole book and coaching them as well. It’s quite annoying and totally kiasu. These parents certainly don’t look like they can’t afford to buy the book. I think general browsing is ok though, just as long as the book is handled carefully and not damaged. I am surprised Borders Singapore has not gone bankrupt as well.

      Yeah I always chill on the plane….I don’t know why people want to stand for so long while the plane is taxiing just so they can be the first to get off.

  4. Eunice says:

    I’ve also seen some examples where Singaporeans queue up for freebies, or buy Happy Meals for its free toys. That’s reallyyyyyyy KIASU okayyyy! ._.

  5. Pingback: Kiasu in Singapore | Box 53B

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