Singaporeans are Kiasu: Is It Good or Bad for Singaporeans?

The Barrett Values Centre and aAdvantage Consulting had conducted a survey among 2,000 Singapore residents to ask them to pick the top 10 values and behavioural traits that they think best described the Singapore society today and what we we would like our society to be.

The top value that Singaporeans think about ourselves is being kiasu. We also feel that we are competitive and self-centred, among others.

Academics interviewed thought that there was nothing bad about Singaporeans being kiasu. Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, of the Institute of Policy Studies, was quoted by The Straits Times, to have said that being kiasu is a “manifestation” of our value of “achievement-orientation”. Paulin Straughan, of the National University of Singapore, thinks that we would “happily say we are kiasu” and that she isn’t “sure if it is necessarily a reflection of how negative we are on ourselves.”

I am not sure what the rest of Singaporeans think. Do you agree? When we call out to someone – “he or she is kiasu” – do we mean it in a positive and happy sense? 

The thing is we have never really had an open conversation about what being kiasu means. We have mostly accepted the idea that we are kiasu and live with it, even if we are happy or unhappy about it. We have come to accept being kiasu as part of being Singaporean.

According to the Singlish Dictionary, kiasu refers to “one who is afraid to lose out to someone else, often to the point of selfishness; an over-cautious person” and also being “afraid of losing out to someone else, and therefore often behaving selfishly and disregarding others.” Based on this definition, is selfishness and a disregard for others something that we should be think positively and be happy about? I am not too sure. I am curious as to what Singaporeans really think, and not what these “experts” have been quoted as saying. It almost feels contrived once again.

Actually, the best way to understand whether being kiasu is good or bad is to look at the effects. 

As the experts have pointed out, being kiasu does have its benefits. Because we are kiasu, we constantly strive for the best for our children and we want them to go to a good school. Because our government leaders are kiasu, they have developed the Singapore economy to one which gives Singapore the highest GDP per capita in the world and we are consistently and continuously ranked  number one in surveys and rankings across the globe. More humourously, we would queue for hours to buy the Hello Kitty soft toy at McDonalds – who can forget that!

At the same time, we have also started complaining about what being kiasu has made of us. Because we are kiasu, we want our children to go to the best schools, we would volunteer for the schools deemed good years before our children need to start primary school education and get upset that in spite of the volunteering, the children still don’t get into the schools. We put our children through hours of tuition and write to the forum to share about the stresses of doing so and plead to the Ministry of Education to reduce the stresses of our children. We would ask teachers not to give allow another student, whom we felt would pose a challenge to our kid, a place in the same CCA – this I hear from someone is prevalent in some schools. We become upset that even though our child scores an A for his subject, it’s not more than 90%. We blame the system for causing us to be kiasu – if our child doesn’t score 4As for his or her ‘A’ Levels, he or she will not be able to enter a local university. How do our children feel though?

At work, because we are kiasu, we strive to want to do better than our colleagues, so we take their ideas as our own, and we “backstab” them so that we will be able to be in our bosses’ favour. We accept this as being part of the work culture, get upset over it and complain to others, then do the same thing back to others, because we think – since we are already subjected to it, why not just do it to someone else since this is what everyone else does anyway?

Of course, being kiasu also means that because we are scared to lose, we become more competitive. It is in the government’s interest to groom a population which is kiasu and they know they have to start young – which is why they have made the school environment one which is so focused on winning – rankings, medals and whatnot – so that we will are taught from young to be kiasu, and competitive, that by the time we start work, this “work ethic” is ingrained in our DNA, such that we will continue to strive for economic growth. The government will necessarily want to encourage Singaporeans to be kiasu because of the perceived benefit that it has for the economy.

Already, from the illustrations shown here, we can see that being kiasu has caused unnecessary emotional and psychological stresses and has caused certain moral degradation to our characters. We have also learnt to accept these as necessary, real and the norm.

If we look at the Singaporean society, we have learnt not to give up seats to the elderly and pregnant ladies on the trains. How many times have examples been sited that when a pregnant lady walks into the train, all of a sudden, everyone looks like they are in various states of sleep? We have learnt not to move into the center of the train because we are worried that we wouldn’t be able to get out, or that people won’t let us squeeze through? Both pedestrians and motorists complain about cyclists being in their way and want cyclists out of their way – which means they would literally have to either carry the bicycles to walk on pavements or to put their bicycles on their cars and drive to walk, which would render bicycles quite useless and the problem solved! The number of people who would petitioned against the government to build a nursing home next to their estate is shocking! There are so many people who worry that the value of their homes will drop, simply because of a nursing home!

One of the values cited in the study as one of the top values of the Singapore society is that Singaporeans are self-centred and this isn’t too far from the truth. And I think at this point, we need to really look at ourselves here. We might not give up our seats now because we are not pregnant and so we won’t understand how a pregnant lady feels – how she has to stand on the train for the next 30 minutes on the way to work, with her legs and back feeling the strain. Yet, when you are 30, and then pregnant, you would expect that someone gives his or her seat up for you, because even if you wouldn’t want to empathise with how the pregnant lady had felt and thus refused giving up your seat, you expect someone else to think about your needs. Why should they? We do not want to give up our seats to the elderly or having a nursing home built next to our block because right now, we are still “young” and thus we choose not to empathise with the needs of the elderly. They can clear the tables at the food court for all I care. Actually, let me rationalise this – you know what, they want to clear the tables. They want a job. They want to be active. Even though they can choose to be active and go for a walk in the park or go for a stroll with their friends, they actually do want to clean the tables because it makes them feel more active. They actually want to touch our saliva on the utensils and the bits of bones that we spit out from our mouths. They actually really want to do that. Because we aren’t old yet. And when we get old, we would want a respectable lifestyle where we can retire and go for a stroll in the park. If we need a nursing home, the government better jolly well build one next to the train station so that my children can still come and visit me and so that I can still go to other places if I need to. It’s all about me. It’s all about us. And let’s admit it, we really think we only about ourselves and until the time comes when we need someone to understand us, we wouldn’t bat an eyelid but to expect them to think about us. And if they don’t we lament the loss of compassion in society, choosing to forget the very lack of care that we have shown for others.

But why do we hold such attitudes? Why have we allowed ourselves to be so inhuman?

I have previously discussed about why Singaporeans have learnt to become kiasu. This is in large part due to the government and the policies that were implemented. Because of past policies, we have learnt to lose our pride and passion and we have learnt to learnt to be self-centred and blame others for our plight, which are also two of the top 10 values highlighted by the survey as what Singaporeans think of our society. The government needs to look into how they can ensure that policies do not inadvertently created a Singapore where selfish needs drive our economy. Already, the government is starting to look at that. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had formed a committee to look into this, to be headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. Already, Mr Heng has also introduced the discussion of values into schools, so this is a start.

But what can we do, my fellow Singaporeans?

Perhaps we might say that this is nothing wrong. As quoted by human resources executive Sim Wei Ling, she said that, “many other countries in the world are also achievement-oriented” and in that sense, it is acceptable that Singaporeans are kiasu because everyone else in the world is doing it! But I have seen societies where people show respectable behaviours. In Korea and Japan, you do not sit on the priority seats, even during peak hours, because they are strictly reserved for the elderly and the people show respect for their elderly. Not only that, they show respect for one another as well. In the Nordic countries, those in the lower income brackets are paid a salary that still affords them a living standard that is respectable. The income inequality is narrow because their citizens pride themselves on being equitable societies, where even those considered less well off or fortunate are also treated with respect and value.

In Singapore, we are only starting these conversations. Should there be nearly 300,000 people who are earning less than $1,000 per month? Should the elderly continue to work even if when collecting the trays at food courts, their hands are shaking vigorously? Because we are kiasu, we have learnt to ignored the plight of others as we learn to strive forward for ourselves. Because we are scared to lose, we lose sight of others and trample over others so that we can preserve our economic value. But is this the right thing to do? Many of us are starting to feel it’s not. Many of us are starting to have questions about how we feel might feel empty or lost. Of course we would. When we forget that we live in a larger society where the plight of others also inadvertently affect ours, we stop caring. It creates an emotional void within us.

As we take the conversation forward and as we work with our government to embark on this new chapter for Singapore, we have to ask ourselves this question – what do we want to be as people? We might want to do the best for ourselves but how can we do so without causing our morality to be compromised? How can we do well for ourselves but not hurt others in the process. In fact, how can we do well for others and help others along so that we can progress together?

We have to ask ourselves – how can I learn to understand what the other person is going through and how I can be more understanding and accepting towards the person?

How can I understand that the pregnant lady or the elderly need to have a seat because they are really tired? How can I think beyond myself and realise that I don’t actually feel as tired as they do, and can stand for the next 15 minutes before I reach my stop? Because we have learnt to protect our needs, we think that this 15 minutes of sitting is something we need to protect. How can we learn to let go of our self-protection mentality to be open and respectful to the needs of others?

How can we learn to understand that if a person appears rude, it is not because he or she is rude but because he or she might be autistic and does not have the social skills to manage his or her reactions? How can learn to be empathetic to others and to take our time to understand others?

Because we are in a rush all the time, we forget to take the time to slow down to understand things. How do we learn to take a step back to think?

How do we learn to show compassion to another person because he or she doesn’t mean to do anything to hurt us, and that even if he or she does, we can take a step back to understand and then forgive the person for what is done? How can we not get angry when someone accidentally steps on our shoes at the back and to not turn around to look at the person angrily? How do we learn to stop to not think from a self-protective way but to learn that, you know what, sometimes people might make mistakes, sometimes people don’t mean to do something, so we do not need to get angry at them.

You know what, someone accidentally trips me, it’s ok. It’s an accident. I do not need to think that the person has made me “lose face” and thus I should get angry and stare at the person. It’s ok. Let’s carry on.

You know what, let’s calm down and carry on.

Singapore is embarking on a new chapter. In this new era, we have to decide for ourselves what is the Singapore we want to see. Is it one where because of our self-centred needs, we learn to step over others and hurt others so that we can strive for what we want? Or is it one where we learn to respect and support others and help each other along, even if we continue to strive for ourselves? 

As mentioned, it is in the government’s interest to ensure that there is a vigour of kiasuism among Singaporeans, because of their perceived idea that kiasuism will motivate Singaporeans to strive and work for economic growth. I hope that the government will be able to balance that with the need to grow a caring, compassionate and supportive society. I know that the government knows that this is important because they have reiterated this several times over National Day and I look forward to the way our policies are restructured to account for these values. I would also like to suggest to the government that if we learn to grow the passion of Singaporeans towards what they do, we would not need to rely on kiasuism to motivate them. If Singaporeans are passionate, they will believe in what they do and will have the natural commitment to want to strive and excel. The government needs to give Singaporeans the space to be passionate and to speak up for what they believe in. In the long term, a country where its people have a natural commitment towards the country and what they do will be more sustainable as people continue to believe in and invest in the future. Then, the government won’t have to keep introducing policies to invigorate the people but the people will introduce new opportunities to invigorate the country. 

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7 comments

  1. Aira

    This is a very critical,bitter,honest,sincere,brave review of one own’s community & identity. And I salute you for that.

  2. Pingback: The Idea of “Kaisu” | Fisher Global Experiences
  3. Blah...

    Selfish, self-centered, self-serving. Others could wither and die around you and you wouldn’t even batter an eyelid. I hold doors open for folks behind me and they looked at me blankly as though it is my duty to hold the door open for them. Most don’t even mention a thank you. One took several seconds to realize I was doing something nice and only mentioned thank you much later. No – I am (glad I’m) not a Singaporean.

    • ckline

      At least they’re actually acknowledging it, rather than turning a blind eye like, say, the Japanese? the Americans? I am not Singaporean, but this article shows at least a level of self criticism that isn’t often found elsewhere.

  4. Maria

    Giving a cold stare like you did some horrific crime while you were merely trying to be a good samaritan is your idea of an acknowledgement? Singaporeans are a-holes when it comes this sort of thing. But Americans? Japanese? They are in general very grateful and go out of their way to thank you verbally with a genuine smile. Sorry but your claims about them are highly suspect. On the other hand I can say what you claimed is true for majority of Singaporeans. That’s just how Singaporeans are, selfish. They are quite proud of this attitude, I should know as I have been there for nearly a year.

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