Thursday, March 3, 2011

The meanings of kiasu and wide usage of a colloquial term - beyond the boundaries of Singapore

KIASU is not an English word. It's origins are probably Singapore - Malaysia. But it has been popularised and often misused over the years.

The term "kiasu" made waves when it was recognised as a "word" by the Oxford Dictionary a decade ago.

Comprised of two Minnan / Fujian / Hokkien words "kia" and "su", it is the literal translation from "fear of" ... "losing out".  The abbreviation is K.S.

There is no clear definition or parameters of kiasu-ness.  The exact meaning of kiasu is broad, versatile, ambiguous and controversial.  There is no equivalent word in the English vocabulary, nor Mandarin Chinese for that matter, except to explain it with a string of adjectives.

Pronunciation: /ˈkiːəsuː/

from Chinese, 'scared to lose'    (SE Asian)

a grasping, selfish attitude.

(of a person)very anxious not to miss an opportunity; grasping.

For a start, perhaps taking the reverse perspective may help to explain the word more clearly.  The opposite of kiasu would normally include complacent, slack, lackadaisical, languid, careless and uninitiated attitudes and behaviour. The list is inexhuastive and varies according to situations.

While "kiasu" is widely used in Singapore and Malaysia, it is not a common word in traditional Taiwanese lingo even though the dorminant local dialect is also Minnan / Fujian / Hokkien. That was before the usage of the word became popularised and internationalised in recent years.

Kiasu invariably imparts more negative than positive connotations especially when it is deliberate and excessive and engaged in the competitive sense.  Nevertheless, the word could also be used in jest or viewed positively in certain cirumstances.  

In Singapore and many Asian countries, kiasu-ness has become an identifiable and unique characteristic that people lament and laugh about at the same time. To appreciate the origins of kiasu, one has to trace the history of Singapore. The largely illiterate and poor migrant population under a strong leadership had to overcome many hurdles in order to achieve its present day economic success. Through sheer diligence, perseverance and competitiveness, Singaporeans have come a long way to excel in what it does best. The "kiasu" trait was a key element in the formula for success.  

However, kiasu behaviour can undoubtedly be off putting and annoying to those who are not accustomed to such practices and culture. The followers or pursuers are usually individualistic, selfish and yearn to win at all costs. Too bad, if you lose out in the rat race!  

Kiasuism comes across as uncouth and rude behaviour. Besides not wanting to lose an opportunity (or even create one if possible), the kiasu kings and queens would strive to take more than others, more than what he/she deserves by hook or by crook.  But the methods employed are uncouth, crude and lack finesse.  


Here are some real life examples from personal encounters, revelations by residents and foreign visitors, as well as surveys :

* Speculators and investors queue up overnight to purchase a condominum under development in the hope of making a quick profit by reselling or add another asset to bequeath to their children in view of the shortage of land in desirable areas and expected price increase. We see this happening in high growth areas throughout history around the world, don't we?

* Secure a place for your child in a reputable elite school at least two years before enrolment date by volunteering your skills and services to the school. Some are willing to contribute material and financial assistance just to get there.

* Long waiting lines for tickets to special concerts, collection of vouchers for limited edition toys. Yes! Deprived folks they are!

* Parents pushing kids to excel in studies, force feed them with good food and additional tutoring classes. They also expect their kids to become well rounded in music, dance, sports without considering if they have the abilities or interest in such subjects. Forcing the kids to learn things that are ahead of his years even though there are signs that they are disinterested and could not cope.

* Queue jumpers who pretend to meet and chat with a friend in the waiting line and then cut and slip into the queue without any qualms are the worst of its kind.  

* Reserving multiple seats or more than you really need at food centres, public places, classrooms, you name it.  The proviso is that it is free and no deposit or financial cost is incurred in teh process.  Singaporeans have even coined a term called "chope" for this sort of reservation system. Anything in their possesion or within reach can be used - tissue paper, pen, book, umbrella, sunglasses can be used to stake your claim or make a booking for later use.  
* Going for buffet meals at posh restaurants and really eat all you can or more than what you can. The greedy ones have a strategy of waiting for refill of expensive seafood and delicacies and pile up their plates till they are overflowing from all sides.

* Adding features to your car, electronic gadgets and applications that are not required or hardly utilised. Improving the image of your house by renovating every few years, change cars, upgrade to a bigger house, and all other actions in line with "keeping up with the Joneses".

* Not sharing information on studies, work, or even where to get the best deals with classmates, casual friends or colleagues.

* Fear of the unknown probably make some kiasu people unfriendly and not want to talk to strangers or help someone in need.

* Road hogging and deliberate prevention of others cars from overtaking for fear of losing face.

Most kiasu behaviours are easy to spot and quite predictable. Sad to say, they are not very creative or imaginative coming up with tricks to get ahead. Most of these actions are probably quite harmless. Besides, kiasu people like to play safe and do not want to break the law.  They can look really staid and silly.


To be kiasu may not be all that bad. Sometimes it may be necessary to take intitiaves and extra precautions.  

For instance, to take up insurance, spread one's risks, diversify investments / commitments, put in place security measures and safeguards against hazards and natural disasters, may be considered as kiasu acts by those who live by the day and do not plan ahead.  More abhorent are those who do not work for their goals and try to find short cuts. 

Sportsmen train very hard, rare prodigy must be nurtured, nerds are highly driven to acquire knowledge and create new things for the world. Young eager beavers can sometimes be overzealous and excessive in their pursuit of knowledge, wealth, or spirituality. That's all fine as long as they do not intrude into others' space and achieve at the expense of others or their own lives. Some people are just naturally motivated to achieve high standards. It is for the common good of mankind to have such intelligent and driven people in the midst.

It would not be fair to say that kiasu behaviour is predominantly present in a single race, culture or country. There are traits of such behaviour everywhere. It depends on how keen or desperate people. They should learn to be cool, set priorities right and not let their greed get the better of them.  To suppress the urge to be kiasu, there are some wise sayings admonishing people not to go overboard as the results can be counterproductive.

Would you be offended if you are called kiasu as a person or as a part of a collective group. Most people will probably laugh it off if the comment is not intended to be malicious.

However, the liberal and extensive use of the term "kiasu" has led to its overusage.  Anything associated with anti-social and competitive behaviour can be misinterpreted as "kiasu" though there many be other more appropriate adjectives to fit the description. Ponder. Do not be kiasu.

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