Is Singapore suffering from #FOMO?
I moved to Singapore from London nearly two years ago and I’d only been on the island for a few days when I had my first experience of “kiasu”. It was a Sunday afternoon and after a couple of hours exploring the heritage neighbourhoods of Kampong Glam and Bugis, I headed to the MRT (train) station weighed down from the dense tropical heat ready to go to my air-conditioned new home.
Sure the station was busy and feeling lazy I squeezed into a queue of about 10 people for a lift going down to the train platform. There was an air of anticipation as the lift cranked its way up to the ground floor level. As the lift opened its doors, the queue surged chaotically forward and once the last possible person had crunched in, the lift doors shut with a raucous ‘ding’. People inside did not attempt to make space for me to join the ride, nor did they feel obliged to keep the doors open. They swished down looking on their smartphone displays without noticing that I was left on the concourse, stunned.
In Britain, there is an emphasis on being overly polite, formal and to a certain extent, deferential. Unfamiliar with such ostensible lack of consideration, I found my fellow travellers incredibly rude. I soon learned that this is what it is to be “kiasu”.
The word Kiasu stems from the Hokkien word (a Chinese dialect) ‘kia’, which means afraid, and ‘su’, which means to lose: fear of losing out. In 2007, the word was included in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it’s defined as ‘…a grasping, selfish attitude’.
“You’ve got to stay hungry and you’ve got to be ahead of the curve”
Curious, I researched on ‘Kiasuism’ a little. Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the NUS (National University of Singapore) describes that kiasu is a form of survival instinct. Singapore is a young nation (52 years) and according to him, the small island nation is ‘vulnerably’ surrounded by neighbours who are culturally different: “It’s always been drilled into the minds of Singaporeans that you’ve got to be self-reliant. You’ve got to stay hungry and you’ve got to be ahead of the curve… the need to stay ahead has always been part of the social psyche.”
In layman’s terms: #FOMO “Fear of missing out” – Singaporeans hate missing out and love a good bargain. If you encounter a long winding queue, chances are there is a freebie at the end of it. Singaporeans themselves joke about their ‘elbows out’ mentality at buffet meals, piling their plates as high as possible. And going to a hawker centre means quickly getting accustomed to the Singlish word ‘chope’, which means reserving a table while getting food by putting something such a packet of tissues or your umbrella.
“Nobody likes it done to them, and yet many quite happily practise it”
The concept of kiasu is of course controversial as a behaviour. Nobody likes it done to them, and yet many quite happily practise it. I saw people reacting to situations differently, some are left at awe or amusement, while others react annoyed, embarrassed or left feeling furious.
The 2015 National Values Assessment survey revealed that Singaporeans feel they are a competitive bunch and self-centred. They also listed kiasu as their top 10 perception about themselves. On the other hand, when asked the values and behaviours that best describe themselves, family relationships, friendships and being caring and honest all appeared in the top 10.
This shows that Singaporeans are keenly self-aware about the difficulty in finding a balance between getting ahead in life without eroding their society’s largely positive value system.
“Only by being number one can we survive”
I talked to my Singaporean work colleague Nicole who recently became a mother to a lovely baby boy. Nicole is a self-proclaimed ‘kiasu-parent’: “I started to research for a good pre-school when my boy turned 3 months old”. Nicole has also hired a private Chinese tutor and her boy is already signed up for extra English classes (even before he can mumble ‘a’ word in any language).
“I realised that I have to give him the best that I can. I do not wish to let my child lag behind other children in a city as competitive as Singapore,” revealing that would cause her stress.
Nicole believes being kiasu is key to Singapore’s success. “Our forefathers survived by being competitive, and therefore as a parent we need to instil this spirit in our children from an early age.” It appears she has no choice growing up in a country with no natural resource: “There is no escape because being competitive is Singapore’s only resource. There is no water, no food, no land – only by being number one can we survive.”
This conversation left me stunned yet again. So this means that kiasu isn’t simply the #FOMO of an Instagram generation. Kiasu, it seems, is a deeply-rooted belief. Moreover, it’s a logic that only by being ambitious and thriving to be the best will you (and your country) survive. Is Singapore the most ambitious country in the world?
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