Friday, 22 June 2007

Kiasu Or What Lah?

Kiasu is an Hokkien adjective meaning fear of losing, although before I read up on the word, I would have defined it as "pushy, edgy". It's been called a uniquely Singaporean national characteristic but I've worked in China and they have something very similar. It's described as pejorative because of its negative connotation but locals will freely acknowledge it so I would say it's just an accurate description.

One widespread expression of kiasu is a keen interest in offers, cheap deals, gifts, vouchers, discounts, lower interest rates, investment schemes, stock trading, lotteries and any other method to get something for less effort. MLMs ("hey, it's MLM not a pyramid scheme") abound and get pushed at work.

The immediate impression for ang mo is one of general pushiness and lack of courtesy. Queuing is a bit hit and miss. Bus stops are a free for all, lottery ticket queuing is patient and ordered. The Free Fruit table at work turned into a melee of pawed fruit and people leaving with armfuls (some brought bags) despite the 1 piece per person intention [I ended up hanging back and just asked someone leaving with a whole bunch of bananas for one - how kiasu is that?]. The supermarket is Okay although if a new till opens up there'll be a stampede. MRT platforms have lines marked for queues either side of the doors to permit people to exit first but it's poorly heeded and at rush hour you can end up being pushed back on the train. Trying to reserve seats or tables at busy eateries with umbrellas or packets of tissues is another trick.

An interesting side effect is that it works reciprocally; people expect you to push your way though as required, so in elevators, if you are at the back when the doors open, you'd better push your way out or someone playing the control panel like a church organ will have the doors closed on you. I've had people leap in at my destination floor and press the Door Close button before I've even got off. Same with buses & MRT; any notion of having a quick look round to see if someone wants to get past is rare - I've heard people actually complain "Why didn't they get off sooner?". Bus drivers will drive past a bus stop unless someone at the stop makes it pretty clear they want to get on - it really is a Demand Stop system.

Kiasu presumably contributes to the reliance on mobiles and text messages. Customers expect to be able to talk to you anytime (so every meeting is interrupted by someone's mobile) or called back instantly otherwise. Managers expect their staff to behave this way. It sounds like a Customer-Comes-First attitude but I think it's just culturally-validated impatience.

So Singapore is an experiment in interpersonal capitalism. In theory, the pushier people out compete the others, but what if everyone is equally pushy? You would be back to equality of opportunity but with fewer social graces. Hmmm.