‘Kiasu’ in Singapore

Singapore – looking towards the CBD and over the Padang (playing field), with the purple lights.  The well lit roads are all part of the F1 race route and you can see one of the stands to the bottom left.

I am back on the road again after 6 weeks of virtual house arrest following some fairly vicious bone carpentry. My first trip out of Australia is back to Singapore, a country I know very well and I am again staying at the hotel with the satanic toilet (http://wp.me/p7wOIN-5o). This time, I am limping a bit and I’m supposed to be using my cane, but I am far too vain to be caught with it by anyone I know.

The marina bay sands casino (and hotel); it’s known locally as ‘the surfboard’ 

When you live in Singapore as a foreigner, one of the first terms you learn is “Kiasu” … It is a Chinese word in the Hokkien dialect that defines anxious and selfish behaviour and means ‘scared to lose’ or, ‘FOMO’ to all you millennials. My other favourite daughter, who actually speaks the language, tells me that a related term is “Kiasi” or the extreme fear of death – related because missing out on something is apparently just as serious as dying. A state of Kiasi might apparently cause a person to lose their sense of justice and righteousness and act in way that was normally alien to them as exemplified when the store doors are open for the Chinese new year sales.   All of this eastern culture can be a bit confusing for the newbies who try to reconcile Asian linguistic nuance and mysticism with the ultra modern architecture looming over the traditional colonial buildings.

The term ‘Kiasu’ sums up the predominantly Chinese attitude towards living competitively here. Currently, the Island is gearing up for the Formula 1 races (next week) and the locals are already acting like they are practising their standing starts. I’ll give you an example: if you are walking towards an escalator and there’s someone approaching from another direction; even if they are further from the thing than you, you can guarantee that they will quicken their pace and attempt to beat you to it, because they are ‘scared to lose’…

Kiasu on the escalator

If you are on the MRT (the tube) a similar thing happens. Sadly, it isn’t generally in the local culture to allow commuters to alight before cramming onto the carriage and there is always a bit of a stoush* to get in and out.

* vernacular Australian for a scrap

In order to improve the situation, the government has sensibly placed lines on the ground showing where people should wait until the doors open and other travellers alight from the carriage. However, there is absolutely no way that a local of a certain vintage (my age and older usually) will allow someone to get off before they get on, even if it means dropping the shoulder and barging their way on.

The Singaporean guide to getting on and off the tube properly!

In a bid to engender more socially acceptable behaviour, the government has embarked on various initiatives that try to ‘educate’ the populace into being less selfish and dare I say it, more ‘international’ in their behaviour. A caveat here, I have many Singaporean friends and having enjoyed living here for 6 years, I can say that Singapore is definitely not as bereft of good manners as I may appear to be painting it. No, wait a minute… it is absolutely the case and what’s more, most of the locals will agree with me…

On the aforementioned tube trains, there are ‘messages’ on the floor and on the windows and walls, advising people that they should stand for the elderly and infirm (I pretty much qualify as both at the moment), take your bags off your shoulders, so as to avoid swiping others and to “give way to have a better day” (FFS!). They even have cartoon citizens to encourage people to identify with the characters positive behavioural traits.

Surely, the very image of a Singapore millennial?

As for me; I tried to navigate the station with my cane and was jostled, barged and tutted at, right up to the final limping step onto the carriage. And yet, whilst in the sanctuary of the car and surrounded by advisory signage, I was deferentially ushered into the seats reserved for the elderly, infirm and pregnant. I accepted gratefully, having got on the circle line towards my destination, purely to avoid long underground treks between stations.   I was even prepared to effectively circumnavigate the country on the circle line for the sake of a seat, but I soon found that the evil eye is alive and well and saved for people suspected of faking their conditions. I had various Aunty’s* standing, navels six inches from my sitting eyeline, shaming me into turning over the holy grail of a seat to them so I did, twice and they accepted, twice.

*the Singapore ‘Aunty’ is a subgroup of ladies of a certain age, who exhibit various traits that some find amusing. Think of the lady who peeks from behind her net curtains and gossips about the way ‘things used to be’ and you’ll get an inkling of the type of person we are referring to.

Anyway, it was a productive trip and I enjoyed being back in the warmth.  Sadly, I have only got 24 hours at home before getting the next plane, this time  to China!

Author: Jerry

Hello. My name is Jerry and I live in country Australia. I'm ex military and now work in the corporate security world. Having a hobby is supposed to be good your mental health, so I got several!

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