OPINIONS

Letters from the Dragonlands: Kiasu and the Rat Race

What is this guy doing?!?!”

My mom stares in disbelief as the light turns green and the car in front of us stays parked for one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . .

“Honk at him,” I suggest.

“Absolutely not.”

No matter how slow or inattentive a driver may be, my mother will never honk the horn at a fellow driver. Instead . . .

“Come on! DRIVE!”

The car slowly begins to move, and my mother exhales in a very annoyed manner.

“So kiasu,” she mutters, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

For the Western world, kiasu just sounds like any other word in any other foreign language. But for those in the lion-port city of Singapore, it’s a way of life. For many Singaporeans, kiasu is the definition of the only way one ought to live one’s life.

Kiasu (key-ah-sue) is actually a Hokkien word. Translated, it literally means “fear of losing.” And not just losing at Yahtzee or Scrabble. We in Southeast Asia have taken the paranoia of not being the first or the best at everything to a whole other level. So much so that we will go to extraordinary means to guarantee we are the first and you are not.

Kiasu parents impose strict study laws on their children in elementary school to ensure that they are at the top of their graduating class and score highest in their future A-levels. A kiasu eater will take too much food from a buffet for fear that there will be none left later. And a hard-core kiasu fan will “queue” for days in advance to make sure he or she gets a limited free ticket to a rock show. So will a hardcore fan in America. But there is a darker side to being kiasu.

Being kiasu doesn’t only mean that you do everything you can to get ahead. It also means that you do everything in your power to make sure that others don’t get ahead of you. Standing still on the escalator to prevent someone from passing you is considered better than actually competing to “reach the summit” by walking. If you signal to change lanes in traffic, the car next to you will purposely move forward to prevent you from getting into “his” lane (despite the fact that you are going to a completely different destination). A car in a light-controlled turn lane will purposefully take his time to try and trap you behind a light, so he can take off and leave you behind in the dust.

There is however, a way to beat kiasu.

The term kiasu connotes self-preservation, egocentrism and over-competiveness. The method in which you overcome kiasu, therefore, is to be everything that kiasu is not. That means being overly kind and super-considerate of others’ feelings, but not in an insincere or sarcastic manner. You have to truly be genuine.

This throws a hardcore kiasu into a state of total confusion, suspicion and paranoia. If you have a cart full of groceries and you offer to let the person behind you go ahead with his or her four items, he or she will be shocked and quickly refuse the offer. A kiasu driver will be suspicious when you motion to let him or her in to the flow of traffic. These calm acts of kindness can be as powerful as a stun gun, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well — because maybe in that moment of shock and confusion, your fellow citizens will question the purpose of your actions. And when they realize that it goes completely against the social norms of kiasu, they’ll begin to question their actions. And then maybe, just maybe, they might act a little differently toward other people.

Today, society is so caught up in the capitalist rush that we often forget the need to uphold the Golden Rule for ourselves, rather than make sure others uphold it. “Do unto others as you would they unto you” does not mean that if you believe you have been mistreated, you have the right to seek petty revenge. It is not our place to supervise others and uphold the Golden Rule for them. But when we take care to treat people right, they will be inclined to do the same for us.

Don’t let kiasu define Southeast Asia for you, though. The Singaporean government endorses communal welfare and random acts of kindness. It is not uncommon to see a young boy or girl spring up from his or her seat to allow a pregnant woman to rest on the public transit. If you seem lost, I can guarantee that a well-meaning citizen will stop and ask you if you need assistance. If you happen to trip on the stairs (like myself) and your books, pens and papers spill everywhere, a crowd of people will come rushing to help you to your feet and make sure you are unharmed and able to continue on your way.

Although encountering kiasu can be annoying, most people greet it comically. It’s the part of our culture that we make fun of. We even have a comic called “Mr. Kiasu,” which depicts a Singaporean man leading a very kiasu life and going about his affairs in a very kiasu way. No two people will start physically fighting in the street arguing over who was first, all in the name of kiasu.

But if you really want to see kiasu in action, don’t look to Southeast Asia. Instead, think about what kiasu really means for a society. If you’re stuck, check out the movie “Rat Race.” In Southeast Asia, we call it kiasu. In the West, we just call it capitalism.

Aysha Kureishi is a hardcore kiasu.Get tips and hints from her at ayshak@stanford.edu.

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