A Kiasu Experience
As a Malaysian, I have always wondered why is it that my neighboring country, Singapore, has been labeled as the home of the "kiasu" people. Kiasu, it seems, is such a proud claim that there are t-shirts and apparel with the word kiasu at it. There is even a sitcom by the name of Mr. Kiasu.
For the uninformed, the word kiasu is an expression in which Singaporeans use to describe themselves. It basically points to those who want to get the most for whatever they pay for. In short, getting the best deals in the cheapest possible way, preferably free! Not exactly a positive word to label anyone with, yet my recent trip to Singapore only proves that there may be some truth in the saying. It is not that I am biased or have any negative impression of my neighbors, but this is something that happened to me personally and therefore, I dare to recount the incidents despite the risk of being deported the moment I step in to Singapore again for my next trip. OK, just kidding!
Singapore had always made me homesick for Malaysia. If anyone thinks that Kuala Lumpur is hectic, wait till you check out Singapore. The whole country never seems to sleep. There are hordes of people on the streets at any time of the day, worst than ever on weekends. It is hard to walk without rubbing shoulders with a few hundred people a day. Everything in Singapore is about queuing up. You queue when you want to order food, or get a table at the restaurant. You queue to make your payments, get a cab, take a pee, or catch a glimpse of a famous starlet's street performance! It amazes me just how much queuing is involved in that country. Yes, it may be a good thing to learn how to queue. Malaysians are not good at queuing at all. Then again, this is probably because we hardly ever have a need to. Could it be the culture, environment, and lifestyle that made the Singaporeans kiasu? It is their constant mad rush to get above each other that turns them into kiasu people?
I believe it could be the mentality of the people to always want the best (and better) than anyone else (despite their tiny-sized country) that made them behave the way they are today. Perhaps, we cannot entirely blame the people for being kiasu. Sometimes, I feel they do not even know that they are acting so. However, coming from an outsider looking in, the kiasu syndrome is quite apparent. Having been to Singapore several times the past 2 years, I left the country feeling drained and contented to be going home. In fact, I let out a whoop of cheer as I cross the Causeway!
On the first day of my visit, my friends and I were at Suntec City Plaza for the Motor Show 2002. Parking was scarce despite the numerous floors of parking bays. To get a legit parking spot in Singapore is as good as finding a miracle. After 15 minutes of circling around the massive building, we chance upon a couple heading towards the car, opening the door, and getting into their vehicle. Boy, you can imagine how ecstatic we were at having found a decent car park within 15 minutes. After having waited for several minutes, we got impatient. Not only were we getting impatient, but the row of cars behind us (we were hogging the one-lane road) were starting to honk at us. My husband got down from the car and politely knocked on their window, saying "Excuse me, but are you leaving soon?" The guy replied yes, he was. We waited more, reversing a number of times so that cars could squeeze past us. While we waited, we watched as the guy spoke on his mobile phone and made several calls. Later, after 5 minutes, he told us that he is not leaving after all, as he has forgotten to pick up some items from the store. By then, you can only imagine our frustrations. We, being a real pain, refused to budge. We sat in our car, waiting for him to make his move - which is either driving off or going back to the stores. He did neither. He said there for as long as we did, refusing to move. It was quite a comical game we played, now that I am home and can laugh at the incident. After a couple more minutes, we gave up and drove away. The moment we drove past his car, he left the car park spot, making us even angrier than before. Was this a blatant show of kiasuism, we wonder? Was that his way of getting back at us for having bugged him about leaving, or was it just a common form of Singaporeans who do not like to give others their parking spot, even though they were leaving? Anyhow, I am sure it would have infuriated him if he had known that we got his parking spot after all.
After we have parked the car, we moved on to the Motor Show 2002. There, while going up the escalator, we saw a little boy struggling with a huge Mazda paper bag, which we gathered was obtained from the Motor Show. The paper bag was large enough to envelope the boy had we stuffed him in it. That pretty much made us wonder... is this again a form of kiasuism? That their paper bags must be bigger than anyone else? Some families (of four) had a paper bag each. When the employees at Mazda came out with a bundle of these bags, it was snatched up faster than you can say, "Wow, what a big bag!"
The Motor Show was interesting enough. Two floors of pure power and gleaming machines! We had to pay S$8 per adult, which was decently priced. Ah, but alas, we weren't quick enough, therefore no Mazda paper bags for us! Perhaps we should learn to queue up the next time...
That night itself, my friends and I went for dinner at Tiong Bahru. It was a delicious meal of fish head bee hoon, Singapore fried kuey teow, fried chicken, vegetables, and tofu. It was a simple meal no doubt, but the noodles gave us a fright! Bee hoon in Malaysia is a slim as vermicelli. However, the ones in Singapore are 4 times the size. The kuey teow in Malaysia is half the size of that found in Singapore. Again we joked amongst ourselves that "Gee... even their noodles has got to be bigger and better than anyone else!" What a motivation for achievement!
The next day, at lunch, we were at the Yee Cheong Yuen Noodle Restaurant. This restaurant prides itself for serving delicious noodles since 1970. Some of their specialties include the Oyster Sauce Chicken Hor Fun (a type of noodle), fried won ton, and other forms of noodles. The restaurant (as with all restaurants in Singapore) is crowded and the queue was building up. The table we booked was an 8-seater one. However, our lunch party was made up of either 5 or 6 people. A friend's presence was unconfirmed. Very soon, the place was filled up and the three of us (my husband, a friend and I) were the only ones seated there, waiting for the rest to arrive. An elderly woman with her husband and a friend came up to us, asking the number of people that will be occupying our table. My friend replied, saying we have either 5 or 6 only. The woman promptly insisted that she would like to share our table, since 5 plus 3 people on her side made 8. Having plunked her husband there to "guard" their space, she proceeded with her friend to the queue to order their meal. While she was gone, the remaining people from my group of friend arrived, a guy and his girl friend. With a total of 6 people in my lunch group now, we realized that we have no space for the woman. When she came back with her lunch, to our great surprise, she made a huge fuss out of it. She pointed fingers at us, saying we told her we had only 5 people in our group (duh, we did tell her we might be expecting 6). Since we have an extra person in our group, she insisted that my extra friend cannot sit there. We were outrageous, of course. I mean, we were there first (oops, first sign of the kiasu syndrome invading us), we booked the table for ourselves, she wanted to join in, but if we did run out of space suddenly, who should move?
With much reluctance, she finally gave up her hold on the seat. We thought she was about to flip my friend out of her chair. Mumbling some sarcastic remarks at us, cursing us Chinese in general for not being able to speak Mandarin (whatever for), and a horde of other insults were hurled at us. Not wanting to get into an argument with an old lady, we quietly went on with our meals. When we left the restaurant a moment later, boy oh boy, if looks could kill, I will be dead by now. I thought she was shooting daggers at us with her looks!
Isolated though the cases may be, yet it was these little small incidents that marred our weekend there. Of course, I believe that there are many polite and decent Singaporeans in that country. However, the kiasu syndrome is something that cannot be denied. It is there... in that country and living amongst them. To me, Singapore is all about money. You cannot leave your house without spending money. If you are at KFC, watch your queue. Once, at KFC, the first and third lane was opened to customers to make their orders. Suddenly, a staff decides to open the middle lane to take more orders. Immediately, people from the first and third queue jumped in to the middle lane, and a fight ensues. The question is... who came first? Some would say that they were there at the first lane wayyyyyy before the guy from the third lane came in. The third guy said, too bad, I saw the middle lane opened first, so I get in line before you. Then someone would say, "No way, I was here 2 minutes before you!" At the end of the day, who is right and who is not?
Perhaps I have been too harsh in my judgment, or maybe I have not. Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that every Singaporean is kiasu. There are plenty of kiasu Malaysians as well. But somehow, this phenomenon seemed more apparent in Singapore. I wonder why...
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are those of the author and not a representation of the website.
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Published on 11/27/02