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Can We Be Kiasu Without Being An Asshole?

Can We Be Kiasu Without Being An Asshole?

  • Current Affairs
Top image credit: VisitSingapore

It’s official. Being kiasu is bad.

That was the overwhelming consensus during the Singapore Writers Festival’s Closing Debate on Sunday.

The motion: This House Believes that Kiasuism is a Good Singaporean Trait, was strongly argued against during the hour-long debate session with kiasuism being blamed for creating “a society of selfish, eager overachievers obsessed with being the best.”

Even those on the affirmative side prefaced their arguments by stating how they were in reality, against kiasuism.

It’s no secret that kiasuism’s reputation, like Taylor Swift’s, has been on a steady decline as of late.

Using obnoxiously large umbrellas to chope entire tables, darting into trains before others can alight to secure a seat and chain locking Ofo bikes so no one else can use it but us, are just some instances of where modern-day kiasu-ness is concerned with only the welfare of me, myself and I.

And if others lose out, well, that’s on them.

Where it was once a driving force for good, stimulating hunger and competition that spurred Singaporeans to greater heights, kiasuism has now become synonymous with being a self-serving asshole.

And when greed gets the better of ambition, that’s when kiasu behaviour crosses the line from quirky trait to plain assholery.

Kiasuism is why we can't have nice things.
So what do we do?

Do we kill kiasu culture like NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin so daringly suggested in Parliament last year (yes it has gotten to be that bad)? Or do we, like treating a snake bite, try to suck out the poison that’s polluting an otherwise core tenet of Singaporean identity?

Frankly, I’m all for the latter.

While the debaters at the SWF may have passed up an excellent opportunity to re-frame how we understand the word “kiasu”, to see it for more than just its flaws, I don’t believe in doing the same.

As surprising as it may sound, it is possible to retain both our competitiveness and humanity at the same time. In fact, we’ve done it countless times.

I would argue that for all the flak that queueing gets, Singaporeans have in fact proven time and again their ability to queue in an orderly and fuss-free fashion for hours on end for food, freebies and Hello Kitty toys without starting a fight or inciting a riot.

I refuse to believe that we’re all assholes who just can’t help it. Not only does it take a miniscule effort to be less of a selfish person, but if you stop to think about it, there’s only so far one can get in life by always stomping on the toes of other people.

So if you don’t want to lose out, but also not be the asshole, here’s how.  

Image credit: The Straits Times.
1. Don’t Chope, Just Get There Early

I think we can all agree that Singaporeans are never more kiasu than during weekday lunch hours at a popular hawker centre.

Tissue paper packets, umbrellas, water bottles and office security passes emerge to chope entire tables—nevermind that only their owners only require two of the five available seats.


Meanwhile, those who’d prefer not to leave their personal belongings unattended on a table, wander around with trays of food in their hands searching (often in vain) for a vacant seat.

In this case, the answer is simple. If you want to be kiasu and get a seat without having to resort to pulling such a dick move, just show up early.

Rather than go for lunch at 12.39 PM, why not 11.48 AM?

Not only will you not have to chope, there will also be shorter queues, and therefore a less irritated aunty taking your order at the end of said queue. It’s a win-win-win situation if you ask me.

2. Don’t Lie, Just Say You Did Your Work

I think we can all agree that there is a special place in hell reserved for those who study, who prepare for meetings, who take notes, and then when asked about it, proceed to lie.

Kiasu people want to do better than their colleagues or school mates. That’s fine.

But is lying necessarily the way to go about to get on their good graces?

These people may be useful to you next time, whether it’s for projects, advice or connections even and the last thing you should be doing is coming across as an untrustworthy, lying asshole.

If you want to be kiasu, you should be aiming to make allies and not enemies.

Did you prepare for the meeting? Study for the test? Complete your readings on time? Good for you. Own it, don’t hide it. And even better yet, make an offer to collaborate and help your peers out. No man is an island after all.

This way, you’ll be racking up the favours in no time. Win-win, again.

Image credit: Under the Angsana Tree.
3. Don’t Rush In, Walk A Little More

Ah. Public transport. A prime breeding ground for kiasu behaviour.

You know who I’m talking about. Those people who dash into the trains the second the doors open, without bothering to let those alighting exit first. These people could give Usain Bolt a run for his money.

Honestly, if you want a seat so bad but aren’t deserving of a reserved seat, why not just walk to a less crowded part of the train? I’ve heard rumours that the closer you are to the ends of train, the higher your chances of finding a seat are.  

4. Don’t Speed Up, Change Lanes.

When driving, I, like many Singaporeans, have a love-hate relationship with signalling.

While we’re told to signal for the safety and consideration of other drivers, many don’t do so for fear that if they do, cars in the next lane will read their intentions and speed up, preventing them from making the necessary lane-change.

Understandably, the temptation not to let slower, newer or more reckless drivers cut in front of you can be strong sometimes and I too have struggled with making such decisions on the road.

But if you take a step back and think about it, are we really losing out on by allowing someone to cut in? Maybe it’ll delay your journey by a minute. But realistically, what would you really have achieved with those extra 60 seconds?

Rather than cause stress to another driver, the non-asshole thing to do if they’re slowing you down is to simply change lanes and overtake them later.

Image credit: The Straits Times.
Kiasuness has long been, and will always be a part of us for the foreseeable future.

Being afraid of losing out is what got us this far as a nation, yet I fear that it is the corresponding rise of self-centeredness and entitlement that will stunt our growth.

If you haven’t realised by now, modern-day kiasuism is in actuality, inherently self-harming.

If the tables were turned on us, I’m sure we’d hate it if people rushed into trains as we were alighting, if all the tables at a hawker centre were choped, and if cars sped up just as were signalling. We could very well continue to do all these things to others so as to get ahead, but once they’re done to us, we can easily find ourselves back to square one again.

Every step forward is in the end, compensated with another step back.

So why should we continue to perpetuate such self-centeredness?

Kiasuism, as any Singaporean will tell you, is a core part of their DNA. But this doesn’t mean that we have to keep understanding it as it is, choosing not to suck the poison out of the word.

It may have a bad rep now, but it doesn’t have to. Ultimately, the decision lies with us whether to run with these negative tropes, or try our best to subvert them.

So what say we keep being kiasu, and just stop being assholes?


Rachel Lau Staff writer