Unveiling the Mystery of Kiasu

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Spend long enough in Malaysia and you’ll become very well-acquainted with some of the local peculiarities, if not downright indoctrinated by them. Recently, I was sitting with one of my Malaysian Chinese friends and we were having a riotous laugh over some humorous cartoons and photos posted online. One such picture was the stereotypical (to Westerners, at least) Asian student, shown in an actual yearbook photo: bespectacled, ultra-studious, deadly serious, almost imperious-looking in his gaze… you know, your basic Type-A hyperoverachiever. The Asian student’s chosen caption? A variation of an oft-cited Gore Vidal quotation: “It’s not enough that I should succeed. Others should fail.”

It’s been said that the basis for all humour is surprise, and often, there is little that’s more surprising than truth. The reason my Malaysian friend found this so amusing was because there was more than a kernel of truthfulness to it. Though it was, of course, quite exaggerated, what this little yearbook caption touched on was the notion of kiasu.

Now, for the longest time, I thought kiasu was related to the notion of “face” – that is, ensuring that one’s social persona was not embarrassed or offended, as in to allow someone a graceful exit from a dispute so that they may “save face.” I was quite mistaken, because kiasu is an altogether different construct, and if you want to live in KL and enjoy a modicum of sanity, you’d do well to understand it.

Kiasu is a Hokkien word that translates into English as essentially a “fear of losing.” It’s sometimes thought of as being similar to the “dog in the manger” Greek fable that says, “There was a dog lying in a manger who did not eat the grain but who nevertheless prevented the horse from being able to eat anything either.” Of course dogs don’t eat hay, but this particular dog, by lying on the hay, ensured that the horse couldn’t eat it, either. In other words, as Vidal wrote, it’s not enough that I should succeed… others should fail.

All of this of course is a bit of a stretch, an idea ginned up to the point of hyperbole for a good laugh or to really drive home a point. But it’s not fictional in its origin. On the contrary, kiasu is very real and though it’s inextricably associated with Singaporean culture, where perhaps the worst thing is to finish last in anything, it’s quite prevalent in Malaysian society, as well.

So what is it, really, and how does it manifest itself? Kiasu is defined as the fear of losing, but it may be more broadly seen as a general aversion to the prospect of missing out – on anything. Any possibility of opportunity lost is a breeding ground for kiasu.

In some respects, I suppose kiasu is good. It promotes hard work and an ethos that by doing more and putting in more effort, you can get ahead in life. But on the flip side, kiasu really panders to some of the baser aspects of human nature: selfishness (me first), aggressive self-centeredness (me only), and a general antisocial nature (see Vidal’s quotation again).

The undercurrent on which kiasu rides in the culture here is probably  a lot of things we don’t even notice… or things we do notice but don’t understand. For me, it’s the infuriating way locals drive: Straddling the lines so you can’t overtake on the left or the right, jumping the queue at an exit ramp, nosing in ahead of anyone and everyone at a traffic light, speeding up and thwarting any attempt by other drivers to change lanes… a lot of this self-centered behaviour can be explained by kiasu, whether or not it’s directly responsible for it. Although it doesn’t make it right or excuse the selfishness of driving this way, understanding the nature of kiasu at least makes it easier for me to tolerate. I came to the conclusion that I’m not going to change the local culture, nor is it really my place to try. Though I cringe guiltily every time I adopt some of the local driving habits, it’s just a concession to the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” school of thought.

So the next time you see a Malaysian driver pulling out of a long queue of cars, only to speed to the front of the line and butt in, or when you see someone piling loads of food on their plate at a buffet (after all, kiasu suggests, they could run out of food before the second trip, and then the diner would lose out), or when you watch locals all very politely jostling each other to get to the front of a line, each acting like they don’t see anyone else around them… just smile knowingly and chalk it up to kiasu.

And while I’d never advocate adopting this “me first” mentality as a life philosophy, there is wisdom – and sanity – to be found in the occasional admission that, sometimes in life, you have to go along to get along.


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