Kiasu until you lose

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but despite our best efforts, many Singaporeans out there are still very kiasu in their day-to-day life.

From people pushing and shoving to get on MRT trains, rushing for freebies, cutting queues, to acting rudely, aggressively, and unreasonably to get ahead, these are still many unpleasant experiences we Singaporeans have contended with for decades now.

Absurd phenomena like queuing during office hours for free-gift-with-purchase toys (I kinda blame Mickey D’s for this one), queuing at night for Kitties to be released at midnight (I also kinda blame them for this one), queuing overnight in the rain just for a chance to run (okay, they can’t be blamed for this one), queuing, more queuing, cutting queues on the road, and cutting queues for taxis—we’ve seen them all!

The school system even presents kiasuism as an appropriate attitude to make sure children get the best out of life: parents queuing for ballots to get their children into good schools, parents sending their kids to a hundred and one enrichment, tuition, art, music and dance classes, and the most ridiculous one I heard recently was about soon-to-be parents enrolling their foetuses for pre-school during the third trimester of pregnancy.

It seems, though, that even if most people can acknowledge and agree that such behaviour is borderline ridiculous, they can’t stop themselves from participating if “everyone else is doing it!”

After all, toys/places/vacancies/things/resources/spaces are limited and if everyone else is doing it and I don’t do it, how am I going to get my child into the best school? How will I get my hands on that special Kitty or minion? How am I going to get on the train in order to get to work on time???

In a dog-eat-dog world, I guess if you can’t beat them you just have to join them, right?

According to a poll of 2000 Singaporean residents across gender, housing types, and age groups, Singaporeans perceive their society as kiasu, competitive, self-centred, materialistic and “kiasi” (i.e. afraid of death), among other things.

In a survey conducted last June and July by local organisational development firm aAdvantage Consulting and Britain-based Barrett Values Centre, Singaporeans were asked to pick 10 values and behavioural traits best describing themselves, Singapore society today, and the kind of society they instead desired.

Out of 90 odd choices, these 10 were the top picks, clearly indicating that Singaporeans view their current society from a pretty negative standpoint:

What they perceived about Singapore society today

– Kiasu

– Competitive

– Self-centred

– Material needs

– Kiasi

– Deteriorating values

– Elitism

– Blame

– Uncertainty about the future

– Security

The chief executive of Barrett Values Centre said that eight of these 10 values are considered “potentially limiting” to society’s well-being. Others say that this sort of honesty will be conducive to the “national conversation” that the Government plans on starting to discuss the kind of nation Singaporeans want in their future.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said of similar findings last year that while the results showed Singaporeans could be very critical of themselves collectively, they seem more critical of the “collective other” than themselves as individuals: “we seem to blame others for the current state of affairs, and absolve ourselves of any contributory role to the negative societal traits,” he said.

Ironically, this is self-referenced in the “blame” category, which was also listed on the top 10 selected values.

On a more comforting note, the desired society category showed up “selfless” values like compassion, care for the elderly, care for the disadvantaged, concern for future generations, equal opportunities, and social responsibility:

What they desired in society

– Affordable housing

– Caring for the elderly

– Effective health care

– Caring for the disadvantaged

– Compassion

– Concern for future generations

– Quality of life

– Equal opportunities

– Social responsibility

– Employment opportunities

So how can we put an end to kiasuism?

The only feasible solution I see is for us to stop rewarding and encouraging kiasu behaviour.

Much like children who get what they want when they throw tantrums, kiasu people don’t see anything wrong with their behaviour if in the end it gets them what they want.

We can’t force anyone to act a certain way, but we can make sure that they don’t get any advantage when they act that way.

In other countries it’s very common to see a teller or a cashier send someone to the end of the line when they see customers cut the queue, even if no one in the queue has complained.

Imagine the difference it would make if people cutting queues for Hello Kitty dolls were denied the toy or if people who push others to access a buffet were sent to the back of the line!

Sure, some people may get angry and ask to talk to a manager or supervisor, but I think it’s also the manager or supervisor’s responsibility to stand by his employee and make sure ungraceful behaviour is not tolerated.

That’s also their right as business owners, right?

Another way is to simply speak up.

Most people are so immersed in their kiasu reflexes that they don’t even notice they’re doing something wrong, while others are so afraid of making a scene or start a confrontation that they just stand there and watch them get their way.

I’m not saying get angry and start punching people who cut a queue, but just speak up and say something like: “excuse me, there’s a queue here and you seem to have not seen it”.

Most reasonable people will realise their mistake and gently comply.

So how about it? Let’s start spreading the anti-kiasu cheer!

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Najib A.

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