Tuesday, January 26, 2010


(Before I go on my rant here, I'd like to say that it took me months to remember how to spell that word. I guess Q U E U E is a way to spell "cue" but it sure isn't easy to sound out 2nd grade style.)

In Singapore, no one "gets in line," we all "queue up." How do we queue? Well...that depends on the situation.

In the Chinese "Hokkien" dialect, there is a word, "kiasu" that very basically means "afraid of losing." In my experience, it's more accurately, "fear of losing out on something you could have had." The kiasu culture is very strong here in Singapore. It's something that may be difficult to understand unless you experience it. It can manifest itself in many ways. Some are good, some are downright rude.

One example would be schooling. Most of the local kids here work very hard to perform well in public school. Many get very little chance to play during the week because they are so focused on homework as well as extra tutoring. A lot of this concentration is based on a fear of performing poorly on the "Primary School Leaving Exam" (PSLE) that is taken at the end of sixth grade. This is actually a very important test in the life a Singaporean citizen as it essentially sets up the path for the remainder of your education all the way through university. Screw up on this test and you're essentially out of the university pool. The kiasu attitude most Singaporean families take toward education borders on fanaticism. On one hand, the young children here seem to be very well educated and, compared to public school in the US, a bit ahead. On the other hand, the education is purely built around regurgitating information to pass a standardized test. This technical education seems to come at the cost of independent thinking and social skills. Regardless, the fear of failing drives these kids to study hard and perform well at school. (I better move on before I start the education system rant.)

Another example would be the "queue". After traveling around the world for the last 15 years, I can say that out of all of the countries I've visited, people in the US are the most polite and considerate about lining-up for something. (Can you believe it? Polite Americans?!?) My experience in Asia (not just Singapore) has been different. One example:

Melissa and Jack are waiting to board the ferry from Bintan Island back to Singapore. This ferry holds at least 400 people and there can't be more than 80 people waiting to board. Melissa and Jack had arrived a bit early and were at the front of the line. As soon as the door to the ferry opened and people were allowed to start the walk down the dock, a Chinese man in his 50s started trying to physically push past the mother and little boy in a big rush. Melissa had to pull Jack off to the side of the doorway to let this jerk past for fear of her kid getting knocked over. Please understand that it was a 90 second walk to the boat and it wasn't going to depart for 20 minutes. He just had to be first.

Kiasuism (a term I learned reading Neil Humphreys) also applies to possessions. "Look what I've got. I've got this and you don't. I'm better than you." Cars are a great example, but to be honest, most cultures feel that way about cars. Where it really blows my mind is when it comes to cheap (or free) junk that you don't really need.

One time during our first or second month in Singapore, Melissa, Jack and I were walking through the mall and saw a massive queue going to the mall information desk. Wondering what it was for, we walked up toward the front and looked at the sign. If you had spent at least S$50 at the mall that day, you could collect your free desk calender as a special gift from the Causeway Point Mall! You should have seen this sad little cardboard calendar. It couldn't have been worth two dollars and people were waiting in line for at least an hour and a half to get it. At the time, the entire thing baffled me. After 2 years here, I get it now.

"Did, you get your free calendar at the mall? No? Oh, that's too bad. I love mine. I use it all the time. The had a very limited quantity, you know. It's a very exclusive calendar."

To lose an hour and a half of my life in a line for something trivial that I don't really need is insane to me. To others, it's a great success. "Look at what I got for free!"

Here's a last example. You tell me; is this a symptom of an overloaded public transportation system or Kiasu?

How would you like to be in that "queue"?

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