Monday, August 22, 2011

The kiasu and kiasi of being Singaporean

One Man's Meat

According to former Singapore Miss World Ris Low, Singaporeans are always hustling and bustling. Life is very stressful, very ‘kiasu’ (overly-competitive) and very ‘kiasi’ (afraid of doing something wrong).

FOR someone who can’t wink, former Singapore Miss World contestant Ris Low sure can think.

Or that was the impression I got from the Singaporean who was named as one of Asia’s 25 most influential people by CNN’s affiliate website CNNGo in 2009.

The 21-year-old beauty queen sure had a lot of things on her mind when I interviewed her to get the low-down on her nation.

Singapore, a five-hour drive from Subang Jaya, has been my second home as I’ve got in-laws living there.

I enjoy my weekend stay in the island republic. But each time I’m in the Little Red Dot (as former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie described Singapore) I wondered what makes our southern neighbours tick.

Even though I’m on holiday, there’s always something stressful about the island republic. Is it because its parking space is narrower than in Malaysia or drivers love to honk when you’re a tad slow to respond to a green light or the “ticking” ERP (Electronic Road Pricing, an electronic system of road pricing based on a pay-as-you-use principle)?

And, I thought, who was better to explain Singapore than Miss Singapore World 2009. Low, according to CNNGo, is “singularly responsible for giving Singapore its catchphrase of the year (2009) – the infamous ‘Boomz!’”.

Life as a Singaporean, said Low, was “very competitive.”

“We are always hustling and bustling. Very fast pace. Very kiasu (overly-competitive). Very kiasi (afraid of doing something wrong). Very stressful,” noted the beauty queen in an interview at a McDonald’s in a suburb of Singapore.

An example of kiasu behaviour, according to Low, is Singaporeans will queue up when they see a long line.

“They don’t know what they are queuing up for but they assume if there is a queue there is something good at the end of the line,” she explained.

Low’s definition of kiasi is “everybody covering their own backside”.

“For example, Singaporeans like to talk about politics among themselves but they will not voice it out at another level (publicly),” she related.

Curious to go beyond the clichéd description of Singaporeans being kiasu and kiasi, I asked “What’s the big advantage of being a Singaporean?”

“Our passport is very good that we don’t need visa (to visit another country),” Low said, with a look that could be described as “Boomz”.

The disadvantage of being a Singaporean, according to Low, is “you can’t afford to have a past”.

“Once you have a past, Singaporeans are very unforgiving,” she revealed.

“My case is the perfect example,” she said, referring to her conviction for credit card fraud. Eventually, about two months after being crowned Miss Singapore World 2009, she had to give up her title.

Low continued: “I hope Singaporeans will stand up for their own people. Almost every beauty queen in Singapore has been put down by these cowards who sit behind their computer and bully us by saying we are ugly.

“It is very sad that they are stepping on us to make themselves taller,” she added.

“What’s a distinctive Singaporean character?” I asked.

“When you need help, everybody just stares at you,” she noted.

“For example, I witnessed an accident and I gave first aid to the victim. Then I asked the uncles and aunties who were watching to call 911 but nobody came forward to help. All they were interested in was to take down the car’s plate number.”

It was the same when a man pulled down Low’s strapless dress while she was in a taxi queue last year.

“I asked for help. But nobody helped me and the man managed to run away. I felt like a fool. I felt like digging a hole and burying myself so that I would just die,” she revealed.

“Singaporeans are too caught up in their own world – always vying for money and status. They have lost their heart.”

But Low also admitted there are Singaporeans who did not appreciate help.

“I once tried to help an old lady cross the street. I offered to carry her shopping bags because they looked heavy and she looked frail,” she related. “But she scolded me because she thought I wanted to steal her shopping bags. It was so embarrassing.”

Turning philosophical, Low noted: “In Singapore nobody has pure intention. Everybody has an agenda. So I understand why the older you are, the more you lose hope in life.”

At the end of the interview, the beauty queen attempted to wink and failed. Smiling, she apologised, saying “my facial muscles are not trained to wink”.