SINGAPORE: Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kuik Shiao-Yin on Tuesday (Apr 5) called for the eradication of Singapore’s “kiasu” (Singlish for being afraid to lose) culture, describing it as a national habit of fear that poses a cultural roadblock to transformation and at great cost to the economy.
“Fear has been a favourite motivational tool of many of our parents, teachers, bosses and even politicians,” Ms Kuik told Parliament on the second day of Budget debates. “Managed well, fear is a perfectly healthy kick in the pants to force us out of complacency and into action. Fear compels us to man up, save more, study hard, work long. Fear in that sense is an emotion that does help us take care of our future.”
“But it loses these powerful positive effects when it goes beyond a temporary emotion we feel, to a permanent disposition we live in. When fear becomes part of our emotional and cultural DNA, we lock ourselves into a habit of self-limiting behaviours.”
The creative director of social enterprise The Thought Collective cited annual National Day surveys that continue to rank kiasu and “kiasi” (Singlish for being afraid to die) as among the top defining traits of Singaporeans.
“We laugh about it, but it’s been 50 years and the joke’s on us,” said Ms Kuik. “How much longer will we self-identify as a people living under siege? What human potential and opportunities have we lost over the years, living as a nation of people scared to lose out and scared to fail, and how much more opportunities are we prepared to lose?”
She added: “I don’t think kiasu culture should be celebrated. In fact, I think we should kill it. Because all these behaviours that we are telling Singaporeans are necessary to take us into the future - innovation, productivity, collaboration, generosity to the needy - they are wholly dependent on a person’s desire and drive to generate greater worth and real value to share with the world.
“And kiasu culture doesn’t give a damn about generating or sharing worth and value."
“The kiasu person will even pursue things of questionable worth he himself doesn’t believe in, as long as he sees everyone else is doing so," she added, illustrating her point using what she called a “toxic arms race” between parents in securing tuition for their children. She noted that while the overarching reason for tuition is better grades, some parents also admit to paying for something not entirely productive.
“The price is time and money which could have been spent developing a child in more worthwhile traits and skills,” said Ms Kuik.
“Kiasu culture is too costly a culture to put up with. There are huge trade-offs in human development, manpower, time and dollars spent,” she said. “Kiasu culture is also what created a subculture of ‘grant-repreneurs’ - people who call themselves entrepreneurs but are actually grant chasers who seize upon any amount of public money, like the PIC (Productivity and Innovation Credit) grant, to use on everything but what the grant was meant to accomplish.”
Added Ms Kuik: “Yes, there are genuine kiasu entrepreneurs, but he is driven by the anxiety to make short gains rather than a mindful desire to win at the long game. So he will only take risks that everyone is already taking and innovate what everyone else is already innovating, and that’s why entrepreneurship here tends to lack originality and is really just copy and paste work of little worth.”
“Yesterday’s bubble tea shop is today’s hipster coffee joint and cat cafe,” she stated. “We have a ridiculous number of entrepreneurs in F&B and way too little in industries like marine and construction which have far more opportunity, profit and need for new blood willing to go where nobody else dares to go.”
“I suspect our highest innovation and productivity will only come when more of us move beyond the fear of ‘die la, die la, what must I do to survive’ to the mindful ambition of ‘I have no idea what lies ahead, but I’m still here and still alive. What things of great worth do I still get to create for somebody else today?’”