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Kiasu nation

Cloud Forest_1

Improbably wedged between two larger neighbours, Singapore is a country keen on superlatives: world’s biggest aquarium; world’s best airport; world’s fastest walkers. The city-state is constantly primed to adapt and innovate, seeking out that extra competitive edge over its rivals. But the relentless drive for achievement also translates to what Singaporeans call kiasuism.

I first heard of the term from two close friends at university. One was Malaysian Chinese, and the other was a Nepali who grew up in Singapore. They defined kiasu as being “afraid of losing”. It is a mindset that, at its worst, produces self-centeredness and greed. Kiasuism also embodies a fervent spirit of comparison, and informs how Singaporeans see themselves in the wider world.

On a visit to the National Museum of Singapore, I earnestly told the guide that Hong Kong did not have a comparable colonial structure. She expressed surprise but also derived no small measure of satisfaction. As she led us through the halls, our guide proudly announced, “Some countries do not even have buildings like this!” She looked at me and smiled wryly. I was vaguely flattered, for Hong Kong is not a country but an autonomous Special Administrative Region of China.

Later on, the same guide asserted that Singapore had a military division bigger than any in Australia. The one Australian in our group looked incredulous; his lower face was frozen halfway between a smile and a cringe. I liked the fact that Singaporeans were immensely proud of their nation, but certain aspects of the city-state felt strangely lacking.

Singapore is too clean and too perfect – an alternate universe that has been carefully engineered by the powers that be. One article by The Guardian wrote that Singapore feels as though it has been “scrubbed to within an inch of its life”. Gardens by the Bay, one of its newest landmarks, was perhaps the perfect illustration of this.

Housed beneath a soaring glass and steel dome, the cloud forest brought the jungle to city-dwellers, but without the nuisance of insects and other fauna. The pièce de résistance was an artificial 35-metre “mountain” boasting the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. And it had modern conveniences too – this was a rainforest with elevators. As Bama and I took to the walkways, groups of Chinese tourists oohed and ahhed at the many orchids and pitcher plants. But the call of birds, the loud, low drone of cicadas and the screech of monkeys were conspicuously absent.

In our windowless hotel room, hidden inside the attic of a restored shophouse, we tuned into Channel NewsAsia. I watched it less for the news and more for its delivery, for the newscasters were inadvertently entertaining. With rosy cheeks and faces daubed a porcelain white, their manners of speech matched the bizarre intonation parodied by Singaporean stand-up comedian Ruby Pan. One in particular spoke with an affected, faux British accent, seemingly transplanted from the halls of Westminster. “Twittuhhhh…” he said, followed by an awkward pause to take a long, audible breath.

Channel NewsAsia also broadcast a documentary on the brand new National Stadium, the impressive centrepiece of the Singapore Sports Hub at Kallang. It is supposedly the largest domed structure in the world, spanning 310 metres or, as the engineering firm Arup put it, roughly four Airbus A380s parked wing to wing. As the programme wrapped up, the narrator happily announced that the stadium’s completion would allow Singapore to “take its place among the great sporting nations of the world”.

Perhaps the widespread kiasuism – and the artifice I found – was masking a deep-seated insecurity. The day I left Singapore, I met someone I hadn’t seen for the better part of two decades. Annabelle and I attended the first few years of primary school together, until she transferred to Hong Kong’s Singaporean International School and then Singapore itself. She was now working at the National Arts Council, helping to nurture Singaporean literary talent. Annabelle told me it was a tenuous balance between the three dominant ethnic groups: the Chinese, Malays and Tamils. “When we organise events, and we have a Mandarin version, the Malays and Tamils ask, ‘why isn’t there one in our language?’” She also raised questions about the experience of being Singaporean – whether it could be truly universal. “There was one book I read, by a Eurasian girl, but I couldn’t relate to it at all.”

The question of identity lingers still, for Singapore is a relatively young nation. When British rule ended in 1963, the newly independent territory joined with North Borneo, Sarawak and the Federation of Malaya to create Malaysia. But the merger was a short and unhappy one. Racial tensions between the Chinese and Malays erupted into riots the following year, and Chinese-dominated Singapore deeply opposed the central government’s bumiputera policy favourable to ethnic Malays. In Kuala Lumpur, there were also concerns that the economic importance of its rebellious state would eventually draw influence away from the capital. On August 9, 1965, in the absence of Singaporean representatives, the Malaysian Parliament voted unanimously in favour of Singapore’s expulsion from the country.

Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, was adamant that it should stay in the federation until the very last minute. At a televised press conference on August 9, the reluctant Prime Minister became visibly emotional, almost choking on his words:

“Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life… you see, the whole of my adult life… I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship…”

50 years on, Singapore has evolved into a successful state that ranks very highly for GDP per capita and human development. Lee may have believed a union with Malaysia was key to its survival, but it is now clear that an irrepressible work ethic – the other face of kiasuism – can propel an unlikely nation on the road to prosperity. 

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Indoor waterfalls at the Cloud Forest, Gardens by the Bay

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A tribal touch

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Totems from Timor-Leste

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Carnivorous pitcher plants

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The world within

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Ribs and walkways

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Out on a limb

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Simulated jungle

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Singapore’s hanging gardens

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. I enjoyed reading this James, knowing very little about Singapore other than it’s perfectionism. Because of that I never wanted to go there. Too sanitised for me. This piece confirms that for me. Lovely photos as usual.

    January 8, 2015
    • Thank you, Alison. I think there are many interesting stories to be found if you dig beneath that perfectionist veneer – but we both prefer going places that are more raw and gritty, less dressed-up if you will. Singapore left me with some very mixed feelings.

      January 16, 2015
  2. Yap one more destination to my bucket list. Not for the sanitation but i am curious to see how things happen in a so called “biggest something of the world” country.
    Really nice post. 🙂

    January 8, 2015
    • Singapore is so efficient you could say it runs like clockwork! Maybe I am a jaded traveller for not being excited by the claims of having the biggest and fastest [insert thing here] in the world.

      January 16, 2015
  3. You can also call it as FOMO: Fear of missing out!

    January 8, 2015
    • Absolutely! Thanks for the feedback. 🙂

      January 16, 2015
  4. The garden looks amazing, especially when you know that it has been built to a design.

    January 8, 2015
    • It was mind-boggling to say the least! Whoever came up with the design must have been a mad genius.

      January 16, 2015
  5. Kiasu is one of my mother-tongue’s word, too. To be honest, I couldn’t agree more with your post. It’s a lil’ bit negative if we say kiasu to others but Singapore has become quite well-known with that word. Nice photos as usual 🙂

    January 9, 2015
    • Makasih Wien. 🙂 I’m surprised I didn’t get any irate comments from Singaporeans on this post… but this is what I really saw and experienced.

      January 16, 2015
  6. Reblogged this on

    January 9, 2015
  7. Reblogged this on Jon Doesnt SoundBoard and commented:
    Extremism in a bid to hide insecurity = Kiasuism. Sadly very apt today

    January 9, 2015
  8. You’ve shown me a side of Singapore I never noticed. After a hard journey through Sumatra, I loved Singapore’s “too clean, too perfect” look as well as the variety of great food. To the Most/biggest list, I’d add most efficient airport. I’ve never been whizzed through customs as quickly to find my luggage already on the carousel.

    January 9, 2015
    • That’s a good point – I think Singapore is great for creature comforts and as a family destination, and it does make an ideal stop to recharge your batteries after more adventurous travel elsewhere.

      January 16, 2015
  9. James, as you know I have not been to Asia yet. (And overseas travel won’t happen for awhile since I’ve had a head injury due to another cyclist crashing into me on a bike path in Vancouver this 2015 New Year’s day!) Singapore strikes me as one of those convenient Asian countries for tourists to feel “safe” for Western tourists, because the country tries so (too hard?) to appear great to the rest of world by scrubbing itself superficially clean and looking modern, technologically efficient, etc.

    I’m sure for safe tippy-toe into a different culture for some European/Caucasian foreigners who don’t live in local areas/countires with lots of Asian, African-looking citizens, it is a good “foreign” country experience for them.

    As for that wonderful rainforest indoor facility, it would be an interesting mega-conservatory for me. Unfortunately my partner can’t stand even being inside ANY plant indoor conversatory (even ie. Vancouver’s Van Dusen botanical conservatory), because of the natural plant moulds…he’s highly allergic to any natural plant moulds.

    I’m sure you did miss the birds and insects inside there since you’ve done lots of hiking in Asia.

    January 12, 2015
    • Sorry to hear about the head injury, Jean – I hope your recovery is both quick and smooth. I’m sure it has not deterred you from biking and that the other cyclist has compensated for the crash in some way.

      Yes you are right about Singapore being a safe option; it is a good jumping-off point and easy introduction to Asia for first-timers. Virtually everyone there speaks English too so communication is not a problem.

      January 16, 2015
  10. Wow the hanging gardens are so beautiful! I had no idea this existed.

    January 17, 2015
    • It only opened fairly recently – if you’re ever in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay is well worth a visit!

      January 17, 2015
  11. Kiasu means ‘enggak mau kalah’ or unwilling to lose as my friends from Medan put it. I learned about that word five years ago before I knew about its contemporary association with Singapore and its people. For sure being kiasu has made Singaporeans how they are today: rich, modern, and well-educated. But its deep insecurity has also led to things its neighbors frown upon; having the biggest and most advanced air force in spite of being the smallest country in terms of land size in Southeast Asia is one of those things.

    A very well-written post, James, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

    January 17, 2015
    • Makasih banyak, Bama. I guess it’s true that you learn something new every day… I had no idea Singapore had the largest air force in Southeast Asia! That is utterly disproportionate considering the country’s tiny size and lack of usable land.

      January 17, 2015
  12. Great introduction to this great place…and incredible photos. Madhu led me here, and very happy to have been introduced. Great blog.

    January 19, 2015
    • Thank you for the compliment, Randall. Nice to know you found me through Madhu. Bama introduced me to your fabulous photography a while back – I’ll be following your blog from now on.

      January 20, 2015
  13. Possibly the closest to Utopia that this planet has seen! It is this image of perfection that has kept me away so far. Your earlier post had quite the opposite effect. We are clearly strange creatures 🙂 A well crafted post James…..loved the phrase ‘Unlikely Nation”.

    January 20, 2015
    • Thank you, Madhu! Perhaps you’re right – Utopia does involve training citizens to be “benign oligarchs”, and that’s what Singapore does extremely well! 😀

      To be fair, there are still reasons to stop by: the cuisine being one, and also the built heritage they have lovingly preserved. I think Singapore is worth a visit, although I much prefer the wonderful chaos of nearby Indonesia…

      January 20, 2015
  14. nikkatorres #

    It’s really amazing how you put all your thoughts in your blog. I’ve been in Singapore last January and March 2015 and reading your blogs makes me feel nostalgic. 🙂 One thing I would like to recommend you if you will be back in Singapore, you must try the Southern Ridges and the Helex Bridge there. 🙂

    August 3, 2015
    • I wish I was there for the 50th anniversary celebrations right now – it looks like so much is going on in Singapore these days. 🙂 The Southern Ridges were a “maybe” when I went but sadly there wasn’t enough time. That bridge looks amazing in photos; I’ll have to check out it in the future. Thanks for the tip! 🙂

      August 7, 2015
      • nikkatorres #

        I’ve missed your reply and i was shocked that gave reply on my comment. Thank you, James. Yap, the bridge looks amazing and stunning in photos, and that would be one of my itinerary on my next tour this December 2016 in SG. I hope i can meet you there. 🙂 HAHA

        January 9, 2016

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