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. ◊