DEFINITION of 'Kiasu'

Kiasu is a Chinese adjective used to describe a person's fear of losing out to someone else. Kiasu is a traditional Chinese word - more specifically, in the Fujian dialect - but is most popular in Singapore due to the large influx of Fujianese to the city-state decades ago. Kiasu roughly translates as  "scared to lose."

BREAKING DOWN 'Kiasu'

Kiasu describes being greedy, unwilling to share, or competitive in order to advance one's self. Examples of kiasu include driving aggressively to get to the front of a traffic line or registering young children early at top schools, even prior to knowing their aptitude. Someone who is kiasu must outdo and outshine all others, have more of any given thing, pay the least amount for items (thereby getting the best deal), and always be the first or best. For outsiders who have a favorable perception of gentle and law-abiding Singaporeans, witnessing kiasu in action can be jarring. A friendly game of ping-pong that turns into a hyper-competitive death match for the kiasu local would raise an eyebrow for the foreigner.

What's Wrong with Being Kiasu?

Singaporeans, being of Chinese extraction, are imbued with a sense of Darwinism. The survival instinct is strong in these people, who have turned their tiny island into a prosperous and highly functional nation in short clip of history. They are hard-working, educated and outward-facing, but at times display elements of extreme competitiveness. Kiasu Singaporeans drive industry growth in child education services, but the downside is a gap between those who can afford private tutoring and test prep for their kids and those who cannot. A Kiasu CEO may practice one-upmanship with a competitor in the market, wasting resources or setting out on an irrational course to the detriment of his company. Behavior driven by kiasu can be ugly, invite resentment, and produce feelings of schadenfreude when someone fails. These are not desirable human qualities. Singaporeans are largely aware of this disagreeable phenomenon, but just as dogs are not going to stop licking their backsides because this is their natural habit, the residents of the wealthy city-state will not give up their kiasu ways. The other factor working against eradicating the scourge is the increasing infiltration of Mainland Chinese, who are the original masters of kiasu living.

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