Man at His Best

A Short History Of The Word 'Kiasu'

‘Losers, losers, everywhere’.

BY Jason S Ganesan | Oct 7, 2016 | Culture

Wikipedia Commons

Donald Trump has been described as a racist, misogynist, hatemonger, buffoon, and about a million other adjectives. They all slide of his orange Teflon skin, however, because they are only manifestations of a larger rot at the base of his soul.

The rot that stood out even before the presidential campaigns kicked off, and even before The Apprentice, given that contestants on the show already knew exactly which kind of aspirational smarm to impress Trump. What the oily braggadocio was compensating for is best captured best in Garrison Keillor’s majestic commentary, ‘When this is over, you will have nothing that you want’.

But yet this rot, this fundamental lack, defies being reduced to a single word; ‘insecure’ about covers it, but doesn’t have any bite. ‘SPS’ is an actual condition, and too crass.

What about ‘kiasu’?

Lisa Lim of The Post Magazine offers a fleshed out version of history of the word’s usage. According to Leong Choon Cheong’s Youth in the Army, the Hokkien slang term kian su became popular in Singlish in the Singapore National Service. Appropriate, because it’s probably where the figurative (at least) dick-measuring that informs men in their later lives actually begins.

But kian su was used for meticulous civil servants, not so much afraid of losing out, but just overzealous in their work. By the time kiah su appeared in Sylvia Toh Paik Choo’s Eh, Goondu! (1982), it had already acquired the quality of being afraid to be second best.

Eight years later, it popped up in the Singapore parliament: “I wish that the Government Ministers do not become infected with the same kiasu syndrome that they themselves have advised other people against.” Seems odd, but not when you take into account the racial slurs and misogynist yuks in our own parliament. One particular guy even got awarded for his racism when he became a deputy minister.

We digress. The first appearance of ‘kiasu’ in a non-Singaporean newspaper was in a 1992 New Straits Times article bemoaning proto-tiger parents overloading their kids with extra homework.

Lim adds that the term appeared in management and organisational journals at the turn of the century, but with positive connotations. Because having workers being meticulous to the point of competing to see who can stay in the office the longest titillates corporate overlords.

Around this time as well, the term got an extra gloss of formality—or what we in this region like to think of as formality, i.e., appearing in a Western newspaper, because colonialism. The Guardian described the “kiasu Singaporean” as being informed by a “pursuit of material wealth combined with the constant need to be No 1.”

That perhaps cemented the synonymy of the term with the country, when used by Malaysians. Which, to be fair, may be a bit stones and glass houses, seeing as the hunger for upward mobility and money on the side has seen Malaysia become something of Ponzi hellhole.

The term has had a number of adjacent meanings, from meticulous workers afraid to lose out to colleagues, to risk aversion, to an aspirational grasping informed by insecurity. It leans towards the latter, and is probably best suited to that function, because there aren’t enough English words capturing that particular aspect of modern life, despite its ubiquity.

We deem it thus. At least, until ‘trump’ becomes an adjective.