Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A take on Singapore “kiasu” culture according to Glenn Connley

Singapore Kiasu Culture

Glenn Connley has been a news junkie since he was 17, when he joined Australia's top-selling newspaper, Melbourne's Herald Sun, as a cadet reporter.

Working in Washington in 2003 he was first to tell Australians their nation was at war, following George W's "shock and awe" invasion of Baghdad ... and was one of the first reporters into Thailand after the devastating 2004 tsunami.

In 2006 he moved to Singapore to produce and present ESPN's flagship nightly news program, "SportsCenter". His first book, "How To Be Ferocious Like Fergie" will be released in early 2011.

It was an accident. I promise.

As I prepared to step from the train at Singapore’s biggest MRT station, the labyrinthine Dhoby Ghaut Interchange, the “Love Your Ride” jingle was still ringing in my ears.

It’s a brilliant campaign designed to educate Singapore’s commuters about how to best use the immaculate, efficient -- although usually freezing -- suburban transport system. It’s played on a loop in stations and onboard trains.

It’s impossible to avoid the charming ditty, which combines humorous Singlish with flawless English and Mandarin, cleverly reminding travelers about the importance of being courteous to fellow passengers.

“Hey you, over there, don’t cut queue, don’t you dare! Wait your turn to board the train. What’s the rush? There’s no rain.

“Before you go in, let them out. Before you sit, look about. Just got on? Move to the back. A happy journey starts like that.”

The "Love Your Ride" jingle... It's catchy but is it effective in promoting graciousness?

It’s a catchy campaign that cost a pretty penny to make.

What a waste of money.

In the real world, Singaporeans’ urge to win, to be first, to surpass others, is far too tempting to let something as trivial as a multi-million dollar national advertising campaign get in the way.

The phenomenon is known as kiasu, a Hokkien word which means, literally, “fear of losing.”

Evidence of kiasu is found across the country, nowhere more so than in the department stores during the Great Singapore Sale each July.

When I first saw the commotion over a heavily discounted table of goodies on display at Tangs on Orchard Road, I thought perhaps Angelina Jolie or U2 were making a guest appearance.

In fact, and this is no joke, it was shoppers fighting over cheap socks. Cheap socks! And a few pairs of sports shorts and T-shirts going for less than half price.

The snatching and screeching was a sight to behold; aunties with armfuls of items, many which would be discarded at the cashier, elbowing each other and squawking like chickens.

All to save a few lousy dollars.

Recently, I went to the new NEX shopping mall at Serangoon Central. Walking with a friend who was new to Singapore, we saw a bunch of squabbling men and women queued at the information counter.

“What’s going on?” asked my friend.

“Must be something free,” was my reaction. It was.

With the right coupon shoppers could collect an ugly red plastic logo of some description, worth maybe fifty cents.

Another good example is the much-loved Singaporean buffet. I have seen families filling containers with food to take home and eat later.

In a Lion City buffet, it’s every man for himself.

Say there are six prawns left on a plate and you’re second in line. Don’t for one minute expect anything to be left for you. The greedy person in front of you may pretend he doesn’t know you’re there but, trust me, you’ve just been kiasu-ed!

The pathological urge to be the first, regardless of the cost, has been examined by smarter minds than mine. A "National Courtesy Campaign" was launched in 1992 and, obviously, failed miserably.

The finger is often pointed at Singapore’s education system. In this tiny nation, with practically no natural resources, only academic success can ensure a prosperous future and children are under enormous pressure to beat their classmates to become number one.

There’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence. I know as well as anyone it’s a competitive world out there.

But in a country where public toilets offer step-by-step guides to wiping your backside and washing your hands, there seems to be little room for free thinking, common sense or common courtesy.

Which brings me back to my train ride.

As we pull into Dhoby Ghaut, a couple of hundred people are standing, neatly organized, behind those painted lines that mark where you wait for others to disembark.

But, as we slow, the passengers behind me start twitching to get ahead of the inevitable rush to be first off, practically pinning me to the door.

I can sense the chaos outside, as those who’d been patiently waiting leap over the guide markings in a desperate bid to be first on the train and claim a seat.

The doors open.

Propelled by someone’s umbrella pressing against my rear, I burst out. A child, maybe 12 years old, runs flush into my left elbow. His brother’s head hits my chest and goes down, the wind knocked out of him.

I am in no position to stop to see if either is all right.

Yes, I most certainly loved my ride -- there’s no better public transport system in the world -- but it ended with a couple of unnecessary bruises to kids whose parents should have taught them better.

The bruises will heal, but I can’t help but wonder as passengers rush in around them, have they learned a lesson? What about their parents?

Thankfully, Singapore is a peaceful place. Try this nonsense in Europe, America or Australia, you’ll get more than a brush across the noggin with an elbow… and it won’t be accidental.

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