Kiasuism, a Singaporean national identity

‘Everything also I want, everything also must grab, everything also number one.’

Mr. Kiasu, a cartoon character in Johnny Lau’s comic books in the 1990s, extreme, but extremely relatable too. (Image: Goodreads).

Economic achievement can be used to construct a national identity. When a nation is ‘imagined’ through common aspiration for materials, it is known as material nationalism. It is especially potent for countries where people had shared memories struggling for survival to foster ‘collective identification’. Since independence, Singapore’s ruling elites, People’s Action Party (PAP), have used economic achievement as an effective governing device with astounding success, building a society that is ‘meritocratic at every level’. Singapore boasts Asia’s highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita with US$66263 (IMF 2021) and world’s most competitive economy (World Economic Forum 2020). Accordingly, Singapore’s economic success is tantamount to PAP’s success because ‘we made it so’, not due to ‘natural course of events’. However, as pursuing excellence becomes a national fixation, a phenomenon of kiasuim becomes pervasive as citizens feel the constant need to outcompete. Through analysing the annual National Day Rally (NDR) speeches, this article examines how, on one hand, meritocracy enables Singapore’s economic achievement, but on the other hand, goes awry as toxic kiasuism becomes the unintended national identity.

The ‘Singapore Story’ is one ‘from third world to first’. Meritocracy seeks the glue capitalism, Asian values and Confucianism together, and justify the economic achievement from a national perspective. However, there is an inherent tension in the approach. Capitalism rewards individualism but Asian and Confucian values promote egalitarianism and sense of community. Therefore, meritocracy attempts to bridge this gap by encouraging individuals to excel, but give back and contribute to the greater good. It is a powerful concept, as Singaporeans are made responsible for this success, however this success looks like, since they are not defined by ‘birth or the potential goods of a specific biological identity’.

Meritocracy motivates individuals based on performance. The 2012 World Values Survey found that Singaporeans are more likely than Chinese to need ‘larger income differences as incentives for individuals’. Thus, meritocracy is prevalent in official documents, policies, National Education (NE) and NDR speeches. Televised live every August since 1971, the incumbent Prime Minister (PM) addresses the social, economic, religious, and racial issues concerning Singaporeans, as well as the ‘raison d’etre, the background, the reasons, the problems’ concerning Singapore. The speech has a standard format, starting with Singapore’s history of vulnerability, today’s threats, major policy announcements and a report card of PAP’s successes. The content appears to be a matter-of-fact, but reinforces fear and anxiety. The recount of a vulnerable history highlights the imminent threats that loom ahead. Achievements are based on facts and figures, but remind Singaporeans to work even harder. Similarly, new policies are mostly pivoted towards achieving further results.

The National Day Rally speeches are situated within the socioeconomic, ethnological, and political debates, which spark nationwide discussion and influence General Election (GE) swings. This articles analyses landmark speeches by the three prime ministers, and attempts a philosophical treatment on how economic achievement is made possible by meritocracy but fuelling the proliferation of kiasuism too.

Image: National Day Rally Speeches. National Archives of Singapore.

PM Lee Kuan Yew (1966–1990)

‘… We are really discarding our able parents in the next generation and doubling the less able.’ (NDR 1983).

MM Lee’s most controversial opinion was encouraging college educated graduates to produce another ‘talented generation’. He feels it is ‘wrong’ for educated women to be single, and the less educated to have children ‘without restraint’. The Social Development Unit, the reversal of Stop at Two to Three or More, if You Can Afford It, and the Graduate Mothers Scheme eroded PAP’s popular vote by 12.9% in the 1984 GE. Such ‘discriminatory social engineering’ stems from the belief that a competitive economy needs constant supply of talents.

‘Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up’ (NDR 1988).

After 28 years as the world’s longest serving PM, PM Lee stayed in the cabinet with new titles Senior Minister and Minister Mentor. Similarly, most Singaporeans are unwilling to retire at 63 and seek reemployment till 67 or take up freelance or part-time projects. Only 40% want to stop working permanently in a poll.

PM Goh Chok Tong (1991–2003)

‘Ministerial pay is more than an emotional problem to me. It is a real problem. I have to produce results for Singapore. I ask you not to make it more difficult for me to recruit the best team for Singapore.’ (NDR 1996).

Singaporean ministers are paid S$1.1m, and the PM S$2.2m annually, the world’s highest (Public Service Division 2022). However, the relative lack of corruption is often used to justify the meritocratic approach of selecting candidates of high calibre. Qualifications are especially important in civil service, and are impossible without stellar grades.

‘Fair-weather Singaporeans will run away whenever the country runs into stormy weather. I call them “quitters”. Fortunately, “quitters” are in the minority. The majority of Singaporeans are “stayers”.’ (NDR 2002).

Bilingual Singaporeans no longer felt that they ‘needn’t be in Singapore to earn money’, while a third felt ‘no sense of belonging here’ in a poll. Economic considerations are the priority for where Singaporeans work, study or live, an outcome of being defined by money rather than cultural identities.

PM Lee Hsien Loong (2004-present)

We’ve got to teach less to our students so that they will learn more.’ (NDR 2004).

PM Lee called for schools to ‘cut down on some syllabus’ to give kids and teachers ‘more space’. However, school programs such as the Gifted Education Programme, Integrated Programme and Independent Schools scheme are designed to ‘nurture a pool of elites’ , who have no choice but to study more privately.

‘… We’ve said, “No” to the casino for a very long time. I’ve said “No” to the casino for a very long time… But the subject didn’t die and we have to reconsider because the argument comes up, the situation changes.’ (NDR 2004).

Casinos had been vehemently opposed by the late PM Lee too (‘over my dead body’). The dramatic change in attitude from both Lees was to ‘grow tourism traffic’, and build an ‘exciting liveable global city’ with ‘buzz’.

‘And Singapore has to stay special because if we are just a dull little spot on the map, a smudge, we are going to count for nothing. We have to be a shining red dot. If we are soft and flabby, we are going to be eaten up.’ (NDR 2015).

The imagery of the insignificant red dot highlights the urgency to be ‘rugged’ and ‘steely’ for survival. Singaporeans concurred with PAP’s vision, evidenced by 70% of the popular vote in the 2015 GE. The trope of outdoing others and working extra hard to survive is consistent in every speech by all three PMs.

PAP sustains its nationalistic rhetoric through state media and national education, the twin ‘ideological state apparatuses’. After Singapore’s separation from Malaya, the concept of ‘Singaporean’ was instantly manufactured, as acknowledged by the late PM Lee, ‘we did not want to be Singaporeans. We wanted to be Malayans’. Due to the ‘ideology of survival’, the identity of ‘Singaporean’ with ‘no substantiative content’, was transformed by the ‘pioneer generation’ to one defined by money. However, the popular assertion that Singapore was a ‘backward fishing village’ before PAP’s rule is unfounded; it is propagated by the apparatuses to magnify PAP’s achievements. In fact, Singapore was already an important entrepôt. Yet, PAP makes these claims to be the truth as there is neither viable opposition nor freedom of speech. The media is explicitly not allowed to be the ‘invigilator, adversary and inquisitor’ of PAP. Only till 2011 was there a breakthrough for the opposition, Workers’ Party to win one Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and another in 2021.

Besides rhetoric and propaganda, the government makes use of icons, slogans, events, the arts and buildings to enhance international image, showcase soft power and thus affirm the identify of high-performance citizens. Some notable examples include, ‘Pioneer Generation Package’, ‘SG50’, Jewel, the Youth Olympics, Trump-Kim summit, and Crazy Rich Asians. Ironically, the film ‘llo llo’ that won the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes depicts how the young actor Jiale spends most of his time with the domestic helper because ‘mom and dad are not home’. It is common for parents to be absent and leave the care to maids as they are busy working. Material is both the ‘condition’ and the ‘basis’ of the Singaporean national identity. Economic success is regarded ethically and normatively superior. This makes one Singaporean more worthy of a hierarchical position than another. As a result Singapore stratifies itself and the world that way in order to locate itself.

One of the most significant implications of embracing meritocracy to drive the economy is the development of kiasuism, an ‘ugly Singaporean phenomenon’, remarked coarsely by The Economist in 1995. The Hokkien phrase literally translates to ‘怕输’ or ‘afraid of losing out’. In fact, Singlish, the mixture of English, various Chinese dialect, Tamil, and Malay is often seen as the defining characteristic of Singaporeans due to the unique ‘affectionate’ twists in English. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘an obsessive desire for value for money’. On the surface, kiasuism seems to glorify hard work and be used to spur innovation. In effect, Kiasuim is the ‘negative complement of competitiveness’, and reflects fear, insecurity, selfishness, envy, and the need to be ‘get ahead of others’. As a result, kiasuism is a ‘tactic’, that fosters extreme competition with a ‘comparative advantage component’. PAP had to launch the National Courtesy Campaign in 1993 to counter kiasuism.

Another glaring impact is widening inequality as a successful nation does not guarantee success for every citizen. The ideal of meritocracy promises the ‘same chance of success’. In reality, the interests of the elites are further entrenched. Often, one’s success is measured by ‘test-based metrics’ that are susceptible to Goodhart’s Law, which states that ‘any number used in policy decisions soon ceases to be useful for policy decisions’. Because merit is gauged by standardized scores, kiasu Singaporeans send their children to elite schools and expensive private tuition. This distorts genuine merit because those without resources and with talent are left behind. Meritocracy, which rewards the talented, also becomes the culprit for ‘systemic division between the haves and the have-nots’. This inequality is also exacerbated by Singapore’s wealth transfer through progressive tax and spending on social housing by the Housing Development Board (HDB). This in turn, is linked to the greater ‘stewardship’ of the Lees to justify their dictatorship as meritocratic and meritocratic-enabling. Therefore, meritocracy is an ‘inherently unstable concept instantiated problematically in policy and practice’. The late PM Lee admitted that there was a ‘high level of inequality’ in Singapore that was imbued ‘solidly behind a meritocratic system’.

Yet, meritocracy is not static, and can be malleable by ‘continuous maintenance and adjustments’. PAP refashioned meritocracy as a more palatable concept, with a ‘dizzying slew of compound terms’, such as ‘inclusive meritocracy’, ‘compassionate meritocracy’, ‘meritocracy of equals’ and ‘continuing meritocracy’. The change in NDR location to ITE Central College was a landmark decision, as PM Lee shows his ‘longstanding commitment to investing in every Singaporean to his full potential’. Many mockingly call ITE colleges, ‘It’s The End’ rather than the formal name ‘Institute of Technical Education’, as only those who cannot qualify for junior college or polytechnic attend it. In addition, he introduced bands of grades to replace Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score, to alleviate pressure. PSLE is the most competitive national exam as students are promoted to secondary schools. These policy changes are in effect the remedy for the repercussions of kiasuism.

Through the NDR speeches, National Education and the media, economic achievement has become the defining characteristic of a thriving Singapore. Singaporeans are convinced that being economically competitive is most viable way to survive as a small city-state. Via the kiasu-DNA, we tirelessly chase the dream of first-class citizens with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Yet, the pursuit of excellence and upward mobility is not inherently wrong, as long as it is not at the expense of fellow countrymen. Above all, Singaporeans need to keep in mind that we should never sacrifice our sense of self, freedom, conscience and aspirations in the quest for materials. If succeeding in a capitalist meritocracy is the identity that Singaporeans gladly accept, then we have to embrace the attached kiasuism with more moral sensibility and responsibility.

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