Portrayal of “Kiasu” Singaporean Society in Rice Bowl: Beyond the Fear Factor

By Chuah Kee Man
The constant demand to preserve one’s status by following social expectations has created a highly competitive spirit especially in Asian societies. Such competitive spirit has been given a label—“kiasu” or “kiasuism”. The term kiasu can be considered to be originated from Singapore and it means “fear of losing out” in the Chinese Hokkien dialect. This so-called syndrome is a prominent issue that is discussed rather extensively in Suchen Christine Lim’s Rice Bowl (1984). The kiasu attitude often contains a negative nuance that is thought to be triggered from the compulsive fear of failure but it is interesting to note that such attitude can also accentuate positive results. Hence, this paper attempts to explore the concept of kiasuism from not only the negative “fearfactor” perspective but also the positive side of it by closely referring to the portrayal of Singaporean society in Rice Bowl.

One of the most notable depictions of negative kiasuism in Rice Bowl lies in the educational system whereby students are “trained” to be conformist and infused with the mindset that success in education means success in life. This in the end produces students who study blindly just to pass examinations without fully utilising their capability to become creative and critical thinkers. A good example in the novel is when Dr Jones deliberately substituted himself with a tape-recorder and the students could actually copy down each word with “no question, no arguments, simply acceptance” (55). The students were also subjected to grave pressure from the “rigid exam system to which they either conforms or losses out” (128). Such situation is a common scenario where the aim of education is solely to get good grades. This is further strengthened by a strong statement mentioned by Mak Sean Loong, “Our educational system domesticates rather than liberates” (125). The “domesticated” Singaporean youth or students are said to possess an obsessive desire for success that any failure is intolerable, which leads to the negative kiasuism that refrains them from risk-taking and calls for conformity. Thus, 1

with that conformity in mind, the vision (as shared by Marie) in injecting the ideology of “education is a freedom from fear, especially the fear of being wrong” (13) is by all counts, a tall order.

In terms of Singaporean social lifestyle, negative kiasuism is illustrated as a stem from greed or materialism which promotes envy and selfishness. The symbol of rice bowl used in the novel signifies the constant pursuit of Singaporeans in making sure that not only the bowl is filled with rice but also there is more than enough to be stored. This in turn created materialistic Singaporeans that strived hard to sustain their social status because for them, money or luxury equals respect. Ken agreed totally with such mentality when he asked the rhetorical question, “And what’s wrong with wanting a little respects? Everybody wants to be respected. Where would you be if nobody respects you?” (117). One extreme example of materialism is portrayed in the incident of Ser Mei’s mother being so calculating in the value of her daughter’s death (103). A mother du e to her selfishness can actually “sacrifice” her own child to gain wealth and respect. This goes to show that the Singaporean society has been built on fear, the fear of losing their hard-won treasures (257), regardless whether the act of “winning the treasures” may cause sufferings or problems to others.

Interesting enough, there are also some depictions of negative kiasuism within the Singapore government itself. The negative kiasuism mentioned in the novel is more of preserving its good image from the outsiders’ eyes. One instance would be the description of Bukit Temasik Road which is capable of carrying eight lanes of traffics (49) while during the time when the novel was set, Singapore’s neighbouring countries including Malaysia are still depending on two-lane roads. Another example is the mentioning of the monsoon drain in that Bukit Temasik area, which was claimed to be the cleanest monsoon drain in South-East Asia (49). The government’s way of structuring its administration and city planning is suggesting to its people that kiasuism is the slogan that every Singaporean should hold on to. This is even clearer when Santok Singh blurted out the question, “How do you find our clean and green city?” to Hans (68). Hans’ answers were rather unacceptable for Santok to the extent that he needs to defend why Singapore needs to be so “kiasu” by creating an “instant” country.

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Although the kiasu behaviour is often regarded as negative, there is also a positive side to it. In education, this side of kiasuism generally leads students to put in extra efforts in their work to check our library resources other than what is required of them for class assignments. Paradoxically, the continuous rush for excellence allows the students to be more autonomous in enhancing their own learning. The kiasu mentality can actually produce excellent students who are “survivors of decades of keen competition” and through that competition, they had learnt not just to chase but “to gallop” and “always ready to change pace according to the requirements of the occasion for” (51). As a matter of fact, positive kiasuism can also produce critical thinkers or students who dare to question just like how Yean, Aileen, Kim, Kenneth and Peter walked out of Dr Jones’ class when he was just “the voices from a tape-recorder”. This is the kind of competition that is needed in the rat society’s survival of the fittest. They are perhaps the very few that understands the concept of positive kiasuism, that generates constructive competition rather than excessive fear of failures.

Moreover, the novel also brings forth another element of positive kiasuism which spawns a self-reliance and strong will among Singaporeans. While many would look at kiasuism as a result of fear, as matter of fact it does make a person or a nation more independent. As a budding nation with little or no resources, Singaporeans needed to rely on themselves in order to avoid them from bowing to the poverty of any situation (50). Santok Singh echoed the same outlook by claiming “but we have no choice. We have to; we have no natural resources.” and “from now on we have no hinterland to depend on; and the world does not owe us a living” (69). This is indeed different from the “cukup makan” (easily satisfied) or “tak apalah” (never mind) attitudes that haunts most Southeast Asian countries, not excluding Malaysia. The “cukup makan” and “tak apalah” attitudes permit giving up one’s own chance even if that is the only golden opportunity available. In contrast, positive kiasuism has pushed the Singaporeans to make the best out of every circumstance (even extreme ones) and excel in various fields. Perhaps, this is the “secret recipe” that has turned Singapore into a modern and developed nation in a very short period of time. To conclude, the portrayal of “kiasu” Singaporean society in Rice Bowl is not solely because of fear of losing out. The perceived negative sides of kiasuism such as 3

selfishness and materialism has often overshadowed the brighter side of it. With positive kiasuism, it will stimulate keen competition and self-reliance. However, it should be clear that such behaviour or mentality is not limited to the boundaries of the island. Unlike other countries, most Singaporeans are proud to accept kiasuism as their identity. This would mean that they are aware of such behaviour and are proud to show it off to the world because for Singaporeans, the true definition of kiasuism is clearly beyond the fear factor.

Work cited Lim, S. C. (1984). Rice Bowl. Malaysia: Times Books International.

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