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Kiasu, Kiasi, Bo Chup — Singapore’s Withering Trinity of Maladies

Kiassu, kiassi and bo chup are quintessential Singapore lexicology. These are Hokkien dialect terms which Singaporeans of all races are familiar with. All three have negative connotations, and I am ahgast that some writers suggest these are cultural embodiments of Singaporeans. These Singapore local catch phrases or terms are human traits that are certainly to be found in every other country.

Before kiassu, there was FOMO, the fear of missing out. Standard English dictionaries describe FOMO as a sort of social anxiety, a nagging feeling that others are living more fulfilled lives and having more fun. It is a noun for a state of being.

The Oxford English Dictionary carried the term ‘Kiassu’ in 2007, but it does not mean the word has gone into the English vocabulary. OED describes it as a term that refers to a person who is “governed by self-interest, typically manifesting as a selfish, grasping attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something.” I beg to defer this interpretation. As a native speaker, I think I have the right to profess some Hokkien exegesis.

The literal translation ‘kia’ is fear and ‘su’ is to loose. Kiassu is more than FOMO. and much more nuanced than the OED description. Firstly, kiassu is a noun, it does not describe a personality flaw, but rather, it describes the specific action taken. Secondly, it is not an ‘attitude’ arising from a fear of loosing out, but rather, an anxiety. It is thus a defence mechanism, not an offensive preemptive action as the OED interpretation suggests. And thirdly, the act is the response to the anxiety. This act is arguably but not invariably, negative and selfish. It is tainted with excessive consumption and denies opportunities to others. But it could also be ethics neutral, amoral, and even positive.

Some simple examples to illustrate. :

- In early days of the pandemic, the shelves ran out of masks. (Note this happened all over the world). This was manifestly kiassu. There is the fear of virus. Folks rushed out to buy in excess of their needs. The nuance here is the bi-amplication of the act which is (1) buying in excess of what’s needed, and (2) in doing so, denies opportunity to others.

- To prepare for a parade the next day, the recruit polished his boots for 5 hours. The fear of being called out and loosing his credit ratings drove him to polish excessively for what is a 15 minutes job. However, there is nothing selfish about it although the negative aspect of kiassuism is always present. A fun parade commander may choose to set a new standard for shining boots. The recruit sabotages his mates.

- With a test coming up, a student hogs the library space and books so his mates had less access to critical materials. This is typical kiassu. The drive is exam anxiety, there is selfish dictate to deny access to study materials to others, and a hoarding of excess materials. However, there is a positive effect in commitment and effort to study.

It is the act of excessive buying of masks, over polishing the boots, and hoarding of library books that is the manifestation of kiassu. Do these three acts colour the entire being of these three persons? Are they wired such that all stimuli will trigger a kiassu response? To interpret kiassu as a personal attribute implies a non-empirical claim. The Hokkien vernacular is more forgiving, attributing kiassu to only the acts in question.

Kiassi literally translated means fear of death, ‘kia’ as for fear, ‘si’ as for death. Death is an exaggeration. It is simply an act, or an omission, to avoid a perceived personal risk. The English equivalent is risk aversion. The nuance in Kiassi is the tinge of cowardice in taking a certain course of action, or avoiding to act. A typical example in Singapore is a huge crowd in an opposition rally seldom translate to votes. Most people who would have voted the opposition do not do so because of the unfounded fear they may be penalised in some ways, such as application for hawker permit rejected, children’s school choice frustrated, etc. Kiassi is also a trait that is associated with a specific act or omission. And it also does not imply total negativities for as we know, risk aversion is sometimes an inner voice of restraint.

Bo chup simply means apathy. There are no nuances. It is apparent kiassi has a lot to account for bo chup. A risk aversion withdraws one into a cocoon of indifference or apathy. If I were to ask, do you know what the 3 maladies mean and which is the worst? and your answer is ”I don’t know, and I don’t care because it doesn’t affect me”, then you would have answered the question.

There are of course many Singaporeans who have contributed their wealth, ideas and time in service of the less fortunate, or some other worthy causes. One such person I have great respect for is Gerard Ee. Many do so quietly and nonchalantly and in a disinterested manner. On the other hand, there has risen a new phenomenon of philantrophic capitalism in the West. Philanthropy is given a bad name when people like Bill Gates, George Soros and many other billionaire progressive liberals seek to use their wealth to further more economic and political capture disguised as voluntary funding.

It has been my observation in the past that if one were to suffer some mishap in public in Singapore, such as in an accident, it is more likely the one to offer assistance is a Malay or Indian. Chinese tended to be more bo chup in public, which could be due to our reticent nature. In private, their generosity is as good as any others. However, I am glad the young today appears to have improved, compared to my generation.

The term bo chup as we apply locally is more in relation to apathy generally, in anything and everything, small and big. In my time, I have done small little things, like stopping my car in the middle of the road to help an invalid to cross to the other side, given lifts to total strangers along un-serviced roads, bought food for distribution to homeless old folks and street kids in Manila, etc. Have you done some little deeds like giving your seat to elderlies or handicapped. I am inspired by people like Gilbert Goh who has been seen often distributing food to the needy.

Apathy is not limited to lack of civic consciousness or volunteerism. It includes a lack of interest in pretty much everything generally outside of a person’s narrow world of existential concerns. I have educated and successful friends and relatives and I cannot have a conversation about UFOs, of US politics, Clinton body counts, etc. A kind explanation is some people are very focused in their world and they have no time for anything else. Those with extreme religious fervor tend to belong to this group.

“Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society.” … Socrates

Apathy births tolerance. In of its own, tolerance is neither positive nor negative, it all depends on context. Being colour blind is good, but tolerating drug abuse is not. Tolerance borne out of sheer laziness due to indifference is nothing to cheer about, unless one appreciates a hobo who hasn’t taken a shower for weeks. The epitome of hippie culture is apathy and tolerance. Try living in Woodstock for months with a mass of naked bodies and no comfort rooms in sight. When the need to get the next fix is the only motivation in life, decay is inevitable. Witness the decadent streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other liberal cities in US.

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil” .. Plato

But everybody is entitled to what interests them and what don’t. It is not for me to question nor complain. However, no man is an island. Living in a social construct demands of us to be concerned with the framework of how our community is organised. It is in the national interest, and a social responsibility, that we cannot bo chup about public affairs, which encompasses politics. Public apathy corrupts and disinsentivises governments to low levels of public service delivery. One cannot bo-chup at the polls and then wonder why foreigners are taking away local jobs.

“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ~ Bishop Desmond Tutu

I have well-educated successful people asking me why do you bother with this, why waste your time if you can’t do anything about it, It has always been that way lah, there is nothing anyone can do. What do you get out of it. Have food on the table is priority, etc etc. The typical bo-chupie. Even in the face of injustice being done to some, one gets no response from this mindset of indifference. Apathy is the fence-sitter’s foul wine of oblivion.

“The refusal to take sides on great moral issues is itself a decision. It is a silent acquiescence to evil. The Tragedy of our time is that those who still believe in honesty lack fire and conviction, while those who believe in dishonesty are full of passionate conviction.” … Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

It is appropriate that I close with the quotes of 2 brilliant clergy as I touch on ethics and morality. Everyone has the right to mind their own business but a minimalist principle ought to cover public affairs, ethical and moral matters as issues one cannot bo chup. To Sheen’s quote, I would not say all, but most ordinary honest, hard-working folks simply want to get on with their lives. They are trustworthy in nature and outlook and tend to be indifferent to the affairs of governance, leaving everything to the hands of others. Sheen is right that these folks tend to have less fire and conviction. The dishonest, who has agendas and schemes, these are indeed full of passionate conviction. Lee Kuan Yew once said he had high respect for the communist cadres whose conviction can sustain them for the years of hardship in the Malaysian jungles.

A parallel can be seen in the US where the apathy of conservatives allowed progressive liberals insidiously and slowly over decades, to capture the megaphones of media, entertainment industry, institutions of learning, as well as various agencies of the government. The agenda of the left almost succeeded in turning the country socialist. Now at the edge of the cliff, the American conservatives have awoken from their slumber of apathy. A grassroots level of conviction to actively participate in protecting election integrity warrants a red tide in this mid-term election. Bearing poll cheating by the Democrats, the Republicans are expected to gain back control of both houses to re-chart the destiny of their country away from the disastrous policies of Joe Biden.

Kiassu, kiassi and bo chup are the withering trinity of maladies prevalent in Singapore. They are not our cultural traits. But they are badass traits that we should not be proud of. There is nothing to be proud of when the Oxford English Dictionary puts them out for mention.

 

Pat Low

 * The author blogs at Down The Rabbit Hole.

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

13 Responses to “Kiasu, Kiasi, Bo Chup — Singapore’s Withering Trinity of Maladies”

  • Western Sheep:

    Simple repeating of a fake view of US. Republics will save US. Democrats will save US. Blah. Blah. Blah. In reality, R and D are both disastrous for US and for the world, including the western world. Euros down, pound down, energy up multiple times, …

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  • Ah Heng:

    What is so good about Republicans.
    Same as Democrats.
    Both are goons.
    Make America Great Again.
    Maybe employ Lee Hsien Long.

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  • Eastern Donkeys Farking:

    Western Sheep:
    Simple repeating of a fake view of US. Republics will save US. Democrats will save US. Blah. Blah. Blah. In reality, R and D are both disastrous for US and for the world, including the western world. Euros down, pound down, energy up multiple times, …

    Also donkeys are simply hiding the real facts – china property sector is free-falling, there is no exit plan for their zero-covid policy, market valuation has dropped 30-40% so far, many more jobless with unemployment increasing, angmoh coys which had helped lift many out of poverty are moving out of China, the ideological failures like GLF is painted as “acts of God”, say BFF with Russia but recent G20 meeting China also condemned BFF’s war in Ukraine, etc…

    Didn’t donkeys say point one finger at others but 4 fingers point back at self? Donkeys double-talking makes China so xiasuay.

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Simply put if you have 2 of the 5Cs…why chap? Living in a world of Illusion ignoring the lesser priviledge is NOT thier CONcern…CONvicted CONvicted by LieCONyou

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  • only stupid people vote pap:

    the author listed the 3 traits, kiassu, kiassi and bo chup, and said they are the withering trinity of maladies prevalent in Singapore.

    she forgot to mention from whence the sinkies learned them.

    in case pap IBs say otherwise, we say it here clearly sinkies learned them from pap.

    from pap kindergarten to pap schools to pap Us, sinkies learned that unless they do what the pap folks do they shall be ostracized in own land of birth.

    kiassu – in order to ensure pap wins every GE, pap has legislated pap PA, pap grassroots, and all such schemes, to thwart OPPO operations in wards in which OPPO has decidedly won and has control of the respective town councils. of course the pap legislations are all approved under a pliant pap parleement.

    kiassi – as all political parties need S$ to function, the pap folks ensure all the sinkie monies are under pap control, from the S$B in pap PA, to the S$B in temasick and S$B in gic. years ago, pap even lied and denied that monies in temasick monies in gic monies in every pap owned business were from sinkie CPF. only through persistent questioning by OPPO that the truth was finally revealed to sinkies.

    bo chup – pap knows the median wage in pap run Singapore is S$3,500pm. even with the gimmicky include CPF numbers, the median wage is not even S$5,000pm. yet pap says S$1m HDB is market pricing for public housing and is Affordable. The rest of the pap folks in pap parleement all silently bo chup in truly asking how S$5,000pm (pap number includes CPF and S$3,500pm is the sinkie true number before deduction of CPF) can afford even half priced S$500k HDB 99 years lease hold rental units.

    if sinkies truly want a decent lifestyle, and a far more quality one, then, the only way for this to happen to remove all the self paying on an ownself justify ownself S$m pa basis pap folks. All of them, to the last number, really show why Singapore sinkies today are kiassu kiassi and bo chup.

    sinkies see pap folks do, sinkies follow suit do, and sometimes do them far better than the pap folks.

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  • theforgottongeneration:

    Aiyoh, speak pappies language lah. Whenever million$ clowns FAIL, then it is:
    kiasu + kiasi + bo chup + bo liao = NO BLAMING CULTURE + continue drawing million$ salary.

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  • Western Sheep:

    You sia suay yourself. Make up so much fake stuff. Cannot read, cannot count, just talk rubbish.

    Give you a chance to dig a deeper hole for yourself. Show proof that China condemned Russia in Ukriane war.

    Eastern Donkeys Farking: Also donkeys are simply hiding the real facts – china property sector is free-falling, there is no exit plan for their zero-covid policy, market valuation has dropped 30-40% so far, many more jobless with unemployment increasing, angmoh coys which had helped lift many out of poverty are moving out of China, the ideological failures like GLF is painted as “acts of God”, say BFF with Russia but recent G20 meeting China also condemned BFF’s war in Ukraine, etc…

    Didn’t donkeys say point one finger at others but 4 fingers point back at self? Donkeys double-talking makes China so xiasuay.

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  • Fake and Lying:

    Eastern Donkeys Farking: Also donkeys are simply hiding the real facts – china property sector is free-falling, there is no exit plan for their zero-covid policy, market valuation has dropped 30-40% so far, many more jobless with unemployment increasing, angmoh coys which had helped lift many out of poverty are moving out of China, the ideological failures like GLF is painted as “acts of God”, say BFF with Russia but recent G20 meeting China also condemned BFF’s war in Ukraine, etc…

    Didn’t donkeys say point one finger at others but 4 fingers point back at self? Donkeys double-talking makes China so xiasuay.

    So you have changed your moniker, you fake catholic and lying liar.

    We are sure very soon you will join the other 2 CIA operatives who used to call themselves I_am_Mike and BK.

    BTW your BS about your so called catholic has not produced a decent human being worthy to be respected.

    Your bring shame to the Catholics who are affected by your fake and lying.

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  • idontbelieveinccpbs:

    This is the 61% voters.. who complains and hope for change but vote for PAPPY.

    Unlike Malaysian voters with big balls… no wonder our largest migrants to Singapore are Malaysians and they are smarter and work harder like Khw Boon Wan the cow.

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  • Exposed!:

    Another pappy ib who pretended to be oppo.

    idontbelieveinccpbs:
    This is the 61% voters.. who complains and hope for change but vote for PAPPY.

    Unlike Malaysian voters with big balls… no wonder our largest migrants to Singapore are Malaysians and they are smarter and work harder like Khw Boon Wan the cow.

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  • Pain:

    People will change when things do not go their way…
    When suffering comes in…change will be near.
    Be patient,COL is going up…retrenchment also.
    The pressure is on…

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  • only stupid people vote pap:

    Pain:
    People will change when things do not go their way…
    When suffering comes in…change will be near.
    Be patient,COL is going up…retrenchment also.
    The pressure is on…

    indeed COL is on the up and up.

    even so we always say if whole life has never owned a care then that life has been wasted.

    don’t buy pap overpriced HDB. 1st, pap room sizes have all become smaller. the so called 4 room today is no different in size from the 3 room in former days.

    don’t marry if cannot afford car. if marry don’t have children. why knowing you are already struggling under pap system you want to bring children into the pap world to be Grab driver Foodpanda deliverer Insurance agent Property agent?

    take car COEs. pap went for ZERO car growth and yet admitted the S$ loaded aliens into the island. these S$ loaded folks do not waste their years in NSF NSR. they are parasites who leech on you. so why let them take up your COE? buy that car. and let pap worry about importing a ceca INDIAN as the prime minister.

    of course if sinkies are smart, all sinkies need to do to reverse everything bad in pap island is to vote OPPO. let OPPO form coalition government. there are so many capable honest good men and women in PSP WP. vote them.

    then, can marry in own land of birth. can even have 2 or more children. can buy that car too. since new government will send back to their own land of birth the 2m+ aliens and 0.5m+ PRs, collectively known as parasites.

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  • idontbelieveinccpbs:

    Singaporeans deserve to be bullied and downgraded to Food Delivery and PHV, they dont have courage like Malaysians to VTO.

    Tech: May I say this is one of the instances I would agree with you. Most Sinkies have a high threshold for pain, I would love to see how high it would go. lol

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