If there is a single word that sums up the Singaporean existential condition, it is kiasu, a term that means "afraid to lose." In a society that begins tracking its students into test-based groups at age ten ("special" and "express" are the top tiers; "normal" is the path for those headed for factory and service-sector work), kiasu seeps in early, eventually germinating in brilliant engineering students and phallic high-rises with a Bulgari store on the ground floor. Singaporeans are big on being number one in everything, but in a kiasu world, winning is never completely sweet, carrying with it the dread of ceasing to win. When the Singapore port, the busiest container hub in the world, slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage handled, it was a national calamity.
The word has made it into the dictionary and has even become a dish:
… kiasu is a noun and adjective from the Chinese Hokkien dialect, meaning "extreme fear of losing, or of being second best". It's a notion the neurotically ambitious Singaporean and Malaysian professional middle classes regard as so self-defining that their sitcom character Mr Kiasu is a similar emblem of endearingly gruesome national character as Mr Brent is to us.
Having made its way to the Singapore-English hybrid tongue called Singlish, kiasu completed its trek across the etymological world in March when the Oxford English Dictionary included it on its quarterly list of new words, thereby qualifying it for Call My Bluff.
But enough of the linguistics and on to today's restaurant, which by way of an exquisite red herring worthy of Gogol happens to be called Kiasu. And which, by way of an enchanting irony worthy of a writer begging for the sack, need have no fear of being second best itself.
And on Singlish (again from the NGM):
… the government has maintained a campaign against the use of "Singlish," the multiculti gumbo of Malay, Hokkien Chinese, Tamil, and English street patois that is Singapore's great linguistic achievement. As you sit in a Starbucks listening to teens saying things like "You blur like sotong, lah!" (roughly, "You're dumber than squid, man!"), Singlish seems a brilliantly subversive attack on the very conformity the government claims it is trying to overcome. Then again, one of Singlish's major conceits is the ironic lionization of the flashy, down-market "Ah Beng" culture of Chinese immigrant thugs and their sunglass-wearing Malay counterparts.
A previous post here.