Do you know the word kiasu? If not, then be kiasu and google it. You’ll get more than a million hits and learn that, usually associated with Singaporeans, it means “to be afraid of losing out”. You’ll come across references to kiasu parents, kiasu companies and even kiasuapps.
Just four decades ago, the Hokkien term kian su was confined to Singapore army slang. As the dominant lingua franca of Chinese Singaporeans, Hokkien terms first spread among males performing compulsory national service. But before long, this one had entered everyday, albeit colloquial, Singapore English.
The first formal use of kiasuoccurred in 1990, in an official parliamentary document: “I wish that the Government Ministers do not become infected with the same kiasu syndrome that they themselves have advised other people against.”
Since then it has been spotted on numerous occasions, including in local press reports. It surfaces regionally, too. In 1992, Malaysia’s New Straits Timeswrote of “‘kiasu’ parents [loading] their children with excessive, sometimes irrelevant, supplementary materials”.
A decade after its first use in print, the term went global. Since around 2000, the kiasu characteristic has been recognised and documented in management and organisational journals as a desired trait. It has also appeared in the British press. The Guardian,in 2001, reported how “this pursuit of material wealth combined with the constant need to be No 1 has created the Singaporean we hear so much about – the kiasu Singaporean”, and, in 2004, referring to the value of risk aversion, affirmed that “Singaporeans have a word for it: kiasu (afraid to lose out)”.
The term entered the Urban Dictionary in 2003 and the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007. In the same year, the Singaporean restaurant Kiasu opened in London, with The Guardian predicting, with reference to a television show in which contestants guess the definition of an unusual word: “‘kiasu’ will probably be one of the thrice-defined words”.
The turning point on kiasu’s road to legitimacy came with its being used in formal domains, such as parliament and the press. Who dared to use kiasu in parliament? Which editor deemed it publishable? It was these individuals who pushed kiasuout of the shadows and into the mainstream.