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Kiasu (Chinese: 驚輸; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: kiaⁿ-su) is a Hokkien word that literally means 'fear of losing' (Vernacular Chinese: 怕输). However its actual usage would imply a meaning more approaching that of "dog in a manger", and yet not quite (Landon Mossburg). Examples of kiasu behaviour includes accumulating too much food on one's plate during a buffet lunch in case there is no more food later or joining a queue many days in advance just to ensure that one successfully gets hold of the limited free tickets to events, promotions and shows such as Singapore's annual National Day Parade.
In Singapore it also manifests itself in queue jumping or barging (for example going into lifts, on and off MRT trains, joining escalators or passing through doors). Certainly no thanks is given for holding open a door or waiting for another to pass. Generally this is achieved by the person barging not looking at the other person or people, and as such when the eye is caught by the person being barged results in either "sorry, lah" with a guilty look or alternatively a torrent of abuse, in particular if the person being barged is outwardly western in appearance; an "ang moh" (roughly translated as "red hair" or "red skin").
It also manifests itself on the roads, particularly where merges occur. The zipper approach to merging is difficult to achieve in a kiasu environment where not being last (if not outright winning) is of primary importance. Again this is achieved by apparently "not seeing" other cars.
The root of this approach was (for a period) actively encouraged by the Singaporean Government, largely out of necessity, through the early 1970s. The Government declared that they would make a success of Singapore through hard work and commerce, and that if you wanted to get ahead, it was up to you. A positive aspect is that the state is not looked upon as a universal provider, and that drive and energy took Singapore through a social and environmental transformation, and turned it into the massive centre for commerce that it is today.
However the Singaporean Government has made attempts to temper Kiasu-ism slightly. Now signs are used at many lifts and MRT doorways to remind people to let those coming off the train to come through before blindly stepping on or in. Beyond that even "Politeness Campaigns" on a public information basis have been employed to attempt to bring a new manner set into use.
This word is so widely used by Singaporeans and Malaysians that it is incorporated into their English vocabulary (in the form of Singlish and Manglish). It is often used in describing the social attitudes of people, especially about Singaporean society. Its widespread use is often because these attitudes are common: not to lose out in a highly competitive society (like the above examples) or to the extent of parents imposing heavy study labour on their children in their wish to make them at the very top of all other students.
Growing up with this attitude, these students often become ambitious businesspeople, with the desire to be on top in wealth and prestige regardless of whether the most prestigious careers are aligned with their true capabilities.
Kiasu has been accepted as an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Kiasu is commonly compared to Kiasi (literally, fear of death) and both are commonly used to describe behaviour where Kiasu or Kiasu-ism means to take extreme means to achieve success and Kiasi or Kiasi-ism means to take extreme means to avoid risk.