Asia Inc Sept 93

SOCIETY: Singapore's Kiasu syndrome

Sept 1993

Capitalizing On Kiasu
Three Enterprising Singaporeans have Turned a Local Word into a Money-Making, Attention-Grabbing Concept, and The World is Noticing.


Singapore. On a tour abroad, do you recall seeing the tourist who rushed onto the bus, chose the best seat and then put bags, camera, sunglasses and every other possession on the seats around him to reserve them for family and friends?

* At a department store sale, have you noticed the shopaholic who grabs everything in sight and decides at the cashier's counter whether

to buy it or not? And if short on cash, he hides the bargain-basement offer elsewhere in the store so that he can buy it later?

* At elegant resorts have you seen the tour group that brings plastic flasks to the breakfast buffet and fills them with freshly squeezed orange juice?

If your answer to any of the above is "yes," chances are you've met the boorish grab-all-you-can person, whom the Hokkien Chinese call Kiasu, or one who is afraid to lose out. Every nationality has its own Kiasu-types, but Singaporeans have coined a word and mascot for it. Now fast- food king McDonald's Corp. has even put its stamp of approval on the concept with the local introduction of a chicken sandwich with extra lettuce, extra sauce, extra-long buns and 47 sesame seeds, aptly called the Kiasu Burger. Explains Fanny Lai, McDonald's marketing manager in Singapore: "A year ago we identified Mr. Kiasu as a popular local cartoon character and began conceptualizing our marketing plans with its creators."

And in Singapore, when McDonald's talks, people listen. As the republic's biggest advertiser, McDonald's spends over $4 million annually on advertising and promotions. The Kiasu campaign cost the chain nearly $433,000, and the burgers practically flew out the door. McDonald's expected to sell 1.5 million Kiasu burgers nationwide during the 10-week promotion, which began in late May; it sold 600,000 in the first three weeks. One marketing gimmick when the burger was launched: People who showed up at 6:30 a.m. could buy the burger for one Singapore cent. As many as 135 were sold in half an hour, with Kiasu Singaporeans queuing up as if it was the last sale on Orchard Road.

McDonald's promotion of the Kiasu Burger is part of a worldwide trend for international advertisers to localize their marketing efforts. "Singapore is a global city, an open market, so Kiasuism is one of the few things uniquely Singaporean that sets Singapore apart from the rest of Southeast Asia," says Jamie Pfaff, creative director at Leo Burnett Pte. Ltd., which handles McDonald's account in the U.S. and three Asian countries. "There is a lot of homegrown pride among some Chinese Singaporeans that one of their terms is getting acceptance from a global organization like McDonald's."

Kiasu didn't always have such positive connotations and still remains a somewhat hazy concept. Originally, it was a derisive term used by Singapore's National Servicemen to describe the recruit who tried extra hard to impress his sergeants at boot camp. It began trickling into the civilian vocabulary in 1990, thanks in part to the creativity of three enterprising Singaporeans -- James Suresh, 37; Johnny Lau, 29; and Lim Yu Cheng, 25 -- who met during their army days. They gave form to the word, creating a cartoon character named Mr. Kiasu who spoke Singlish (Everything also in Singaporean English can, lah), wore loud ties, always wanted the best of everything, had a girlfriend called Ai Swee and a dog with a pager. The cartoon was a hit and soon came to symbolize boorishness in the island republic.

The trio, who call themselves the Kiasu Urban Professionals or Kuppies, have become a mini-franchise. In addition to the success of the three Mr. Kiasu books -- Everything Also I Want, Everything Also Must Grab and Everything Also Number One -- they rake in another $150,000 annually from the sale of everything from T-shirts to stickers. The Kiasu magazine, which features the antics of Mr. Kiasu as well as other locally created characters, is also selling briskly: rising from 12,000 copies for the first issue to 24,000 for the third. Says Lau: "We hope this becomes something like Singapore's MAD Magazine."

Enquiries have come from China and Taiwan to market Kiasu products and books, but the Kuppies are treading warily. John Lent, managing editor of Pennsylvania-based WittyWorld magazine, who is working on a book about Asian comics, applauds the caution: "I have seen other instances of marketing cartoons in Asia. Lat (Mohammed Nor Khalid) in Malaysia has gotten a lot of mileage out of his kampong (village) characters and Nonoy Marcelo's Ikabod adorned a number of products at one time -- though according to Marcelo sometimes without his knowledge or permission -- in the Philippines. But what is different with Comix Factory (the Kuppies' company) is the team effort and dedication. Unlike some cartoon factories in the U.S., Comix Factory does not just maintain the character and its products. It continues to create and control Kiasu.

"The humor is first-rate. It is incisive without being offensive and, most importantly, it is relevant. For too long, the cartoons in some parts of Asia aped those of the U.S. and Great Britain, at times forgetting who the audience is. Kiasu does not do that."

Besides McDonald's, other businesses have picked up on the potential of Kiasu. Concorde Hotel, a division of Hotel Properties Ltd., has a Kiasu package at its Kuala Lumpur facility: A special rate of $51 to $62 per night includes a three-minute phone call home, an $8 food- and beverage-redemption voucher per day and late check-out time, plus, two kids can stay with parents for free. Concorde officials say they've seen at least a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in visitor arrivals. Meanwhile, the Marina Mandarin Singapore hotel has staged sketches with local actors on Kiasuism.

Just three years ago, the success of any self-deprecating business in Singapore was unthinkable. A nation determined to be No. 1 and dependent solely on its human resources did not have time for fun and games. Observes Kuppy Lau: "The environment has made Singaporeans Kiasu. We were always told to be No.1, so we had the best airport, the biggest port. We were always told that if we relax others will take over. We are still insecure."

But suddenly, the tiny, intense nation began learning to laugh at itself. If Britain had Mr. Bean, the U.S. Bart Simpson and even Malaysia enjoyed Lat, why not Kiasu in Singapore?

The timing was right: George Nonis, a local cartoonist, had produced the first Singaporean political cartoon book, heralding the generational change in Singapore's leadership -- with Goh Chok Tong, who personified the kinder, gentler nation, stepping into the shoes of stern patriarch Lee Kuan Yew. Entertainer Dick Lee had created the Mad Chinaman, lo- cal rap artist Siva Choy produced an album making fun of Singlish called Why you so like dat?, and writers like Philip Jeyaretnam, Simon Tay, Gopal Baratham and Catherine Lim were raising significant issues like racial identity, sexuality and feminism.

"The climate in Singapore is beginning to relax," agrees Suresh. "Singaporeans are loosening up."

The Kuppies now would like to see their characters come to life in an animated film, but they complain that everyone involved in the process is being Kiasu. For instance, the creative business unit at the Economic Development Board of Singapore, with a mandate to help turn Singapore into a regional arts and cinema hub, gave the Kuppies a thick set of forms to fill out, and asked for their five-year business plan. An animated film would cost $50,000 to $70,000, but so far there aren't any supporters within Singapore, although the U.S. entertainment company Home Box Office (HBO), which has opened an office in the republic, has shown some interest.

The "K" word also has gained international academic attention: The Ohio University Press defined it in A Dictionary of Political Terms in Singapore. But the question some Singaporeans are grappling with is stereotyping. Sociologist Chua Beng Huat is particularly bothered: "One way to look at Mr. Kiasu is to view him as a pathetic, laughable character. That's fine. But it is disastrous to valorize the idea. The term Kiasu is disparaging in Hokkien. If it is seen as something positive, we are in deep trouble." Misreading of Kiasu is frightening, he says, because it isn't someone concerned about losing out and therefore willing to try harder, but someone who is risk-averse.

Chua may have a point -- at least in the eyes of some government officials. They are pushing Singaporean businessmen to venture abroad and chiding them to be less Kiasu and not be afraid to lose. But Suresh says only a small group of people are worried about the Kiasu character. The Kuppies emphasize their good intentions, adding that they consistently oppose bad behavior. They make fun of the nerd who hides library books so that others can't access them for important exams, but slam Mr. Kiasu if he breaks the law by tearing off relevant sheets from a library book. Says Lau: "There is a difference between trying hard and acting unethically. We whack him in our comics if he oversteps the limits."