There is an unspoken rule of thumb when navigating the aromatic labyrinths that are Singapore’s hawker centres: if the queue for a stall is long, then the food must be good. For a country that prides itself on being a food paradise, with local dishes reflecting its hodgepodge of multiple cultures, this is certainly not any ordinary case of herd mentality.
Rather, the reasoning stems from an inextricable facet of the Singaporean psyche – being kiasu, or Hokkien for ‘afraid to lose’, as any local would tell you. And sure enough, by not getting in line, you would probably be missing out on what might be the best bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) or nasi lemak (coconut milk rice) that you would have ever tasted, at least until your next hunt for the longest queue of hungry people.
Being kiasu is a way of life that, arguably, has both united and divided Singaporeans. On the one hand, it has grown to become somewhat of a rallying point and common identity – as a people we are competitive by nature and constantly strive to emerge as winners. So committed are we to this spirit that we even have a cartoon character named after it (Mr Kiasu).
But on the other hand, being kiasu can mean crossing the line, becoming over-competitive and stepping on each other’s toes, sometimes even literally during morning and evening peak hours on public transport. This struggle to strike a balance is something which underpins many aspects of the country, including its renowned education system.
Boasting a literacy rate of 96%, Singaporeans typically spend six years in primary school, where they given a foundation in a broad range of subjects including English, social studies, physical education, arts and crafts, mathematics and science.
This is often followed by four to five years of secondary education that culminates in the GCE O-level examinations. Most classes are instructed in English, one of four official languages (along with Standard Chinese, Tamil and Malay), and one of the many hints at the country’s past as a British colony.
The only exceptions are ‘Mother Tongue’ classes, which are made compulsory under the government’s bilingualism policy. Co-curricular activities, ranging from sports to performance arts, are also mandatory in primary and secondary schools.
Depending on whether students choose a vocational or academic track, they then go on to polytechnics or junior colleges, where they pursue either an International Baccalaureate diploma or GCE A-levels certificate. More than one in four Singaporeans proceed to attain an undergraduate degree.
For many here, the traditional attitude towards study is a practical and, as you may have guessed, kiasu one – do well or get left behind. But for a country that has no natural resources other than its people, this do-or-die approach when it comes to hitting the books is unsurprising.
Many parents volunteer with “good schools” to increase the chances of their children’s enrollment, while others invest in tuition classes in a bid to ensure that their children ace examinations.
Local filmmaker Jack Neo’s comedy I Not Stupid in 2002 about three primary school pupils struggling with academic pressure was a box-office hit not solely because it accurately highlighted the stresses that come with Singapore’s meritocratic yet competitive education system, but also because it made light of our heavy emphasis on securing good grades.