Singapore Files: The Tissue Culture

October 15, 2008 / Culture / 8 Comments

One of the strangest sights you’ll ever find in Singapore food courts is the rows upon rows of pocket tissues obnoxiously placed on empty desks or seats. If you’ve never been to Singapore, you’ll probably think these tissues are for your use.

Not in a million years.

These pocket tissues, occasionally replaced by umbrellas, are used to reserve seats, so that people may scour for food without worrying about seat availability. It’s an interesting way of making reservations. But more importantly, it’s very reflective of Singaporean culture and mentality. Part of Singapore’s culture is centered around kiasu-ism. Kiasu means “to be afraid to lose” in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect. It’s often used a derogatory term by other Asians to describe the few Singaporeans who engage in inconsiderate, sometimes petty and overly self-centered actions.

Contrary to popular regional opinion, I think kiasu is not a bad mentality to have. Having been working in Singapore for two months, I can proudly proclaim that the kiasu mentality have paved the way to success for the company and for the country. In the name of kiasu, we worked tirelessly to be absolutely prepared. We would over-prepare for everything, and work through almost all possible worst case scenarios. Without that kiasu element in our genes, the first F1 Grand Prix in Singapore wouldn’t have had such raving reviews.

Come to think of it, pocket tissues are pretty useful – be it for running noses or running corporations. But we should perhaps exercise some restraint when it comes to other uses like reserving tables. After all, being called kiasu for the wrong reasons isn’t exactly something to be proud of.

New Category: The Singapore Files

So this is the new category I promised. It’s called ‘The Singapore Files’. I think I might be stoned to death by some blindly patriotic Singaporeans, but I’m just a repatriated third culture kid offering my honest opinion on my country’s culture. It’s not a 100% accurate reflection on Singapore’s diverse culture, but it’s probably a little more objective and a little less hostile.

So are there any quirks with your home culture? What do you like (or not like) about it? Do share!