If there is a single word that sums up the Singaporean existential condition, it is kiasu, a term that means "afraid to lose." In a society that begins tracking its students into test-based groups at age ten ("special" and "express" are the top tiers; "normal" is the path for those headed for factory and service-sector work), kiasu seeps in early, eventually germinating in brilliant engineering students and phallic high-rises with a Bulgari store on the ground floor. Singaporeans are big on being number one in everything, but in a kiasu world, winning is never completely sweet, carrying with it the dread of ceasing to win. When the Singapore port, the busiest container hub in the world, slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage handled, it was a national calamity.
One day, as part of a rehearsal for the National Day celebration, I was treated to a veritable lollapalooza of kiasu. Singapore armed forces playacted at subduing a cabal of "terrorists" who had shot a half dozen flower-bearing children in red leotards, leaving them "dead" on the stage. "We're not North Korea, but we try," said one observer, commenting on the rolling tanks, zooming Apache helicopters, and earsplitting 21-gun salutes. You hear it all the time: The only way for Singapore to survive being surrounded by massive neighbors is to remain constantly vigilant. The 2009 military budget is $11.4 billion, or 5 percent of GDP, among the world's highest rates.
You never know where the threat might come from, or what form it will take. Last summer everyone was in a panic about swine flu. Mask-wearing health monitors were positioned around the city. On Saturday night, no matter how stylo milo your threads, there was no way of getting into a club on trendy Clarke Quay without a bouncer pressing a handheld thermometer to your forehead. It was part of the unending Singaporean state of siege. Many of the newer public housing apartments come with a bomb shelter, complete with a steel door. After a while, the perceived danger and excessive compliance with rules get internalized; one thing you don't see in Singapore is very many police. "The cop is inside our heads," one resident says.
Self-censorship is rampant in Singapore, where dealing with the powers that be is "a dance," says Alvin Tan, the artistic director of the Necessary Stage, which has put on dozens of plays dealing with touchy issues such as the death penalty and sexuality. Tan spends a lot of time with the government censors. "You have to use the proper approach," he says. "If they say 'south,' you don't say 'north.' You say 'northeast.' Go from there. It's a negotiation."
Those who do not learn their steps in the dance soon get the message. Consider the case of Siew Kum Hong, a 35-year-old Singaporean who thought he'd be furthering the cause of openness by serving as an unelected NMP, or nominated member of parliament. With only four opposition MPs elected in the history of the country, the ruling party thought NMPs might provide the appearance of "a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated." This was how Siew Kum Hong told me he viewed his position, but he was passed over for another term.
"I thought I was doing a good job," a surprised Kum Hong says. What it came down to, he surmises, were "those 'no' votes." When he first voted no, on a resolution he felt discriminated against gays, his colleagues "went absolutely silent. It was the first time since I'd been in parliament that anyone had ever voted no." When he voted no again, this time on a law lowering the number of people who could assemble to protest, the reaction was similarly cool. "So much for alternative views," Kum Hong says.