01/15/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Kiasu: Does It Still Hold True?

Seeing the world up close and personal is one of the things I enjoy most about my job. I welcome the surprises... but I also like to be prepared. So, before moving from the East Coast of the United States to an island nation in Southeast Asia, I researched what I needed to know to make it a smooth and smart transition.

I checked out the weather. No problem. Summers in the Big Apple can be hot and steamy, so I was well prepared for the equatorial climate and polar-temperature air conditioning of the Lion City. What about language? No problem there, either. New York is about as polylingual as a city can get, plus I speak a couple of other languages, so Singlish and Manglish don't worry me, lah. And the food? Yes, please. This region is a magnet for foodies -- and deservedly so.

What about culture? I found plenty of information about the wonderful mix of peoples that have shaped local cultures over the centuries, but I also came across references to something that sounded less ideal: kiasu. It has been described as a mix of selfishness, pushiness, and competitiveness, plus a fear of losing or missing out, and is said to be characteristic of the people of Singapore and Malaysia. My first thought was that this trait doesn't sound particularly unusual or distinctive. In my experience, those are relatively common human characteristics. Besides, I don't trust stereotypes; I prefer to experience things for myself and carry out research if possible.

As luck would have it, over the summer of 2012 Havas Worldwide commissioned a massive global consumer study among 10,219 people in 31 countries. Included in the survey were over 500 respondents from Malaysia and Singapore. The survey didn't look specifically at kiasu, but its focus was on attitudes and behaviors related to citizenship and community, so I've been able to see how my new home compares with the rest of the world.

The first data point I looked at called into question the purported "selfishness" of my new neighbors: Among the global sample, 55 percent of respondents had recycled regularly in the previous 12 months. With so many people living in such a small space, it's not surprising that the Singapore government is keen on recycling or that a solid 56 percent of our Singapore respondents are recyclers. Perhaps more surprising is that a much higher 67 percent of Malaysian respondents recycle. The pattern was similar when I looked at the percentages of respondents who are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints and/or live in a more environmentally conscious way: Globally, 30 percent of respondents are doing so, as are 28 percent of Singaporeans. Once again, Malaysians came out on top, with nearly 4 in 10 (37 percent) claiming to be living more eco-consciously.

What about charitable giving? Globally, just more than half the sample (53 percent) and precisely half of Singaporeans had donated clothing and/or other items to charity in the year prior, as did 56 percent of Malaysians. The numbers dipped when it came to donating money, but they were still highest in Malaysia (44 percent), and this time were higher in Singapore (35 percent) than among the global sample (28 percent).

Idealism was strong throughout the sample: Seven in 10 respondents, globally and in Singapore, agreed they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Nearly 8 in 10 Malaysians (79 percent) said the same.

On other pro-social points, the pattern was consistent with what I've detailed so far: Singaporeans responded with roughly similar percentages to the overall sample, while Malaysians responded with higher percentages. And just as in the global sample, Prosumers scored higher on each of these statements than did their mainstream counterparts. (Prosumers are the set of highly motivated and proactive consumers Havas Worldwide has been tracking for more than a decade. They're important to us because of their outsized influence and also because understanding what they're doing and thinking today gives us a good sense of what the mainstream will be doing 6 to 18 months from now.) On all points, Malaysian and Singaporean Prosumers combined were more pro-social than their mainstream counterparts. Many more of them recycle regularly (75 percent of Prosumers vs. 58 percent of the mainstream), have donated clothes and other items to charity (64 percent vs. 50 percent), are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints (46 percent vs. 29 percent), donate money to causes (47 percent vs. 38 percent), and feel a responsibility to make the world a better place (84 percent vs. 72 percent).

Looking at these numbers, I don't have any sense of kiasu showing through. Maybe globalization, the Internet, and broadened prosperity have smoothed it out. Perhaps kiasu is no more than a local myth, like dragons and the Merlion. Maybe I just haven't been in the region long enough to notice it yet -- please feel free to put me straight, either online or in person. In the meantime, I shall be exploring my new home, enjoying the food, and learning what I expect will be an interesting hybrid of Singlish and Manglish.

Naomi Troni is the CEO, Southeast Asia at Havas Worldwide. To find out more about the study and to download the "Communities and Citizenship: Redesigned for a New World" Prosumer Report, please visit

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