Everything Also I Want: with those four words, Mr. Kiasu was introduced to Singaporeans just over two decades ago. This title of his first comic book had it all. Here was a character who dreamt about sales and discounts, tried every free sample at a supermarket, and when he knocked down a motorcyclist, got out to check his car’s windscreen. In other words, Mr. Kiasu was the typical ‘90s Singaporean, someone possessed with the fear of losing out.
Mr. Kiasu’s depiction of a national trait clearly resonated with Singaporeans. They snapped up the first 4,000 copies, and then the second. In 1993, just three years after it was first published, the comic had a third reprint and became an annual series. Everything Also Must Grab was Mr. Kiasu’s motto in his second book and he was living up to it. Not only had he grabbed his own radio show, Mr. Kiasu now fronted national campaigns, and had his own magazine, mug, T-shirt, watch, bumper sticker, burger, and even ruler — most rulers are 12-inches, but Mr. Kiasu’s one was an inch longer.
This kiasu mentality was born out of the late ‘80s when Singapore society was rapidly opening up to the world. The economy was on the rebound after the 1985 recession, driven by Singaporeans’ fear of losing out in the world market. Egged on by the government, Singaporeans began pushing themselves to sell their goods and services overseas. This made many acutely aware of their national identity, or the lack of it. As Dick Lee crooned then: “The Mad Chinaman realises the East and West sides of his life / The Mad Chinaman will try to find out which is right”.
It was the young nation’s search for its identity in 1990, after 25 years of being, that propelled Mr. Kiasu to become a local cult hit. Singaporeans could easily identify with this Singlish speaking character, and he was regarded as possibly unique to the country. This is despite his authors — Johnny Lau, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng, collectively known as the Kuppies — repeatedly stating that the kiasu mentality was universal.
While being kiasu was a supposed national trait, it was not necessarily of national pride. Some blamed such a mentality for creating stressed and stressful Singaporeans. Many more were ashamed of the ugly Singaporean that Mr. Kiasu portrayed. During a 1993 Straits Times essay contest, held for National Day, many entries harped on their displeasure with kiasu Singaporeans, with one even calling for a “merciless media campaign and education” to eradicate it.
But, Mr. Kiasu was doing just what Singaporeans and Singapore wanted — Everything Also Number One, as its third book proclaimed. He was fast becoming a successful entrepreneurial showcase for Singapore Inc. In 1994, just a year after recording an annual turnover of $800,000 from merchandising, the Kuppies opened up Kiasu Corners at 7-Eleven stores islandwide. In retrospect, as his book that same year warned, Everything Also Scared Lose: Mr. Kiasu was taking a gamble with his rapid expansion. In the next year, Mr. Kiasu went regional, bringing its merchandise overseas, and taking flight with the government’s desire to build a second wing for the country’s economy. As then Minister George Yeo advised: “A good idea homegrown in Singapore should be rapidly transplanted elsewhere at a profit.”
It wasn’t long before Mr. Kiasu caught the world’s attention, garnering an article in The Economist. The word “kiasu” also officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary. As the Kuppies reached overseas through The Kiasu Company merchandising arm, they also used his burgeoning influence and their wealth to nurture the local comic industry through Comix Factory, their publishing company. The comic book took a one year hiatus and the Kuppies revamped their Kiasu Max magazine from a quarterly to a bi-monthly publication. The new magazine broke away from just comics revolving around Mr. Kiasu to include interviews with local comedians, humour articles and other contributors’ comic strips.
This also marked the Kuppies return to their original audience: adults. According to a 1993 interview, the trio had stumbled upon the growing audience of children and young teenagers after they launched Mr. Kiasu, and they had made their comics more juvenile over the years to appeal to them.
However, this changed over the next two years, as not only did Kiasu Max become a platform for local illustrators, Comix Factory also published the comic books of Lee Hup Kheng (What’s Hup), Adam Lee (Crazy Addixon), Nick Tan (Kiasu Krossover), and Dylan Teo (Roti, Kaya and Guyu). The Kuppies were serious about making Singaporeans take humour seriously, and not as something only for kids. “As we approach the new millennium, Singapore desperately needs an element to balance her material achievements. We at Comix Factory strongly believe that humour is that element,” they wrote in Kiasu Max’s third issue.
Ironically, this was the magazine’s last issue, as the Kuppies could not agree on the new direction. Mr. Suresh resigned in 1996, saying he was unhappy with how Mr. Kiasu was “catering more and more to the kids”. Recalling his resignation now, he said: “We were diversifying too soon and I felt we had lost focus. I also felt we needed to maintain some standard of humour which was eroding with every issue.”
The other side of the story has never been publicly revealed — Mr. Lau declines to comment until this day — but the remaining Kuppies brought Mr. Kiasu back that year, bravely proclaiming that Everything Also Sure Win. However, with the Asian Financial Crisis looming over Singapore in 1997, Mr. Kiasu’s next publication took on a more realistic tone with Everything Also Talk Money. But, recalls Mr. Suresh, trouble began brewing during the retail slump in the run-up to the financial crisis. According to a Straits Times article, dated 25 April 1998, Mr. Kiasu’s merchandising company had gone into debt.
In the same year, Mr. Lau and Lim Yu Cheng published Everything Also Act Blur. But by then, Singaporeans were changing. Their myopic obsession with wealth and being the best in everything — what Mr. Kiasu had always stood for — had been shaken with the financial crisis. As the nation reflected on its values, the government formed a Singapore 21 committee to strengthen the country’s “heartware” for the new millennium. In a parliamentary debate about this new vision, the committee’s chairman Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean said: “Let the icon of the Kiasu Singaporean fade into 20th century history, and in its place emerge the Active Singaporean — the Singaporean of the 21st Century.”
Ironically, Everything Also Act Blur, the comic’s eighth edition, became its last, and the man who had brought the nation together to embrace themselves was gradually forgotten in the new millennium. Today, the comic character remains carefully guarded by Mr. Lau. According to him, corporations still seek him out for Mr. Kiasu endorsements yearly.
For me, Mr. Kiasu was only trying to be a Singaporean. We loved discounts and sales, and so did he. We wanted to make a lot of money, and he did. We strived for the world to recognise us, and he was. For many Singaporeans, it was probably funny at first to laugh at ourselves, but when the world started taking notice and then the economic crisis struck, Mr. Kiasu mirrored the nation so well that he became a victim of his own success — an image that Singaporeans would rather forget.
Sometimes, you can be too kiasu about being kiasu.
Words Justin Zhuang
Illustration Norman Teh
This article was amended on 27 June 2011.