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The term can be translated as "afraid to lose" from 'kia' "afraid" and 'su' "lose". Like many proverbial expressions it can have both positive and negative connotations, but is generally used to refer to someone who thinks of themselves first and is always trying to get ahead in one way or another.
Etymology and usage
Kiasu comes from the vernacular Chinese word 怕输, meaning 'fear of losing’. It is used by Hokkien-speaking people in Singapore and has been introduced into the English language by speakers of colloquial Singaporean English. It is often used to refer to anxious, selfish behaviour characterised by a fear of "missing out" (2nd possible translation: "losing out") .
Kiasu is similar in etymology to Kiasi (literally, fear of death), and both terms are used to describe similar behaviour. Kiasu or Kiasu-ism means to take extreme measures to achieve success, whereas Kiasi or Kiasi-ism means to take extreme measures to avoid risk.
So, put together the term kiasu could be well translated for those outside culture as "avoiding competition due to the fear of losing out (yet still thinks that one is best/or better than the other party). This is a rather complex explanation for those who are outside of this culture to fully grasp its meaning.
- Leo, David (1995). Kiasu, Kiasi: You Think What?. ISBN 981-204-626-7.
- See, Ee Lin (2005). My Kiasu Teenage Life in Singapore. ISBN 981-05-3016-1.