Kiasu's Survival

Johnny Lau, an architecture graduate turned comic artist, created a cultural phenomenon when he introduced the character of Mr. Kiasu in his first book, "Mr Kiasu: Everything Also I Want" in 1990. Mr. Kiasu became a household figure over the next decade because of his characteristic flat-top hairdo and enormous, round spectacles. Eleven more Mr. Kiasu novels followed. McDonald introduced the Kiasu Burger in 1993, an elongated chicken burger with additional mayonnaise heavily seasoned with curry spices – a culinary classic that '90s youth still fondly remember. Mediacorp presented a live-action television series based on the character two years after Lau ended the comic series in 1999.

Guy with comic books standing
Photo by Straits Times Life on Twitter

Lau's face is more defined today, and his hair, which once reached his shoulders, has grown into a wiry, chin-length shag. But when he speaks, he is still the sarcastic and astute cartoonist who developed the country's first commercial comic smash, spearheading the '90s national identity with a single memorable figure. When questioned, he replied, "I'm commemorating Mr. Kiasu's 30th anniversary three years ahead since I'm 'kiasu.'"

Mr. Kiasu was the first in every line, the diner with the largest plate at the buffet table, and the shopper with the best deals. Based on the Hokkien phrase "kiasu," which implies a greedy, selfish mentality (and translates to "afraid to lose"), readers of all ages related to his way of life at the time. The cocky and confident twenty-something embodied '90s Singapore: bold, competitive, and tremendously financially motivated.

Then, as the new millennium dawned, something changed. The "kiasu" mentality increasingly became less accepted, even mocked. After the two-season run of "Mr. Kiasu," the term "kiasu" began to lose its luster. And, in his 2001 National Day Rally speech, Singapore's then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed concern that Singaporeans had become "too 'kiasu'" due to their inability to keep up with the country's material progress and urged citizens to be "humble, courteous, and gracious in (their) behavior," effectively signaling the country's demise.

While some vestiges of "kiasu" remain, most notably the contentious Kiasu Parents forum, an internet message board for those who subscribe to the Amy Chua style of Tiger Mother parenting to push their children towards academic excellence, the country has largely moved on from that mentality. Early millennials, raised in the uber-competitive 1990s environment, have grown up to reject the constant pressure for perfection and success, whereas late millennials, born after "kiasu-ism" has lost its grip on society, are now paving the way towards minimalism and embracing mindfulness and meaningful interactions.

Nonetheless, in this environment of "anti-kiasuism", Lau has decided to put Mr. Kiasu back into the spotlight after an 18-year hiatus with his latest work, "Mr. Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real." It was not a decision he took lightly; it took several years and the persuasion of three influential industry players before Lau agreed to return late last year. As indicated in his book's prologue, the first was Kajiya Bunsho, the managing director of Shogakukan's Southeast Asian branch, to whom Lau initially pitched a different idea.

Melvin Ang, the CEO of the film production business mm2 Entertainment, was the second and most persistent. Lau recalls Ang, a significant admirer of the Mr. Kiasu series, contacting him with more ridiculous pitches to greenlight a Mr. Kiasu live-action film. "At one point, (Ang) encouraged a fight between Mr. Kiasu and Liang Po Po!" Lau exclaims, laughing heartily. Another memorable '90s television character was Liang Po Po, a stuttering but well-meaning grandma played (in drag) by comedian Jack Neo.

The combined efforts of all three parties eventually influenced Lau, culminating in the September release of "Everything Also Like Real," which was published for the first time by Shogakukan Asia. There is also a film in the works. "Everything Also Like Real," like all other Mr. Kiasu books, is divided into three sections: the first, a sequence of brief four- to six-panel one-page gags; the second, identical to the first but linked by an overall storyline; and the third, a lengthier, sequential narrative.

However, unlike other Mr. Kiasu incarnations, this Mr. Kiasu is older, and the plot is darker. The once-confident young man is now in his late thirties, has recently been promoted at work, and is terribly out of place in twenty-first-century Singapore. His attempts to hack the system are now seen as obnoxious, and navigating the world of intelligent technology, start-ups, and co-working spaces reveal the character's unworldliness and inconsideration.

Mr. Kiasu symbolized Singapore's growing confidence on the international stage in the 1990s. But now, despite being extremely developed, they are a little tired. They occasionally ask themselves, "Are we all right?" despite having accomplished so much. They're always a little worried about it. Mr. Kiasu represents how individuals feel about themselves in some ways."

Technology is intended to assist us in becoming a better society, but are we? He is unsure about it. However, they appear to be becoming increasingly worried and dependent on technology.

The darker tone is particularly noticeable in the third chapter, "The Avengers." The third chapters, according to Lau, have typically been slightly darker, but this one is "particularly grim." Mr. Kiasu and his faithful girlfriend Ai Swee have been whisked away into a "Shark Tank"-meets-"The Voice" reality TV game show, where they meet a slew of colorful people and caricatures. The surreal plot is a manifesto for more compassion, with thinly veiled references to the City Harvest Church financial misappropriation scandal, certain politicians, and the issue of wildlife invading human spaces as a response to expanding urbanization encroaching into their territories. It ends with a reaffirmation of the "kiasu" attitude that brought Singapore to its current glory and Lau's creation of cultural consciousness.

Lau stated that he sees Mr. Kiasu as a character with a long lifespan. Therefore, he restarted this to provide a platform for aspiring new artists and storytellers to use him as a vehicle to convey new stories. In the same way that Spider-Man and Iron Man have been drawn by "thousands of artists," Lau hopes to immortalize Mr. Kiasu as the iconic Singaporean comic hero by launching a program to find a new generation of comic creators alongside the series' revival.