Am I kiasu? Yes Am I kiasi? No

Source: The Sunday Times  May 2, 2010

What does not kill one makes one stronger, and we all die at some point anyway

By Lee Wei Ling


Some of us never face disaster till death approaches. And even then, death may come so swiftly and painlessly, there is no occasion to worry about it.

The rest of us have faced some unpleasant event in our lives, be it a failed examination, a missed promotion, a financial loss or a medical problem. How bad a situation has to be before we realise it is a disaster varies from person to person.

But for most normal people, if an event occasions an unusual degree of suffering, it would probably qualify as a disaster. In this article, I will try to describe the various ways in which one can come to terms with disaster.

My preference is to consider the worst-case scenario until I have internalised its possibility. That way, I come to accept that despite all my best efforts, I may still suffer an unfortunate outcome. Once I accept that, my fear goes away. �Then I systematically go through all the possible ways in which I may respond to disaster. But until disaster strikes, what would work best is at best a calculated guess. I must be prepared to change strategies as events evolve.

This is not dissimilar to how Singaporeans deal with everyday events. We are usually kiasu (scared of losing), so we study all possibilities. But I am not kiasi (scared of dying). If one is kiasi, one would panic when disaster strikes and be unable to respond appropriately.

If disaster comes unexpectedly, I try to stay calm and respond as best I can. My training as a doctor and a hiker has taught me not to panic. If despite my best efforts, disaster overwhelms all my attempts to mitigate or deflect it, I cannot help but feel disgruntled. But I try not to allow myself to wallow in self-pity for too long. I concede defeat and try to carry on with life.

There are many people who turn to God in the face of disaster. I have never felt such an inclination. Going by what my friends who are believers tell me, they certainly seem to suffer less angst and anxiety than atheists do when suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Prayer – and faith that a powerful, benevolent supernatural being hears and can respond to prayers – seems an easier method of facing disaster than staring it in the eye and depending only on one’s own efforts.

If the prayers are not answered, the faithful can take heart that it was the will of God, for reasons mortals cannot comprehend. As the Lord’s Prayer urges, ‘thy will be done’. Believing that seems to make acceptance of disastrous outcomes easier.

My friend the novelist Ho Minfong, in commenting on an earlier draft of this piece, wrote: ‘You neglected to mention one response to disaster that I think I unconsciously adopt, perhaps because I grew up in Thailand. It’s the calculated shrug of the blithe spirit, the ‘what-I-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-me’ – the mai-ben-rai – attitude.

‘It’s the opposite of the kiasu mentality. I am not advocating it as the way to react if disaster strikes, but it has the advantage of being able to generate a relaxed frame of mind, trusting that the universe is generally benign, and that everything will be fine – in the long run. There is, of course, an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in this attitude. If I trust that things will generally be okay, and act accordingly, I won’t feel stressed out.

‘This is the old grasshopper and the ant dichotomy. If winter comes, the kiasu ant survives, but the grasshopper won’t. But the fable doesn’t include the very real possibility that sometimes, in the short lifespan of these little critters, winter doesn’t come – and so the grasshopper has a much more enjoyable life.’

I replied to Minfong: ‘Winter will always come until the world ends, just as the sun must set in the west every day. The question is how we deal with winter psychologically.

‘I try to view it with equanimity. Beneath every blithe spirit is a subconscious mind worrying. Better to face disaster with the conscious mind and come to terms with it.’

The most difficult approach is that represented by the Buddhist philosophy of compassion with detachment. One tries one’s best to avert disaster, especially if other lives are involved. So one systematically goes through all possible means of avoiding disaster and stays calm if disaster does strike. And if the outcome is unfavourable, one accepts it calmly, for one is emotionally detached.

The United States military has spent billions of dollars on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the roadside bombs that have proven to be the greatest threat to the US military in Iraq and now Afghanistan. Still, high-tech gear, while helpful in reducing casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all – the human brain.

Individual soldiers on the ground, using their senses and accumulated experience, manage to anticipate many IED attacks. They cite a gut feeling, a hunch, as the reason for their success.

There has been extensive research on how the brain develops hunches. Neuroscientists say that even the most perceptive, observant brain on earth will not pick up subtle clues if it is overwhelmed by stress. Researchers have found that troops who were good at spotting IEDs in simulations tend to think of themselves as predators, not prey. That frame of mind by itself may work to reduce anxiety.

In other words, staying calm helps the soldiers anticipate IEDs – and will probably help the rest of us anticipate other hidden dangers and perhaps afford us the split-second advantage to abort terrible disasters.

I am in no position to declare one method superior to another. I have met with disaster more times than most people. Whether I emerged unscathed or damaged, I have seldom regretted the challenge of the disaster.

For what does not kill one makes one stronger. And if the disaster does kill one – well, we all die at some point.