Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Erupting Thoughts: Kiasu or Kiasi?

I looked into the mirror this morning, and a conglomeration of tiny red dot stared back at me. Yes. It must be those imminent eruptions, also known as acne vulgaris. Somehow, I believe that this has nothing to do with the headlines in Channel News Asia today. It reads: “Indonesia villagers stay despite volcano threat.”[1]

Mount Merapi, a 2,914-metre peak, might erupt anytime soon. The eruption occurs when the new lava dome that has been rapidly coalescing at its peak collapses. Despite the noisome fumes and spewing gas, some villagers apparently have taken a liking of staying behind. “The clouds, known by locals as ‘shaggy goats’, consist of volcanic gases, ash and dust, and reach temperatures up to 500 degrees Celsius.”

No, the villagers are not trying to get a close-up shot of those ‘shaggy goats’ with their cameras. Neither have they acquired a sudden, psychotic affection for ghee, nor developed a petrifying fear that has paralyzed their survival instinct.

Despite efforts of evacuation by the local authorities, “many locals were intent on staying to look after their possessions,” according to Channel News Asia. “The [villagers] promised [the authorities] that they will come down voluntarily once they see signs of a major eruption.” But the “signs of a major eruption” are already present.

These villagers are obviously not agathists; they are not expecting Mount Merapi to swallow what it spewed, or the dome of lava to vaporize instantaneously. The problem for evacuation does not lie in the inefficacy of communication, or the linguistic intricacies of the villagers’ tongue. The difficulty, however, lies with the villagers themselves.

The problem originates from within the heart of 34,000 villagers residing in the immediate danger zone. Although these villagers are considered to be at risk by the local authorities, materialism has a strange way of holding them back. This is the god worshipped without idols. No ziggurat is required to enshrine this invisible, intangible entity. Already this god has recruited a gargantuan mass of followers, and some are willing to forsake life itself to worship Him.

Perhaps some might comment that the possessions the villagers own are very dear to them. Despite the clear and present danger of being baked alive, these folks are braving hot lava to protect cattle and homes. With great √©lan, they have decided to fortify their abode. For “many young men and their fathers chose to remain behind to watch their cattle and homes.” The villagers’ lives depend upon their livestock.

So, can we argue that the precious lives of these “young men and their fathers” are worth the sacrifice, because the villagers’ livelihood is at stake? The astute observer will discern that this act is not an act of courage. The argument itself is a paralogism, and the root of this irrationality is materialism. It has for its father, ‘greed,’ and ‘insanity’ for its mother. It is a sick mongrel, a product of poverty and human depravity.

Tragically, a man would risk his life for his cattle. “But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided (Luke 12:20)?”

A missionary to Africa once recounted to me that the biggest problem for evangelism in tribal areas is not poverty, but materialism. Most tribesmen own a dung hut. Sometimes, a few wealthy ones may upgrade their homes to a mud hut. Man, however, is never satisfied with cow dung.

Missionaries bring with them canned food and drinks. So, naturally, the next step up the ladder of luxurious housings is a “tin can” hut. Everybody in the tribe adores an iridescent, “tin can” hut. Some tribesmen even believe that the residents of these exclusive tin huts somehow acquire a nimbus around their forehead. But this is just a myth.

Eventually, as the standard of living and wealth improve within the village, galvanized zinc becomes the most coveted building material. But it was only last week when animal excreta was sun-baked, stockpiled and treasured by all.

Apparently, even tribesmen are not immune from the god of avarice: Materialism. “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10).”

The god called materialism accepts worship in various forms and liturgies. In fact, Singaporeans have never failed to impress me with their innovations in worshipping It. Their fundamental values in life are often formulated around the worship of It.

From “kiasu” to “kiasi,” there is no lack of adjectives to describe a typical Singaporean. In Singlish, “kiasu” means “to be afraid of losing out to someone else,” and “kiasi” refers to “the fear of dying.” The typical Singaporean is afraid to lose. But one might ask, “Lose what?” While everybody else is clambering for success, no decent Singaporean would want to be left behind. Everybody in Singapore wants to be a millionaire. The average Joe next door desires a larger house, a bigger car, and a fatter wallet. So “more is less”, and “much is not enough” for the regular Singaporean man.

Sometimes, a “kiasu” Singaporean has really nothing to lose materially. But according to a Singaporean’s perspective, not measuring up to the demands of a materialistic society is to lose his “face.” Some believe that the five “Cs” epitomize the Singaporean Dream: Credit card, Condominium, Cash, Car and Career. Since the retired Singaporean is reputed to philander in remote corners of Batam and China with his freshly drawn Central Provident Fund, the sixth “C” will probably represent “Concubine.”

Materialism aside, the mentally sound person will be fearful of death. But “kiasi” means much more than the mere fear of dying. The Singaporean is “kiasi” because when he dies, he get to lose all the possessions which he had spent his entire life acquiring. So ultimately, the fear of death is closely associated with an obsessive impulse to hoard and possess.

Are the villagers “kiasu” or “kiasi”? Probably both. But there is no doubt that the villagers worship the same god as the “kiasu” Singaporean, albeit with a different liturgy. Meanwhile, as we await the eruption of Mount Merapi, I will have to contend with the conglomeration of erupted acne on my face.

And happily, death seems deceptively far away for the “kiasi” Singaporean (Hebrews 9:27).

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