by Patricia Tan
November 10, 2006
Money is a private issue. This is something I was raised to believe. You just don’t ask people questions about how much they earn or what they paid for their assets. But, in Singapore, it appears that a lot of people have not heard of this. “How much?” is used to start far too many sentences.
This became particularly apparent to me the day after I bought my HDB flat (a flat built by a government organization called the Housing Development Board). A colleague (a middle-aged, gossipy woman whose previous conversations with me consisted only of cursory greetings in the elevator) cornered me at the water cooler as I made my morning coffee:
Colleague: “Wah! I hear you buy new HDB, ah! How much you pay?”
Me: “Excuse me?” (How can you ask someone you barely know such a nosey question?)
“Too much, I reckon.” (Opting for light humour instead of “none of your business”.)
“Too much” (Can’t she take a hint?)
“How much?” (Her record seems broken.)
I quickly edged my way around her and dashed back to my desk. She gave chase and continued interrogating the back of my head.
“May I know how much?” (Oh sure, as if asking a nosey question in a polite manner will make me divulge everything.)
“No!” (She scurried away, finally.)
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Every other person I encountered--colleagues, in-laws, close friends, shopkeepers at the corner store--asked me how much I paid for my HDB flat.
Maybe this inappropriate financial nosiness is a side effect of that old Singaporean stereotype--being kiasu (Hokkien for “scared to lose”). The fear of losing and getting left behind may be the driving force behind tracking the financial status of others. Some are so kiasu that they don’t seem to realise (or care) that they are being kaypoh (Hokkien for “nosey”).
Whatever the reason, it’s an unfortunate fact of life in Singapore that you will often hear the dreaded “how much?” question. It can strike at any time and you can’t predict who will ask it. It could come from your closest friend, a colleague, a casual acquaintance or the unfamiliar taxi driver taking you home. And no topic is sacred. Your salary, home, car or investments are all fair game for financial interrogation. Beware. There is no escape from the kaypoh people!
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