Protest cuts across race and religion


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 23 Mar 2003

By SEAH CHIANG NEE

SINGAPORE is bracing itself for all sorts of consequences from the outbreak of war in Iraq, but the least likely may be what it once feared most – internal ethnic friction. 

During the last war in 1991, there were heated exchanges between Muslims who were sympathetic to President Saddam Hussein and non-Muslims who favoured war on him. 

This time, it appears less divisive. What has caused it is ironically the broad-based opposition by the majority of Singaporeans that cuts across race and faith. 

Although the anti-war sentiments have been passive here, they have been expressed from Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and, of course, Muslims (only 14% of the population). 

They have prayed for peace, collected signatures to petition the government and brought their protests to online forums. 

In a recent survey, an afternoon paper found 74% of Singaporeans opposed to war. In another poll by Yahoo Singapore, 58% (or 1,727 people) said “nothing” justified an attack and that war must be avoided. 

Many of them were Chinese and Indians, young and well educated. 

This multi-racial protest of the Iraq war had prevented it from being a mono-religion issue that was the case in Operation Desert Storm 12 years ago. It has also reduced possible friction among Singaporeans. 

If the opposition had come only from the Muslims, there would have been greater nervousness. 

Opposing US action is a surprising turn here, considering several factors. 

The first is that Singaporeans, by and large, dislike Saddam, consider him a dangerous tyrant and suspect he has hidden weapons of mass destruction. 

Secondly, this country has traditionally been – and still is – an ally of the US and plays host to its military planes and warships. The people generally think well of Americans. 

Thirdly, opposition to war runs counter to the government’s low-profile support for the Americans largely because of geo-political reasons. The man-in-the-street, however, makes his judgement without such consideration. 

So why oppose the war? Broadly, Singaporeans don’t like the US attacking another country to change its regime outside the United Nations and the rule of law. Many see it badly affecting their economy. 

Singaporeans have been raised to respect international law and an international organisation like the UN is crucial to small states like theirs. 

What has happened here reflects the bigger world picture. 

When this is over, US and its allies may look back and be thankful for the widespread opposition to their war in Iraq. 

The anti-war sentiments hold sway in many Western nations – and their Christian populations – that they are helping to convince the Muslim world that this is not a Western (or Christian) war against Islam. 

While George W. Bush and Tony Blair may not like it, the strong stand by France, Germany, Russia and other non-Muslim countries is a powerful message that the Iraq tragedy is not a “Clash of Civilisation” between the West and Islam. 

In fact, Westerners and Christians have made some of the most effective anti-war displays. Millions of Buddhists and Christians have taken to the streets in protest. 

This makes it difficult for extremists to turn Muslim anger against the West and non-believers. If successful, it would serve the interests of al-Qaeda and other militant groups. 

While regional governments have given a mixed reaction, their populations are strongly opposed to war.  

According to one report they are: Hong Kong (Buddhist, Taoist) – 80%; Japan (largely Buddhist) – 77%; Philippines (Catholic) – 82%; Malaysia (majority Muslims) – 74%; and Australia (Christian) – 75%. 

All these will not cap the anger of Muslims against the war; demonstrations will probably take place. 

But the widespread anti-US sentiments are helping to take the sting out of it from being portrayed as a religious war.  

After all, even the Pope has come out in condemnation. 

In Indonesia, a non-government coalition of five religions is playing a major role to stop the anti-war campaign from falling into the hands of violent, militant groups. 

The leaders of the five – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism – went on a global campaign to condemn what they, and many other Indonesians, see as US hegemony over the world. 

They visited Australia, several countries in Europe, including the Vatican, with one message – an Iraq war will trigger off radicalism in many Muslim countries. 

At home, they’ve gone on a high-profile anti-US offensive and succeeded to a certain extent in convincing the Indonesian public that the war has nothing to do with religion. 

By roundly condemning the US, these leaders are distancing the Christians from being responsible or being agents of the West and taking the agenda away from Muslim extremists. 

As the war rolls, Singapore has two fears. One is the impact on its economy; the other is terrorist attack. The authorities are tightening up its security in anticipation of possible terrorism by Islamic radicals. 

“We remain a target,” Minister of Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng told parliament. The government is worried that al-Qaeda agents might hit Singapore with its big expatriate population. 

Apart from drumming up public awareness, the government has announced it is building underground shelters. 

All cars and motorcycles crossing through Singapore’s main checkpoints from Malaysia are being inspected. The Police Coast Guard are beefing up surveillance, using newly acquired patrol boats. 

Controls will be slapped on commercially available chemicals and biological agents to keep them from being used in bombs. 

Recently, thousands of Singaporeans and foreign workers thronged four emergency shelters as part of the drive to instil vigilance and prepare the nation for a possible attack. 

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Tony Tan has urged Singaporeans to be “psychologically prepared” in case of a terror attack. 

“The threat is pervasive and it will be long-drawn,” he said.  

“All of us must have the resolve, resilience and commitment – the psychological strength – to face the current challenges and prevail.”  

  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: cnseah2000@littlespeck.com) 

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