A Letter from Alvin Pang

Alvin PANG is the author of Testing the Silence (1997), the co-editor of two poetry anthologies, and the editor for The Poetry Billboard (www.poetrybillboard.com), which features the work of young Singapore writers. http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/pang.html

A letter from Alvin Pang, Singapore, 21.3.03

The general apathy towards the war in Singapore is really rather disturbing, given this is something that has even passerbys and taxi drivers in Shanghai (a rather well informed lot I found recently, and not without firm, principled opinions) glued to radios and TV sets. Folks here really do seem to want the war to begin and be over and done with (so that the economy can recover, say at least 3 taxi drivers I try to shut up with abject silence after explanations fail.

As if indifference can breed anything better than mediocrity. As if opposition to a war -- any war -- can only come about in terms of ethnicity and religious affinities. As if being decent human beings for a change is being somehow, unpragmatically sentimental and radically dissident.

Somewhere along the way the idea has been put across and swallowed that the war will finally mean an end to the economic downturn (rather than the beginning of what could be a prolonged depression). So I'm not surprised at the reaction ... something to watch on the news, explosions, video-game effects. We withdraw into our comfortable little cubicles; we cancel flights to troubled and diseased regions of the world; we watch TV and fret about share prices. Even some of our most intelligent and informed have subscribed to the rhetoric of power projection. It is of course in our national interest to enforce this national blinkeredness, keeping heads down rather than looking forward, waiting for storms to blow over and trusting our helmsmen to watch for icebergs while we party to Top 40 trash and drink lattes and rejoice in cheap car prices and read the Straits Times. War sells newspapers like nothing else. But then, tragedy always does.

So much for our advocacy for the ultimate unassailability of the UN; the self-same body that represents the international legality we turn to every time we come into conflict with our neighbours over borders and sovereignty and ownership.

I am personally deeply disappointed and saddened (if not completely surprised) that Singapore's official position have moved beyond a perhaps prudent abstinence of opinion into declaring outright support for the invasion of Iraq. And invasion this is, whatever the motivations and outcome: a pre-emptive strike, led by the world's remaining superpower, against a soverign foreign state without clear and present threat, for the espoused purpose of toppling and replacing its government. Wasn't it precisely this sort of action by Iraq against Kuwait that resulted in Gulf War I? Only the naked abuse of geopolitical power can make two such wrongs seem a right.

Pray then that we aren't a small nation surrounded and targetted by resentful and potentially hostile entities. Pray then that we are never big enough to attract the attentions of the powerful.

Because who will we point the finger at if bombs start going off on Orchard road because of our support for this invasion? For how long will our countrymen be stopped at airports and strip-searched because they wear a turban or a beard? Who will we cry to for help if one day a pre-emptive strike is launched at us or our neighbours for being a harbour and port-of-call for potential terrorists? Who will be blamed if the global economy spirals into depression as a result of a messy war or its outcome?

We may not have a choice now but do we want to be in a position where our national interest depends on bending over backwards to unpalatable hegemonic regimes and indefensible geopolitical recklessness, to the point where we might as well be a vassal state?

Just remember this day as a solid piece of proof that the real and immediate deaths of innocents in Iraq matter less than the imagined and remote deaths of civilians in America. We can expect our own lives to be valued no higher when it comes down to the crunch.