For visitors like me, morning in Singapore is always the same: a still, remorseless heat that creeps in through the window as the tropical sun scrubs away the haze of dawn. On this particular morning, however, storm clouds blanket the sky. And the TV in the lobby, which is usually tuned to Chinese soap operas, is ablaze with explosions.
The bombs raining down on Baghdad seemed a world apart from the soaring office towers of Singapore, a densely populated city-state dangling from the tip of the Malay peninsula. Morning commuters jammed the roads, and the sidewalk cafes were packed with Singaporeans dawdling over breakfast--spicy noodles or rice porridge, washed down with hot tea.
But the bustling routine masked a tension in the air. "This war no good," my taxi driver groused in his best Singlish as he battled the morning traffic. "Peace better, what."
Singapore, a staunch U.S. ally, is one of the 44 members of the "coalition of the willing," along with such diplomatic powerhouses as Eritrea, Palau, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. But the war has put the island nation in a delicate position. Although 77 percent of its 4.5 million residents are ethnic Chinese, roughly 14 percent are Muslim Malays; moreover, it is flanked by two Muslim giants, Malaysia and Indonesia, both of whom have denounced the American attack.
To protect itself from its stronger and hungrier neighbors, Singapore has cuddled up to the United States. It cannot afford to alienate its American patrons. At the same time, supporting the war in Iraq will put serious kinks in its relationship with its neighbors--and further stoke the ethnic tensions that bubble beneath the island's tranquil surface.
Traditionally, most Muslims in this part of the world have practiced a moderate form of Islam. There is some resentment toward America--resentment periodically stoked by local politicians, especially around election time--but none of the frenzied flag-burning you see on the streets of Tehran or Cairo.
But that's beginning to change. Two weeks before the first bombs dropped, as I strolled the streets of Narathiwat, a heavily Muslim seaside town on the southern coast of Thailand, a cheerful magazine vendor gave me the thumbs-up sign.
As I walked past, I saw that his T-shirt was emblazoned with the face of Osama bin Laden, and I realized that his smile was not a greeting, but a kind of farewell: a gesture of longing for the day when the Yankees finally go home.
Muslims I spoke to in Malaysia were genuinely puzzled by America's obsession with Saddam. Wandering through the night market in Kota Baharu, a sleepy town on the east coast of the Malay peninsula, I was accosted by a vendor of roti prata, or flatbread, armed with fez and spatula.
"American?" he asked. I nodded unhappily.
"I got one question for you," he said in broken English. "Bush. Why he want to invade Iraq?"
"Bush gila-gila," I said, tapping my forehead. "Crazy man."
He beamed and shook my hand. Like many Malaysians, he was desperately trying to avoid the conclusion that the war on Iraq is really a war on Islam. A crazy president he can understand--Southeast Asia specializes in deranged leaders--but an attack on his religion must be avenged.
Unfortunately, as the Iraqi civilian casualties mount, it becomes more difficult for Southeast Asia's Muslims to resist the suspicion that the U.S. is in the grip of Christian extremists fundamentally opposed to Islam.
After the war began, I learned that roughly 8,000 protesters gathered in the streets of Kota Baharu, chanting "Destroy America."
I wonder if the roti prata man was among them.