Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Singapore-Israel ties: 50 years of understanding and helping each other

Singapore has always hoped it can be helpful to Israel to whom the Republic owes “a deep eternal debt of gratitude”, said foreign minister George Yeo on Mon (Dec 9) at the launch of a book to commemorate 50 years of bilateral ties between both countries. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech, in which he also spoke about how the rise of Asia could present opportunity for new ways to solve the “almost insoluble problems in the Middle East”.

Mr Yeo (in red tie) with Mr Sagi Karni, ambassador of Israel to Singapore; Mr Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs; and Ms Michelle Teo, acting director of the Middle East Institute, at the book launch on Dec 9.

Mr Yeo (in red tie) with Mr Sagi Karni, ambassador of Israel to Singapore; Mr Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs; and Ms Michelle Teo, acting director of the Middle East Institute, at the book launch on Dec 9.

Singapore has always hoped it can be helpful to Israel to whom the Republic owes “a deep eternal debt of gratitude”, said foreign minister George Yeo on Mon (Dec 9) at the launch of a book to commemorate 50 years of bilateral ties between both countries. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech, in which he also spoke about how the rise of Asia could present opportunity for new ways to solve the “almost insoluble problems in the Middle East”.

 

This book Beating the Odds Together celebrates 50 years of Singapore–Israel ties. Our two countries share a deep friendship growing out of the critical assistance which Israel gave to a newly independent Singapore. It is sustained not only by common strategic interests but also by the sharing of a certain kindred spirit, of having to survive under difficult odds.

On the way back from Beijing last Friday, I read an opinion piece written by Roger Cohen on the front page of the international edition of The New York Times. It was titled: “Incitement in Israel that killed Rabin”. 

Mr Cohen was moved to write the piece after watching a preview of a movie by Yaron Zilberman about the assassination of (former Israeli prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Mr Cohen declared he was not given to hypothetical speculations but had one exception which haunts him still. It is: “What if Yigal Amir, a fanatical religious-nationalist Jew, had not assassinated Rabin?”

Mr Cohen added: “If only Rabin had lived. If only Israel had confronted the fanatical scourge in its midst before it was too late. If only Israel had understood earlier the poison of the occupation.” By putting Mr Cohen’s piece on the front page, The New York Times is jumping into a furious debate among Jews and Israelis about the future of Zionism and Israel.

Rabin signed the Oslo Accord in September 1993 with great reluctance. Many of us who watched the event saw how he gritted his teeth when he shook hands with (the late Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat in Washington DC, knowing that the only alternative to a compromise when both Israelis and Palestinians claimed the same land is, in Mr Cohen’s words, the “moral corrosion involved in subjugating another people”.

The prospect of a two-state solution is steadily vanishing. Since the death of Rabin, Israeli society has progressively shifted to the right. Under pressure of a third general election within a year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now pushing for the extension of Israeli sovereignty into the Jordan valley. In United States President Donald Trump, Mr Netanyahu has a strong supporter.

I, and many longstanding Singaporean friends of Israel, am troubled by some of these trends in Israeli society. Singapore has always supported a two-state solution in the United Nations.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew only agreed to visit Israel in 1994 after Israel had signed the Oslo Accord.

I sat in on the meeting when Rabin, during his visit to Singapore, invited Mr Lee to visit Israel. No one expected Mr Lee to say yes because it was longstanding policy that he left Israel relations to (then Deputy Prime Minister) Goh Keng Swee. Not only Rabin, but our Ministry of Foreign Affairs too, was surprised when Mr Lee accepted the invitation. It was his first and last visit to Israel.

Mr Lee understood the difficulty on both sides. When I was minister for trade and industry, he asked me to suggest to the Palestinians that they should conduct a referendum on their side once a final deal had been made in order to make it irreversible. 

Land claims are zero-sum and always politically sensitive. I remember a dinner with (Egyptian Islamic theologian) Sheikh Qaradawi in Doha in 2004. He had been to Singapore before and count some admirers among Muslim Singaporeans.

The conversation in his house was all sweetness and light until I touched on Israel and Singapore’s relationship with Israel. Then I saw veins popping on his forehead. He said his opposition to Israel had nothing to do with anti-semitism. It was about what he described as the unjust and illegal expropriation of land from Palestinians.

It is easy from afar to look at the Middle East and opine on what is right and wrong on one side or the other. But having been to the Middle East many times, I am careful to be less judgmental.

History in the Middle East is long and complicated. I had the pleasure of visiting Yemen as foreign minister in happier times with members of Singapore’s Arab Association.

In Sana’a, Yemeni foreign minister Dr Abubakr Al-Kirbi showed me the old Jewish quarter, except that there were no more Jews living there.

Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, is an orthodox Mizrahi, whose family came from the Yemen. It was the despair among Jews of being repeatedly persecuted and expropriated in many countries at various times that fuelled the Zionist cause.

The debate about the future of Zionism is therefore an inextricable part of Israeli domestic politics among Israelis with different origins and bitter memories.

In a deliberate simplification, (former US secretary of state) Henry Kissinger once remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. After 50 years of friendship, we understand a little of this in our interactions with Israel. 

Where we can, in small ways, we try to promote greater understanding of Israel in Singapore and Asean, but especially among Singaporean Muslims.

I remember once arranging for the Israeli ambassador to witness the korban in Sultan Mosque on Hari Raya Haji. Israeli embassy security was understandably anxious and insisted on the ambassador being accompanied by bodyguards.

My Muslim friends took it all in stride and, after witnessing the animal sacrifice, which of course recalled Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in both the Arab and Jewish traditions, we had an excellent nasi bryani lunch.

On another occasion, I arranged for the same ambassador to visit Madrasah Aljunied but this, unfortunately, was called off by the Israeli embassy at the last moment because Israel had just killed a Hamas leader in Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu (right) is pushing for the extension of Israeli sovereignty into the Jordan valley and has a strong supporter in Mr Trump.   Photo: Reuters

A deep relationship takes time to develop and needs the nurturing of wise leaders. Until I read (former Head of Civil Service) Peter Ho’s essay, I did not know of Rabin’s personal involvement in Israel’s initial military assistance to Singapore.

Before the Israeli team of seven military advisers led by Colonel Yaakov Elazari left for Singapore in November 1965, Rabin, as chief of General Staff, gave the following instructions:

  • I want you to remember several things. One, we are not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony. Your task is to teach them the military profession, to put them on their legs so they can run their own army. Your success will be if at a certain stage they will be able to take the wheel and run the army by themselves.

  • Second, you are not going there in order to command them but to advise them.

  • And, third, you are not arms merchants. When you recommend items to procure, use the purest professional military judgment. I want total disregard of their decision as to whether to buy here or elsewhere.

However, it took time for Israel to develop its own understanding of Singapore. As Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong’s bag carrier to Israel in 1980, I was then a captain, I remember him being quite upset about the explicit pressure put on him by the Israeli defence sales to buy Israeli-made weapons.

Minister Howe complained to the Head of Mossad Yitzhak Hofi, who fed this upwards.

We will always be a student to Israel in military affairs and should always be an eager student. Our bilateral relationship now extends beyond defence to many other fields, and it has always been our fervent hope that Singapore can be a benefit to Israel to whom we owe a deep eternal debt of gratitude.

In his essay, (Middle East Institute chairman) Bilahari Kausikan asked provocatively whether Singapore is Israel in South-east Asia.

I was, frankly, quite alarmed when (former US trade representative) Charlene Barshefsky, with whom I worked on the launch of the United States–Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2000, wanted to compare Singapore to Israel.

She had negotiated Jordan’s FTA with the US, which involved Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and asked me if I could accept the Jordanian template, which I said we were quite prepared to accept as a first basis for negotiations.

So she had an understanding of the same circumstances of Israel and Singapore and wanted to make that comparison. I said, I rather not, but, of course you could compare Israel to Singapore.

With the rise of Asia, in particular the rise of China, it is natural that Israel should increasingly look east for opportunity.

In 2005, I was given a great honour to address the American Jewish Committee’s annual gala dinner in Washington DC. There was a visiting Israel Defence Forces delegation at that time.

So behind me there was the Star Spangled Banner, the Star of David and our flag. It was a very boisterous evening and I couldn’t possibly be reading from a script.

So, I spoke about the almost insoluble problems in the Middle East, about how Israel was being looked at as a crusader state imposed upon the Arabs by the West, and how eventually they were excluded from the Middle East.

I related it to the long history of conflict between Islam and Christendom, and how if we look at the problems only within that frame, it would always be zero sum and be without solution.

But that if, somehow, we were able to widen that frame to a more distant past, when the Levant was connected to the Hajes, to the Hadhramaut, to the Indian Ocean, to Asia, South-east Asia, and China, then different possibilities emerge and the mind, instead of being preoccupied with negative thoughts, can turn in more positive directions.

Today, China has excellent relations with Israel and according to a recent survey, a majority of young Israelis, over 60 per cent, have a favourable view of China. In fact, it is the US today which is pulling Israel back from even closer relations with China.

Yet, China maintains good relations with all other countries in the Middle East, including Iran. There could be new ways to solve old problems.

During Mr Lee’s funeral, President Nursultan Nazarbaev instructed his prime minister, Karim Massimov, who was in China at the time, to represent Kazakhstan at the funeral. 

I hosted him dinner the night before, and we were talking about the Middle East, and he said something which startled me, which was that China floated the idea of building a tunnel from Iran to the Emirates.

I thought it was fantastical given the geopolitics how could one envisage such a possibility. But the Middle East is a kaleidoscope.

I think just last week, King Salman of Saudi Arabia wrote a personal letter to the Emir of Qatar, inviting him to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh. In the Middle East, things never stay still.

As Asia and China become more important to Israel, Singapore will hopefully become more useful to Israel.

Our celebration today with the launch of the book Beating the Odds Together is therefore not only about the past, but also about a better future for both of us.

Related topics

Israel SAF military Middle East foreign affairs

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.