New book launched to mark 50 years of once-secretive Singapore-Israel ties
SINGAPORE — There is a little bit of Israel in parts of Singapore. The night vision technology used at the Night Safari, the names of Jewish families found in street names such as Zion Road and Frankel Avenue, as well as the genesis of Singapore’s National Service — they all have their connections to the Israelis.
SINGAPORE — There is a little bit of Israel in parts of Singapore.
The night vision technology used at the Night Safari, the names of Jewish families found in street names such as Zion Road and Frankel Avenue, as well as the genesis of Singapore’s National Service — they all have their connections to the Israelis.
Little has been publicly written about the significant links between both nations due to political sensitivities — Singapore’s immediate neighbours are predominantly Muslims.
However, with attitudes changing today, a new book was published to commemorate the past 50 years of diplomatic relationship between Singapore and the Jewish state of Israel, titled Beating the Odds Together: 50 Years of Singapore-Israel Ties.
Launched on Monday (Dec 9) at the Arts House by former foreign affairs minister George Yeo and jointly published by the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and publisher World Scientific, the book compiles essays by prominent Singaporean and Israeli diplomats, civil servants, religious leaders, businessmen and professionals, acknowledging how the bilateral relationship was once highly secretive and, at times, controversial.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong wrote in the book’s foreword: “The depth of this relationship has rarely been publicised because of political sensitivities, given our neighbours’ position towards Israel. This book will fill the lacuna.”
The ties go back to 1965 after Singapore separated from Malaysia and became an independent nation. The fledgling and resource-limited city-state had turned to other countries for help to establish its military forces and only Israel answered the call.
'NOT A HUGE DILEMMA'
Lieutenant General (Retired) Winston Choo, Singapore's ambassador to Israel, was quoted in the book as saying that other states had turned down the request: “When Singapore stumbled into independence and our security and survival were in doubt, Israel provided ready assistance for the establishment of our armed forces.”
Speaking at the book launch, Mr Sagi Karni, ambassador of Israel to Singapore, said that Israeli foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s was to be very proactive and to try to help post-colonial countries in Africa and Asia. He added that Israel tried to be generous despite its own small economy and limited resources.
“Therefore when the request for help came from young Singapore, it was not a huge dilemma to make a decision that we will go for it,” Mr Karni said.
Israel sent a team of military advisers, who had provided valuable expertise to Singapore during its post-independence years. However, this was kept secret for a time and the Singapore Government had called them “the Mexicans” in a bid to mask their true identities.
Travelling incognito to surveil Singapore in the post-independence years, the Israeli team came up with “The Brown Book”, a masterplan to build the Singapore Armed Forces, former head of civil service Peter Ho wrote.
Referring to Mr Ho's anecdote in his speech at Monday’s event, Mr Karni said: “I tell my friends it was better to be called Mexicans than ‘ang moh gui’ (Hokkien for “caucasian devil”).”
Mr Yeo remarked that he, too, learnt new facts from the book, such as how former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had asked this team of advisers to not turn Singapore into an Israeli colony or be “arms merchants” to the young country, and that the Israeli advisers' success will be measured by how Singapore can run its own army by itself.
Mr Yeo revealed, though, that this was not always adhered to: “It took time for Israel to develop a deep understanding of Singapore. As Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong’s ‘bag carrier’ to Israel in 1980, I remember him being quite upset about the explicit pressure put on him by the Israeli defence sales unit to buy Israeli-made weapons.”
The two countries had maintained a low-key relationship until it was openly publicised in former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s biography, From Third World to First, in 2000.
The changing attitudes towards Israel by Singapore’s Muslim neighbours today, who once likened Singapore to Israel in an uncomplimentary manner, were mentioned by veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan in the book.
“Equating Singapore with Israel as a warning is no longer credible. After winning four wars against numerically superior Arab forces, Israel is not going to be pushed into the sea. It is a successful country, here to stay as a legitimate part of the Middle East,” he wrote.
It is the first time that there is a book with multiple accounts detailing the inside story of Israel’s links to Singapore.
Mr Yeo said: “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 debt of gratitude.”
The book is available at bookstores for S$37.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly identified Lieutenant General (Retired) Winston Choo as Singapore's former ambassador to Israel. This is incorrect. He is the current ambassador. We are sorry for the error.
Related topicsIsrael book history military anniversary George Yeo Singapore Armed Forces Middle East diplomat
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