Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 19, 2016.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Although it has always been kept low-key, Israel and Singapore have had a deep relationship for over 50 years. They cooperate extensively in commerce and defense trade, and share a profound political alliance whose roots can be traced back to the founding of Singapore in 1965. Today, that relationship is finally coming out of the closet.
This new openness was proudly on display during Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s April visit. While bilateral diplomatic relations were formally established in 1969, it was the first time a Singaporean prime minister had visited Israel.
In light of their warm ties it may seem strange that this was the first such visit, but for many decades the friendship was kept quiet, especially the extensive defense cooperation.
The friendship began when Prime Minister Lee’s father, Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew, sought Israel’s help to enable Singapore to defend itself after it left the Malaysian Federation in 1965, and India, Egypt and Britain all declined.
During his visit, Prime Minister Lee expressed his gratitude for this crucial support – and in doing so openly acknowledged the extent of the relationship in a way no Singaporean leader would have done publicly until fairly recently.
On receiving an honorary doctorate at Hebrew University, for example, Prime Minister Lee said, “Without the IDF, the SAF could not have grown its capabilities, deterred threats, defended our island, and reassured Singaporeans and investors that Singapore was secure and had a future.”
He added, “We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us at our time of great need.”
How did Israel help Singapore develop its army in such secrecy? According to reports, in 1965 Israel sent a military delegation to Singapore that included Gen. Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi, Col. Yaakov Elazari, Col. Yehuda Golan and other officers to advise Singapore to form an army based on the IDF’s experience. The Israelis were called the “Mexicans” by Singapore’s government, which wanted to hide their presence. Having helped oversee the establishment of the Singaporean army, Israel reportedly sent weapons shipments. Today Singapore’s army is one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful, and is still modeled on the IDF.
Israel reportedly continues to sell Singapore weapons including tanks, radars and drones, and the two nations’ military industries are known to cooperate in joint ventures for tenders in other countries, and in research and development. They have also boosted intelligence cooperation, working together to expose Islamist terrorist cells operating in the region, including Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Islamic State, who have variously sought to attack Singaporean, Western and Israeli targets.
Commercial collaboration is also booming. In 2015 the two nations conducted around $1.35 billion of trade. In fact, Prime Minister Lee noted, “Israel is the second largest contributor of foreign direct investments in Singapore from the Middle East.” While in Israel, Prime Minister Lee witnessed the signing of agreements between the Hebrew University and Singapore’s National Research Foundation, and with two universities in Singapore, to expand research and development cooperation. A memorandum of understanding concerning foreign aid, also signed during the visit, will see the two countries jointly providing training to professionals from developing countries around the world.
These developments expand on existing commercial collaborations including the Singapore-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation established in 1997, which is a joint venture between the Singapore Economic Development Board and the Office of the Chief Scientist in Israel to promote, facilitate and support joint industrial research and development projects between companies from Israel and Singapore, which would lead to successful commercialization.
Singapore is an important access point into the Asian market, which also makes it a great launching pad for Israeli companies seeking to globalize. Today Singapore is a strategic hub for Israeli business and regional trade, as well as for opportunities for joint operations in areas including biotechnology, IT and software industries – industries in which both countries are seen to have an edge.
Their close economic and defense ties appear to have borne diplomatic fruit. In 1988, Singapore issued a statement welcoming the proclamation of a Palestinian state.
However, today Singapore has generally adopted an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling both Israelis and Palestinians its friends.
Singapore was one of the 41 countries that abstained on the UN General Assembly Resolution on upgrading the status of “Palestine” to observer state on November 29, 2012. Explaining its position Singapore said in a statement: “[W]e have abstained on this resolution because we believe that only a negotiated settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long-term solution. Both sides... must be prepared to make compromises to achieve the larger good of a lasting peace. It is precisely because the rights and responsibilities of both sides are inextricably intertwined that no unilateral move can result in a just, peaceful and durable outcome.”
Prime Minister Lee’s visit to Israel, and his invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Singapore, appear to signify a new era for the Israel/Singapore relationship. There is every reason to believe that, for the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to view Singapore as its most important friend, ally and economic partner in Southeast Asia, while Singapore will continue to appreciate and build on the benefits of the deep and long-standing relationship with Israel, and do so more openly than ever.
The author is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.