SINGAPORE -- While the Middle East is a long way away from Southeast Asia, it has an impact on the region because it is a very emotional issue for Muslims, and Singapore is surrounded by Muslim countries, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Monday following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“People all over the world are seized with the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Lee said. “We ourselves have a significant Muslim population, who are an important part of our harmonious multi-racial society.”
Lee's comments about the Palestinian issue seemed directed toward the country's Muslim population and Singapore's neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. One diplomatic official said that by inviting Netanyahu for the first ever official visit by an Israeli prime minister, the country was walking carefully amid neighbors not pleased by Singapore's close ties to Israel.
In his brief comments on the diplomatic process, Lee said that he knows the situation in the Middle East is complex, and expressed hope that direct negotiations can be resumed.
“We have consistently believed that a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, however hard to achieve, is the only way to bring peace and security to both peoples,” he said.
Lee diverted from his prepared text, and took out lines saying that an agreement will “involve very difficult compromises.” He also left out a sentence saying that unilateral actions by either side are not helpful, and urging the parties “to exercise restraint and comply with international law.”
Lee noted that while this was the first official visit by an incumbent prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin “stopped by” in 1993 after visiting Jakarta.
“Singapore and Israel are old friends,” he said, noting that the friendship began with defense cooperation when Israel responded to requests to help build the Singapore Armed Forces after its independence in 1965.
“This ensured our survival at a time of great uncertainty and vulnerability,” he said. “We will always be grateful. Since then, our ties have expanded beyond defense and security.”
Netanyahu said this was his first visit to Singapore, and that when he landed he was “absolutely amazed” at what he saw. “As much as you hear about Singapore's success, to see it physically is quite something. It demonstrates the power of people, of ideas, and the potential of power unleashed.”
He said Israel and Singapore, both small nations which have in many areas global powers, “are kindred spirits.” He said the opportunities of cooperation are vast, that the future belongs to those who innovate, and that “Israel and Singapore are innovation nations.”