Israel-Singapore: A deep, dark, secret love affair

The tiny city-state of Singapore has a powerful military fist, not talked about but evident to hostile neighbors. And Israel played a crucial role in creating it. 

 Israeli ex-pat Atar Sandler and her husband and children overlook the skyline of the financial hub from their Singapore apartment balcony, last year.  (photo credit: CHEN LIN/REUTERS)
Israeli ex-pat Atar Sandler and her husband and children overlook the skyline of the financial hub from their Singapore apartment balcony, last year.
(photo credit: CHEN LIN/REUTERS)

It all began on Christmas Eve, 1965, the unofficial start date of “the great and continuing love story between Israel and Singapore, a love affair that was kept a deep, dark secret” – Haaretz writer Amnon Barzilai recounted almost 20 years ago. 

In 1965, the State of Israel was still a struggling teenager, only 17 years old, and it was poor – the per capita GDP was only $1,429, one-fortieth of its present level. 

With only 600,000 Jewish people in 1948, Israel survived an onslaught of several Arab armies, suffered 6,000 combat deaths, and, in its first three and a half years, absorbed more immigrants than its 1948 population. It would face an existential threat in the 1967 Six Day War. 

And yet, it was willing and able to help another struggling young country, Singapore, born on August 9, 1965. This tiny city-state, with only 670 sq. km., was once part of Malaysia. Singapore was occupied by Japan (1942-45), and then by the British. It was merged with the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. But the marriage was unhappy. 

In 1965 Britain decided to withdraw from all its colonies east of the Suez Canal. Under founder Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore chose to declare independence – echoing a similar risky decision by Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in May 1948. Like Israel, few thought Singapore would survive.

 The writer with Bilahari Kausikan. (credit: SHLOMO MAITAL)
The writer with Bilahari Kausikan. (credit: SHLOMO MAITAL)

Malaysia threatened to attack, occupy, and subjugate Singapore. And Singapore was almost defenseless. It had only two army regiments (6,000-10,000 soldiers), two-thirds of whom were not residents of Singapore. 

“Singapore’s leaders,” Barzilai recounts, “had no faith in the strength of its minuscule army.”

Tiny Israel had gone through a similar existential crisis in 1948. Like Israel, no one wanted to help Singapore militarily. “What’s in it for us?” they asked. “What can Singapore do for me?” 

Singapore was on its own – except for Israel. 

And since those early days. Singapore has blossomed. Modern Singapore has 5.6 million people who live on a 48 km.-long island comprising only 7,800 sq. km. At $91,000, its GDP per capita is among the highest in the world. Its armed forces are small, modern, and formidable. It has three main ethnic groups – Chinese (74%), Malay (14%), and Indian (9%) – who cooperate and coexist. Like Israel, Singapore hosts a super-modern Intel fabrication plant and is a Southeast Asian hub for many global giants. 

Shortly after declaring its independence, Singaporean Defense Minister Goh Keng Swee contacted former Israeli ambassador to Thailand, Mordecai Kidron, a veteran diplomat, and asked for help. Kidron rushed to Singapore, together with Hezi Carmel of the Mossad. Goh told them that he felt only Israel – like Singapore, a small country surrounded by large hostile Muslim countries – could help them build a small, dynamic army.

Based on Kidron’s and Carmel’s reports, the IDF deployed to supply military aid to Singapore. Then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin chose to put general Rehavam Ze’evi (“Gandhi”) in charge. Ze’evi visited Singapore secretly and proposed that instead of a huge military bureaucracy, Singapore would create a lean, integrated organization without “too many generals and too few soldiers.”

Col. Yaakov Elazari headed the team. He added lieutenant colonel Yehuda Golan, commander of an armored division. They produced a “brown book” (combat doctrine) and a “blue book” (creation of a Defense Ministry and intelligence bodies). An Israeli military delegation arrived in Singapore in October 1965, just over two months after Singapore declared independence.

Rabin gave the delegation clear instructions: “Your task is to teach them the military profession, to put them on their legs so they can run their own army. You are not going there to command them but to advise them.” He added: “You are not arms merchants... I want total disregard of their decision as to whether to buy here or elsewhere.”

Barzilai recounts that the Israeli defense team arrived in full force on Christmas Eve 1965. They quickly recruited 40-50 people who had military experience, ready to serve in a career army. As commander, the group chose Kirpa Ram Vij, of Indian origin, who eventually became chief of staff. The Israelis ran an intensified officers training course for three months.

There was resistance to conscription as the profession of soldier ranked last in Singapore. Founding prime minister Lee Kwan Yew told the Israelis, “I want you to recruit the most primitive people in the country, the uneducated and the jobless.” 

The Israelis were stunned and protested. Lee was adamant. He explained that the Japanese army, composed of the uneducated, defeated the British army, educated and intelligent – because they were motivated.

With experience from the lessons learned from the engagements fought between Japan and Britain, the Israelis created a naval force based on sampans – wooden boats with sharp bows and large sterns. They practiced infantry landings at night, using only shore navigation. 

“Singapore was relieved the Israelis were not defeated in the Six-Day War,” Lee wrote, “or we would have lost confidence in them.” 

In January 1968, Singapore’s armored corps was created, in secret, after buying 72 AMX-13 light tanks from IDF surplus. Malaysia, at the time, had no tanks.

Adam Tzivoni, a retired Israel Air Force colonel, came to advise Singapore’s fledgling air force. Britain offered Singapore 50 million pounds to buy British equipment. Tzivoni nixed the deal.

“The British tried to sell Singapore junk”, he said. No wonder the British disliked him. A flight school was established in Singapore under Tzivoni’s supervision and modern Alouette helicopters were purchased.

Fast forward: Singapore insisted on gaining jungle combat experience. Singapore has no jungles, but neighboring countries do. Israeli advisors used American training manuals based on Vietnam combat. 

I taught MBA courses in Singapore for many years. In my classroom, I recall pausing because of the roar of modern Singapore Air Force jets training overhead. 

One of my Singaporean friends told me about his compulsory reserve duty. He spent several weeks a year in a wet, hostile Thai jungle, training with his unit. It is today nearly unthinkable that Malaysia or Indonesia would attack Singapore. Like Israel, this tiny city-state has a powerful military fist, not talked about but evident to hostile neighbors. And Israel played a crucial role in creating it. 

But why was Israel’s role in helping Singapore kept so secret?

Barzilai observes that “the Israelis, as usual, wanted to rush to tell all their friends [about aiding Singapore], but managed to overcome that desire. The fear that the ties would be terminated if they became public knowledge had its effect. Israel imposed a total blackout on the story and the secret was preserved. Until the other side could no longer contain itself.” 

At the time, tensions with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia were high. There was a constant threat that one or both would overrun Singapore and occupy it. The country’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told his defense minister Goh to keep the Israeli operation from public eyes “so as not to arouse suspicions either on the home front or in neighboring Muslim countries”.

Today? Social media would have exposed Israel’s military aid to Singapore in real time, as it was happening. And it might not have ended as well. 

The 2019 book, Beating the Odds Together – 50 Years of Singapore-Israel Ties (World Scientific), includes a chapter by my friend Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of the Singapore Foreign Ministry and a frequent visitor to Israel. Few non-Israelis, and even few Israelis, understand our strange little country better than he does. Here are some of his wise words.

On regional cooperation: “Strong deterrence is a necessary condition for good relations with neighbors. But military deterrence is in itself an insufficient condition. Strong deterrence keeps neighbors honest and creates the opportunity to build cooperative ties. The opportunity has to be used….” (With US help, the Abraham Accords, signed on Sept. 15, 2020, validate this principle). 

On internal dissension: “Israel and Singapore are improbable countries. We should not exist. Yet here we both are and here we both intend to stay, working together as we often do, pursuing our own interests when we must. The primary threats faced by Israel and Singapore are today internal, not external. If we fail, it will be our own fault. At root, the essential issues for both of us arise from questions of identity.

“A casual observer of Israel might be forgiven for concluding that Israelis live in a continual state of contention. This is a superficial view. Israelis fight very fiercely over the meaning of being Jewish or being Israeli. But few doubt that they are in some sense Jewish, or that Israel’s essential raison d’etre is to be the homeland of the Jews. Outsiders unwary enough to be tempted to intervene in these internal Israeli quarrels will soon find that they will stop quarreling and take you on – so as to be left to fight in peace.”

On existential questions: “Why should there be an Israel if it is not to be the homeland of the Jews? Why should the Jews not have a homeland? Can there be Jews without Judaism in all its bewildering (to a gentile) graduations and variations? What is the status of Arabs in a Jewish state? Is there a contradiction between the idea of Israel as a democracy and the idea of Israel as a Jewish state?”

Kausikan writes that “Palestine is an issue with no perfect solution. But some sort of answers to the [Palestinian] question – or at least workable compromises – cannot be forever postponed without Israel risking becoming just like its neighbors.”

On planning and action: “When Israel makes mistakes, they are usually mistakes of action without adequate long-term planning. But that willingness to take risks – Israel cannot afford the luxury of not exercising agency – is the ultimate source of Israeli creativeness, spirit, and genius for improvisation. 

“Singapore excels at long-term planning. But I fear that Singapore’s mistakes will be those of excessive caution. Not everything can be planned, not all plans will unfold as anticipated. Small countries have narrow margins for error. But sometimes, the biggest risk is trying to avoid all risks.”

On being exceptional: “Singapore and Israel are small countries. Small countries have no intrinsic relevance in the international system. For small countries, relevance is an artifact to be created and maintained by human endeavor. The fundamental basis of creating and maintaining relevance is to be exceptional. This does not make us dearly loved by our neighbors, but it cannot be helped. It is the existential condition of being Israeli or Singaporean. Nobody ever promised that it was going to be easy to be Israeli or Singaporean.”

In 2019, author James Breiding published a fine book, titled Too Small to Fail: Why Small Nations Outperform Larger Ones and How They Are Reshaping the World. In it, he explains “how eight small countries have tackled the global issues with brilliant policies, individuals, and institutions.” (The countries he chose are Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland).

Breiding shows “how Singapore achieves superior healthcare outcomes at one quarter of the cost of the US and how Israel has created a start-up ecosystem to rival Silicon Valley... how Copenhagen is well on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city, whilst Finland has engineered a world-renowned primary education system.” 

Breiding notes, for instance, that Singapore’s healthcare system amounts to less than 4% of GDP (in Israel it is about 12% and in the US, 18%) yet they have superior health outcomes, whether it’s mortality or longevity or remission rates for cancer. Smaller countries are healthier, wealthier – and even happier. Nine of the 10 happiest nations are small.

Let us give Kausikan the last word.

“Perhaps Israel should become a little more like Singapore and Singapore a tad more like Israel – just a tad,” he says.  ■

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at