Is­rael and Sin­ga­pore – out of the shad­ows

Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By SHARYN MITTELMAN

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.

(Reuters)

PRIME MIN­IS­TER Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Sin­ga­pore’s Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong shake hands as they de­liver joint state­ments in Jerusalem on April 19.

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