Singapore hopes for day when Israel lives in peace with neighbours

From Israel, Singapore learnt how to be strong and how not to use its strength, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech at the Hebrew University, which on Monday conferred on him an honorary doctorate.

The earliest Jewish people migrated to Singapore in the 19th century, mostly from Iraq, the Middle East. One famous visit is intimately linked to the establishment of Hebrew University, and it was the visit which was alluded to earlier, by Professor Albert Einstein in 1922. He met the Singapore Jewish community and urged them to contribute to the Hebrew University's establishment. I thought I had done some research, but I was given a comprehensive presentation on Professor Einstein's visit to Singapore. But maybe I found a few facts which you may not have highlighted just now. First of all, the Singapore Jews raised £750 towards the Hebrew University. Translated to today's currency, it is US$300,000 (S$403,200), not a bad sum. And the other significant fact is that a week after his visit to Singapore, Professor Einstein got a call from Stockholm, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. So we have many happy memories.

Today, Singapore is home to a small Jewish community, numbering a few hundred, which has contributed to our society out of proportion to its numbers. For example, our first Chief Minister, Mr David Saul Marshall, was a Baghdadi Jew. In recent decades, many more Jewish expatriates, including Israelis, have come to live and work in Singapore, many of them with tech companies. There are now maybe 2,500 Jewish people in Singapore, enough to sustain one successful kosher restaurant.


In August 1965, when Singapore unexpectedly became independent, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) helped us to develop the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). We asked a number of countries. We were starting from zero base; we needed to build up an armed forces urgently from scratch. But only Israel responded to us, and it did so very promptly. Weeks after independence, our Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, flew to Bangkok to meet the Israeli Ambassador there, Mordecai Kidron. He reported back to his headquarters and within a few months - by the end of the year - a team of IDF advisers had come to Singapore. We called them "Mexicans" for operational security, and also because we hoped that their swarthy looks might make the cover plausible. Within less than two years, by July 1967, guided by the IDF team, the SAF commissioned our first batch of officers from the officer cadet course. This was a decisive step in building up a credible and professional defence force for Singapore.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Hebrew University on Monday, after an honorary doctorate was conferred on him. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

It was a time of great uncertainty for us. Britain was withdrawing its forces from the east of Suez, including its bases in Singapore. 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 that Singapore had a future. Dr Goh would later say that "in retrospect, it's a minor miracle that we ever got off the ground… without the Israelis, we could not have (done) it". We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us, at our time of great need.

Over the years, our relations have expanded much further beyond defence and security, though, of course, defence and security ties remain. Our companies are very active in exploring opportunities in both countries. We collaborate in technology and in R&D. The Singapore-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation (SIIRD) has funded about 150 projects over the last 20 years, providing about US$170 million in funding. Our universities and research institutes have regular exchanges, including with the Hebrew University. We have just witnessed the signing of three agreements: one with the National Research Foundation to manage Hebrew University's research in Singapore; one with the National University of Singapore; and another one with the Nanyang Technological University, reaffirming the parties' commitment to deepen research collaboration. I hope we can build on these foundations and these intents to grow our relations further.


I am especially honoured that the award comes from a renowned university with outstanding strengths in research and innovation. You have a constellation of outstanding alumni - eight Nobel Prize winners, numerous Israeli presidents and prime ministers, leaders in every field. You reflect the remarkable human talent, and the indomitable spirit to overcome overwhelming odds. That is the signature of Israel - whether it is irrigating the desert to make the sand green and agriculture possible, making revolutionary advances in medical technology, or creating outstanding art, music and architecture.

That is the spirit of Israel, and Singapore looks to you and admires you, and we count our similarities. First, we are both young nations. Israel is less than 70 years old, and Singapore has just turned 50. Second, we have both had to integrate diverse groups to create a common sense of nationhood. In the case of Singapore, we are a Chinese-majority society, but with significant Malay, Indian and other races as minority communities. And we have represented in Singapore all the major religions in the world. In Israel, you are a mainly Jewish society, but diverse none the less, with Ashkenazim from Europe; Sephardim from the Middle East; Falashim from Ethiopia; Russian Jews after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one million of them; Sabras, born and raised here; and a significant minority of Israeli Arabs. Thirdly, both countries were born in adverse circumstances and survive only by our wits, and both are determined to thrive despite our circumstances, and to build a better tomorrow for our children.

But there are also striking contrasts between our countries. First of all, Israel has the Torah and Talmud, and you trace back 5,000 years of Jewish history, including the Second Temple and Masada. Singapore's sense of identity is only as a modern state, even though our different races belong to ancient civilisations, but different ancient civilisations. So therefore following from this, secondly, Israel's identity is as a Jewish state; Singapore's identity is emphatically not a Chinese nation, but a multiracial, multi-religious society. In fact, being multiracial and multi-religious for us is a fundamental ideal that was the reason for our independence and our raison d'etre - the reason for our existence. Thirdly, Israel has had to fight several wars to defend its right to exist. Singapore has been fortunate never to have been at war with its neighbours, with one exception in the 1960s, when we had to defend ourselves against Konfrontasi, a low- intensity conflict launched by Indonesia against Malaysia at a time when we were inside Malaysia.

We may be different, but Israel's story is one that resonates with Singaporeans and is a powerful inspiration to us. As a young man, I read a novel: Exodus by Leon Uris. If you are my age, you will probably know the novel. The story made a deep impression on me. I left the book at home. One day my father happened to pick it up and read it. I was away, so he wrote a letter to me and he told me this. His comment was, the novelist did not miss a single opportunity to score a point about the justness of the cause and the passion of those who founded the state of Israel. When I wrote this up, my people did a bit of research and they discovered that David Ben-Gurion had read the same novel and came to the same conclusion. His comment was: "As a literary work, it isn't much. But as a piece of propaganda, it's the greatest thing ever written about Israel." So I recommend the book to you.

It is this passion that has thoroughly imbued the Israeli spirit. That tenacity and determination of a people, who having suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, resolved never again to be dependent on others. A people with the determination to solve whatever problems come your way, no matter how intractable or persistent, and have the confidence that you will make tomorrow better, and step by step build a better future.


You will step by step build a better future, but it is a complex story.

Recently I have been reading a book by Ari Shavit - My Promised Land: The Triumph And The Tragedy. It is non-fiction, unlike Exodus. It is a deeply powerful account of the story of Israel, told through the experiences and reflections of individual Israelis, but also through Arab eyes - the Arab population who lived in Palestine before the settlers arrived; the Palestinians in the occupied territories on the West Bank and the Gaza. Shavit's book makes vividly clear how complex and tragic the Israeli-Palestinian problem is, and why a solution is so elusive. Progress will require enormous imagination, determination and political leadership on both sides, as well as getting the stars aligned in the right places in the firmament, with the great powers supporting you.

On this trip, I am not only visiting Israel, but also the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, to signal our friendship with both Israel and the Palestinians; to better understand developments, including the Middle East Peace Process; to express our hope that both sides will take steps to resume direct negotiations and to work towards a just and lasting two-state solution.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew once told a "Mexican" general who had helped start the SAF that Singapore had learnt two things from Israel: how to be strong, and how not to use our strength. I read a recent interview by Mr Shimon Peres, and was moved by his vision, which he has long held, of Israel in 2048, 100 years after its founding. He was convinced that 2048 will be a much better world for Israel and for the Middle East. Borders will become less relevant. Science and technology will transform communities and connect peoples, and force people to become more open-minded to the world. It is an optimistic view from a person who has lived a long life and seen many things.

Today, such a Middle East seems a long way off, perhaps more distant even than 2048, and more distant than it appeared when you started out in 1948. But I sincerely hope that one day, Mr Peres' vision will be realised. Swords will be turned to ploughshares. Israel and your neighbours will live side by side in peace and prosperity. And your friends in Singapore and around the world will rejoice with you too.

Israel's identity is as a Jewish state; Singapore's identity is emphatically not a Chinese nation, but a multiracial, multi-religious society. In fact, being multiracial and multi-religious for us is a fundamental ideal that was the reason for our independence and our raison d'etre- the reason for our existence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore hopes for day when Israel lives in peace with neighbours'. Subscribe