'A Life-and-death Matter': How Israel Helped Singapore When It Needed It Most

Singapore and Israel share 'a certain kindred spirit,' says former foreign minister George Yeo in an interview to Haaretz – both small nations having to survive under difficult odds and surrounded by Muslim-majority countries

Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Former foreign minister of Singapore and author George Yeo
Former foreign minister of Singapore and author George YeoCredit: Matthew Ng
Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer

SINGAPORE – In November 1965, seven military advisers from the Israel Defense Forces deplaned in the then-newly declared independent state of Singapore. They were described as “Mexicans” and had come to carry out an under-wraps mission as conceived in “The Brown Book,” a master plan to help build up the Singapore Armed Forces.

Desperate to bolster its military, Singapore, which officially broke off from Malaysia in August 1965, reached out to India and Egypt for help, which was not forthcoming. Determined to get his vision off the ground, Singapore’s then-Defense Minister Goh Keng Swee turned next to Israel for help. Amid tensions with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, the country’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew instructed Goh to keep the operation from public eyes so as not to arouse suspicions either on the home front or in neighboring Muslim countries.

“Israel helped us at a critical moment of our birth, when defense was very much a life-and-death matter… we must never forget [that],” George Yeo, who served as Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2004 to 2011, tells Haaretz. In a recently published book “Beating the Odds Together: 50 Year of Singapore-Israel Ties,” Yeo along with other Singaporean, Israeli and Jewish officials and experts reflect on the past five decades of ties between the Lion City and Start-Up Nation.

Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in July 1964, a year before his country's independence. “Israel helped us at a critical moment of our birth," says Yeo.”
Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in July 1964, a year before his country's independence. 'Israel helped us at a critical moment of our birth,' says Yeo.Credit: AP

An unusually popular figure among Singapore’s politically apathetic public, Yeo was formerly a member of the country’s dominant People’s Action Party. He exited politics in 2011 after deciding not to run in the presidential election despite being considered a frontrunner; he now works in the private sector, conducting business with China and Hong Kong.

Even today, Yeo, 65, speaks of Israel with great admiration. On numerous occasions, he has mentioned that Singapore and Israel share “a certain kindred spirit” – both having to survive under difficult odds, being young states lacking in geographical size and natural resources, and surrounded by Muslim-majority countries.

“We had engaged Israel before the Six-Day War so the war provided powerful justification that gave us a big moral boost that we had chosen the right teacher” when it came to augmenting the military, Yeo tells Haaretz from his high-rise office in Singapore’s center. “But remember that while the Six-Day War was a great victory for Israel, it was a great defeat for the Arab world and a humiliation for the Islamic world, and therefore seen by our neighbors in a different light,” he adds.

Following their arrival in Singapore, IDF officers would go on to train and build up a cadre of local commanders and to help establish several infantry units modeled after their own. By 1968, Singapore had created an armored corps and signed an agreement for the purchase of 72 AMX-13 light tanks, from IDF surplus. It wasn’t until one year later that the two countries would officially normalize relations. They would then go on to expand their ties on fronts beyond that of defense, well into the 1970s and ‘80s.

While Singapore has slowly opened up about its ties to the Jewish state, it still must maintain a balancing act. “There’s still many things that we don’t want to talk about openly and the relationship between Israel and the Islamic world is still a sensitive subject in this part of the world – even among some of the Muslims in Singapore,” Yeo says.

Former foreign minister of Singapore and author George Yeo. “We engaged Israel before the Six-Day War so the war provided powerful justification that gave us a big moral boost that we had chosen the right teacher” when it came to augmenting Singapore's military.
George Yeo: 'We engaged Israel before the Six-Day War so the war provided powerful justification that gave us a big moral boost that we had chosen the right teacher'Credit: Matthew Ng

Indeed, for years, neighboring countries disparagingly referred to Singapore as the “Israel of Southeast Asia.” “It’s always a struggle, both economically and politically, and from the security viewpoint for us. So there is a kindred spirit and we see ourselves in Israelis,” Yeo tells Haaretz, adding, “Israelis see a little of themselves in us.”

Yeo recalls Indonesian President B.J Habibie once dubbing Singapore a “little red dot” in a sea of green, in an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal. “It was to humiliate us to say ‘you’re so small.’ But Singaporeans took it as a badge of pride. Yeah, we are very small and we’re proud of being a little red dot,” he says with a smile.

Nonetheless, despite similarities between the two countries and the importance of their ties, Yeo notes that when it comes to Israel’s relations with Palestinians, Singapore has maintained its insistence on a two-state solution.

“We are an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement, where Israel is very often criticized. We are in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] where half of the population is Muslim. People within Singapore are 15 percent Muslim and we have a different position about many issues. We cannot depart from those positions,” he adds.

The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 as a bloc for developing nations not formally affiliated with any major world power. S. I. Keethaponcalan, a professor of political science and conflict resolution in South Asia, at Maryland’s Salisbury University, tells Haaretz that although NAM has generally been “anti-Israel partly due to its unwavering support for the Palestinian cause... Singapore’s not a very prominent member.”

Many NAM members were “very realist in their national security” needs, Keethaponcalan explains. That approach, combined with Singapore’s capitalist outlook and close relations to the United States, has made it easier to work with Israel – which has also sought to develop relations with as many states as possible. While “diplomatic relations was the ultimate goal, military assistance provided an opening,” Keethaponcalan adds.

Yeo describes a “growing mutual respect” between the two countries today. “It’s a relationship on the broad front – of course, anchored in defense and security. But also now in the academic field, in diplomacy, trade, high-tech, culture,” he says.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Singapore's Maghain Aboth Synagogue in February 2017. Built in 1878, it is the oldest synagogue in Southeast Asia.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Singapore's Maghain Aboth Synagogue in February 2017. Built in 1878, it is the oldest synagogue in Southeast Asia.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

Personal ties

In Yeo’s chapter in “Beating the Odds,” the Cambridge and Harvard alum recalls many trips to Israel while serving as an officer in Singapore’s Armed Forces, and later as a brigadier general and chief of staff of its air force. His first trip to Israel was in 1980, against the backdrop of continued cooperation between the two countries’ military forces, following the initial training that had begun two decades prior.

Within three years, Yeo traveled to Israel 10 times, visiting various bases around the country, being briefed on aerial combat methods and missions against the Syrian Air Force following the first Lebanon War in 1982, and sitting in on the Israeli air force’s operational planning sessions.

“I became an ardent student of the history and condition of Israel and the Jewish people,” Yeo writes, even describing then-Israel Air Force Commander David Ivry as an uncle to him and famed Six-Day War pilot Colonel Yaakov Gal as a close family friend.

Eventually, in 1988, Yeo transitioned from his role as air force chief to politics, becoming a member of parliament, going on to hold several ministerial portfolios including health, trade and industry, and eventually foreign affairs.

In 2007 Yeo traveled to Israel to sign a joint initiative with then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which was meant to “encourage cultural cooperation between the two countries and increase the exposure of the peoples of each country to the culture of the other.”

Today bilateral cooperation spans many sectors including technology, research and development, health care and education. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and Tel Aviv University all maintain close ties with Singaporean institutions including the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. Singapore has hosted 27 annual Israel Film Festivals and often invites Israeli artists and entrepreneurs to visit – however, it is the commercial and defense-related deals that continue to dominate ties with Israel. According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, in the past five years there have reportedly been $61 million worth of arms sales involving the two countries though many speculate that the real figures are much higher.

Looking ahead and further afield, Yeo, who has welcomed close ties to China and has spoken in favor of the People’s Republic amid international criticim over Beijing's crackdown on the recent mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, says he hopes Singapore will prove an increasingly friendly and helpful ally to Israel in this context. “With the rise of Asia and its growing importance to Israel, economically and strategically,” he explains, “I think Singapore’s role as a portal for Israel in Asia as a ‘home away from home’ will grow in importance.”

The Israel Aerospace Industries booth at the Singapore Airshow in February 2012. In the past five years there have reportedly been $61 million worth of arms sales involving the two countries.
The Israel Aerospace Industries booth at the Singapore Airshow in February 2012. In the past five years there have reportedly been $61 million worth of arms sales involving the two countries.Credit: Tim Chong/REUTERS

In recent years, China has exerted great influence in the Middle East, establishing warm ties with Israel and many of its neighbors, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative to develop infrastructure for a global trade-working network. Israeli and American officials have raised numerous concerns over infrastructure and cybersecurity, due to China’s growing presence in Israel – especially in the wake of a Chinese company’s plans to build a desalination plant, Sorek B, near an air force base, and the expansion of Chinese construction projects Haifa’s port.

For Yeo, however, such concerns about China are misguided. “A lot of it comes from the Americans who see a large chessboard with China as a strategic rival and they do not want Israel to get too close to China. But left on its own, Israel will move much closer to China for sure,” he predicts.

“My hope is that as China becomes more important to the world and to Israel…Singapore can maybe play a small role when Israel looks east,” Yeo says.

Jewish life

Perhaps more prominent than the complicated history of ties with Israel are the Jewish streets names in Singapore, among them Nassim Road, Frankel Avenue, Zion Road and Elias Road. The country’s Jewish community currently stands at somewhere between 2,000-3,000 out of the country’s total population of almost six million people. Four synagogues, all Orthodox, cater to that community.

Singapore’s first chief minister, under Mandatory rule, was David Marshall, born locally to a family of Jewish migrants from Baghdad. Indeed, Baghdadi traders posted between the then-British-controlled ports of Calcutta and Singapore settled in Singapore in the 18th and 19th centuries, building its first synagogue in 1841. From early on, the former British colony has had a flourishing Jewish community, even attracting Albert Einstein, who visited in 1922, to raise funds for the building of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In conversations with Haaretz, members of the community take pride today in the fact that they have never experienced acts of anti-Semitism.

Jews gather on Yom Kippur eve and pray outside the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Singapore's Waterloo Street.
Jews gather on Yom Kippur eve and pray outside the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Singapore's Waterloo Street.Credit: DESMOND LIM / SINGAPORE PRESS HO

“Jewish life is becoming richer, more multidimensional in Singapore. It’s not just a traditional indigenous Iraqi Sephardic community, but also the Israelis and international Jews who are here; it’s a much richer Jewish life in Singapore than 20 or 30 years ago,” Yeo says.

Ben Benjamin, a fifth-generation Singaporean with Iraqi Jewish roots, who is vice president of Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organization, agrees. “Singapore is a highly vibrant, modern society where there’s lots of movement of people... The cyclical ebb and flow closely mirrors the growth and contraction of the domestic economy,” and has in effect changed the makeup of the local Jewish expatriate community in recent years, Benjamin tells Haaretz.

The son-in-law of Victor Sassoon – the patriarch of a family that has often been referred to as the “Rothschilds of Asia” – Benjamin manages a private credit fund and serves on Singapore’s Jewish Welfare Board.

“If you look at the history of Southeast Asia,” he says, “and you look back into the 20th century and how many of these countries were formed – the colonial and post-colonial evolution – you’ll see a lot of movement in many of these countries in terms of race and religious relations.”

When Singapore decided to become independent, Benjamin explains, one of its key tenets was that it would be a place where people could practice religion freely. “This was a key policy from the time of independence, to safeguard the social fabric of Singapore, and through the years this has only gotten stronger,” he adds.

By and large, Jews and Muslims in Singapore coexist and the chief rabbi and imam have fostered warm ties between the two communities, according to Yeo and Benjamin. “There are Jewish roots here and many Jewish families are Sephardic and they spoke Arabic at home so they had Muslim friends,” Yeo says, explaining one reason why he says Singapore has no anti-Semitism problem.

Diverse 'soil'

According to multiple Pew Research Center surveys, Singapore is home to the world’s most religiously diverse population, with Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Jews, Sikhs and others. Asked how the country has worked to cultivate tolerance between those communities, Yeo says “the government doesn’t allow hate speech or behavior based on hatred. The government maintains the outer boundaries and because the ‘soil’ is favorable, so people on the whole have harmonious relationships.”

According to Freedom House, Singapore is rated "Partly Free" in the index's annual study of political rights and civil liberties across the globe.

“The government will not allow extremists to polarize the ground,” adds Yeo, who defended government censorship of the internet while serving as a member of parliament in 1995. Today, Singapore’s political system is largely dominated by the center-right People’s Action Party, which currently holds 82 out of a total of 101 seats. The main opposition Workers Party hold nine seats and the rest belong to government appointees.

Internet access is subject to regulation by the government, which reserves the right to censor material seen as “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.” According to the country’s Sedition Act, internet users deemed to have promoted hostility among the public are subject to prosecution. According to Freedom House's Freedom on the Net report from 2019, the legislation "further enables censorship" by the ruling party, which "allows for some political pluralism, but constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedoms of expression, assembly, and association."

“The Singapore model is unique because the history is different and the soil is different. We can’t prescribe this to other people because it’s so different,” Yeo tells Haaretz.

While Singapore-Israel ties may no longer be defined as mentor-mentee, it’s clear that both sides intend to deepen their relationship.

Asked how history may have been different so many years ago had India or Egypt accepted Singapore’s invitation to assist in military training, Yeo explains that “it would have taken us longer to develop capabilities. I think we would still have [them] because it’s a necessity, we have to respond to a certain environment, but we would have made more mistakes and it would have taken us longer. We would have lost some of the mystery of the relationship, which itself was part of the deterrence.”

Israel, Yeo adds, “is a small country, like us. It relies on national service, like us. So there are more points of similarities and more points from which we can learn more easily.”