George Yeo: LKY only agreed to visit Israel in 1994, his first & only time, after Oslo Accord

The former foreign minister shared an anecdote about Singapore and Israel's deep ties at a book launch commemorating 50 years of diplomatic ties.

Sulaiman Daud |Julia Yeo | December 9, 2019 @ 10:51 pm


Singapore and Israel have enjoyed strong bilateral relations ever since establishing formal ties in 1969.

But 50 years on, the two countries still have much to learn from each other.

Israel gave critical assistance to a newly independent S’pore

Ex-Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was the guest-of-honour at the launch of the book Beating The Odds Together: 50 years of Singapore-Israel Ties, delved into the relationship between the two countries.

George Yeo, Bilahari at book launch
Photo via Julia Yeo

Guests present included Sagi Karni, the Israeli ambassador to Singapore, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, and Singapore’s first Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo.

Yeo spoke about Singapore’s unique relationship with Israel:

“Our two countries share a deep friendship growing out of the critical assistance which Israel gave to a newly independent Singapore.

It is sustained not only by common strategic interests but also by the sharing of a certain kindred spirit, of having to survive under difficult odds.”

Building up Singapore

He quoted an essay by Peter Ho, who revealed that Yitzhak Rabin, a former Prime Minister of Israel, had delivered three specific instructions for his Israeli military advisers stationed in Singapore to help build Singapore’s military.

These were Rabin’s instructions, as quoted by Yeo:

“I want you to remember several things. One, we are not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony. Your task is to teach them the military profession, to put them on their legs so they can run their own army.

Second, you are not going there in order to command them but to advise them.

And third, you are not arms merchants. When you recommend items to procure, use the purest professional military judgement.”

Yeo added that the bilateral relationship between Israel and Singapore today extends beyond defence, and that Singapore hoped to return the favour to the state whom Singapore “owes a deep, eternal debt of gratitude”.

S’pore has tried to promote greater understanding between Israel & local Muslims

Yeo also spoke about how Singapore tries to promote, albeit in small ways, greater understanding of Israel in Singapore and among Singapore Muslims.

He talked about how he had previously arranged for the Israeli Ambassador to witness the korban in Sultan Mosque on Hari Raya Haj in Singapore.

“Israeli embassy security was understandably anxious and insisted on the ambassador being accompanied by bodyguards.

My Muslim friends took it all in stride and, after witnessing the animal sacrifice, which of course recalled Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, we had an excellent nasi bryani lunch,” Yeo shared.

However, he was aware of the often contentious relationship between the two parties.

Yeo spoke of his concern that prospects of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine is steadily vanishing, adding that Israeli society under current PM Benjamin Netanyahu has progressively shifted to the right.

Lee Kuan Yew’s approach

Yeo recalled how Singapore had consistently supported the two-state solution in the United Nations.

He said that Lee Kuan Yew only agreed to visit Israel in 1994, after it had signed the Oslo Accords.

The first agreement (Oslo I) was signed in 1993, while the second (Oslo II) was signed in 1995.

He added that Lee understood the difficulty on both sides, and had instructed him when Yeo was Minister for Trade and Industry to suggest to the Palestinians to conduct a referendum on a final deal.

This, Lee felt, would make it “irreversible”.

Yeo, and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also expressed their surprise when the late Lee accepted the invitation by Rabin to visit Israel.

Israel looking eastwards with rise of China

Looking ahead, Yeo spoke about how the rise of Asia and China could create new political and economic opportunities for Israel, enabling them to break current barriers.

He cited a survey, which showed that the majority of young Israelis have a favourable view of China.

The former foreign minister added that China enjoys good relations with all other countries in the Middle East as well, including Iran, which could open new ways to improving relations in the region.

You can see a reproduction of Yeo’s remarks below:

Book launch to mark 50 years of S’pore-Israeli diplomatic ties

The book is a collaboration between academics, diplomats and military experts, including Yeo, who contributed a chapter.

Essays in the volume detail inside stories of how Israel helped Singapore establish the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) when others had declined the Republic’s calls for help.

They also trace the evolution of the relationship beyond security, to other fields such as business, academia, technology, research, and education.

The 160-page book retails for S$37, and is available at major bookstores. It is published by World Scientific.

Top image via Andrew Wong

About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve and his favourite person is Jürgen Klopp. He also writes about film and pop-culture, which you are very welcome to read here.

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