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Israel and Singapore: A mysterious historical bond

by Shai Zarivatch

Singapore has a remarkable story to tell, and paradoxically this south east Asian city-state has quite a lot in common with Israel, a small nation with a history of struggle and resilience. The two small nations have populations comprised of immigrants with different cultures and customs, surrounded by large countries with their own political and ethnic tensions. Both of these small nations have managed against all odds to turn themselves in a single generation from poor, underdeveloped markets to global economic powerhouses with advanced infrastructures, skilled and highly educated workforces and ambitious entrepreneurs. Singapore has grown to become a global financial hub and an Economic giant in a single generation. Since 1965 Singapore has managed to build itself from a 3rd world, poor and underdeveloped island – to a proud, very advanced market that enjoys one of the highest GDPs in Asia. Together with a free market economy, corruption free and transparent government, Singapore was transformed from a swamp to an economic heaven.

Today Singapore serves as a regional hub for nearly 10,000 multinational enterprises, which have converted it into a global financial center of excellence.

Israel and Singapore have enjoyed excellent political and economic relations ever since a team of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) officers, known as the `Mexicans,’ helped Singapore establish its army. It was the start of a very special relationship.

Christmas Eve, 1965, is the unofficial date of the start of the ‘love story’ between Israel and Singapore, an affair that was kept a deep, dark secret. The international press, like the Israeli media, tried to bring the tale to light. Occasionally, scraps of information leaked out; some were published, some were denied, many were disregarded. 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.

But ultimately the mysterious history between Israel and Singapore came to light. In his book, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000,” published in 2000, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and its first prime minister, disclosed the secret that had been kept for almost 40 years: It was the Israel Defense Forces that established the Singaporean army. Lee wrote, “To disguise their presence, we called them `Mexicans.’ They looked swarthy enough.”

Singapore’s army is today considered the strongest and most advanced of the military forces in Southeast Asia. The alliance between the Israeli and Singaporean defense establishments intensified and expanded, and it now encompasses cooperation between the two countries’ military and defense industries, as well.

With this basis of cooperation, Israel and Singapore cooperate on industries and business far beyond the military.