An odd couple: Why does Singapore stand beside Israel?

Photo: Moritz Hager/World Economic Forum

Israeli interests in Singapore have long-supported the Southeast Asian nation in military matters but new opportunities are growing cooperation on technology projects.

Editorial

The strategic Israeli military-focused think-tank Team8 recently hosted a conference in Singapore. They were in the city-state to foster cybersecurity start-ups and were optimistic about innovative and useful Singapore-Israeli cooperation.

Team8’s co-founder and CEO told reporters that the Southeast Asian state would serve as the Team8’s headquarters in Asia. This is just one in a long history of cooperative deals between the two small nations. They have much in common.

Security issues have always loomed large in Israel as successive governments have been unable to find peace with their Arab neighbours. Singapore has lived under the shadow of a potential Malaysian invasion.

This shared need for defence systems brought the two countries together, but their relationship is much more than that of an arms dealer and its client. Israel and Singapore also cooperate in the technology, solar and water sectors.

Israel was one of the early countries to support an independent Singapore

In February 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Singapore in the first visit from that country’s leader in 30 years. Lee Hsien Loong explained “We asked a number of countries [for help forming an army in the early years of Singapore]…we were starting from zero… we needed to build up an armed forces urgently from scratch. But only Israel responded to us, and it did so very promptly.”

Advice from Israel shaped the early plans for Singapore’s army and today’s force still reflects the Israeli structure. Weapons sales to arm these troops was a key driver for early cooperation. In 1968, Singapore purchased 72 AMX-13 tanks from Israel but the sensitivities of Singapore’s position in a Muslim-majority region meant these deals were not public knowledge.

“Without the Israeli Defence Force, the Singapore Armed Forces 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… We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us, at our time of great need,” Lee said.

Trade and partnerships today, still include supplying equipment such as tanks and drones. Singapore has state of the art defence equipment including F-16s, Apache Longbow helicopters, anti-aircraft missile, some of which comes from Israel.

The two countries have the same anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems and share military intelligence. They have a history of working together on tenders for military supplies to third-party countries.

Specialised structures fund joint research and innovation ventures

The Singapore-Israel relationship also manifests itself in projects like the Singapore-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. It uses money from the Singapore Economic Development Board and the Israeli Office of the Chief Scientist to provide grants of up to US$1 million for joint Singapore-Israeli ventures.

Recently funded projects included investigating whether a particular amino acid can protect the heart during a heart attack, and whether minerals from the Dead Sea can treat skin disorders.

Private sector cooperation between the two countries is also becoming more prominent. Israeli crowdfunding venture capital start-up OurCrowd opened an office in Singapore in 2016. “Asia more broadly, and Singapore in particular, is becoming a globally-recognized financial hub for the next generation of innovative technology companies,” a statement from the company said.

This facility allows companies with scalable technology products and services to access seed money through a crowdfunding platform. This means they can seek multiple small investments in return for equity or shares in their startup. Their want to use Singapore as a jumping-off point into the Asian market. “Asia is one of our fastest growing markets and following our launch in Singapore, we will be looking to take OurCrowd further into the ASEAN market,” they added.

Financial institutions in Singapore are also looking at this kind of offer from Israeli opportunities. The United Overseas Bank (UOB) has invested US$10 million in OurCrowd. Sassoon Investment Corporation, the corporation behind the success of The Coffee Bean, is also putting in cash.

Technology transfer between the two nations goes in both directions. Singapore’s water management experts Hyflux are heavily involved in treatment projects around the Dead Sea. This is an area where cooperation could be expanded PM Lee said. “We already have companies here in Israel. And we would also like to encourage Israeli companies to have a presence in Singapore.”

“We hope more of them will come and we hope that they will develop the capabilities so that they find it worthwhile to come to Singapore to use our engineers and use our expertise and work together,” he added.

Israel and Singapore are linked in trade and diplomatic relations

Today, total trade volume between the two nations hums along to the tune of US$1.9 billion yearly, growing by 24.6% in one year alone (between 2012 and 2013). Strong relationships in both the public and private sectors mean this figure is predicted to grow steadily. Trade flows see electronics exported from Israel to Singapore, and Israel takes machinery and computer equipment from Singapore.

Singapore stands behind their close ties with Israel in diplomacy. The Southeast Asian nation abstained from a crucial UN resolution to determine the status of Palestine in the United Nations and this loyalty is recognised. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said his country was “pivoting towards Asia in a very clear and purposeful way.” This may see even closer ties with Israeli research and military products.

External factors were the glue that bound the early Israel-Singapore relationship and other people’s decisions continue to do so. US President Donald Trump has said he will push for a peace drive in the Middle East and this may soften the need for arms sales and manufacturing. This would push the Singapore-Israel relationship deeper into technology and commerce.

TIMELINE

1965 – Singapore becomes a sovereign nation

1968 – Singapore purchases 72 AMX-13 tanks from Israel

1997 – Founding of the Singapore-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation

2012 – Singapore abstains from United Nations vote over status of Palestine at UN

2016 – Israeli start-up OurCrowd opens an office in Singapore

2017 – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Singapore