Lee Kuan Yew & Singapore-Israel 'Special Relationship'

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 3/24/2015 01:30:00 AM
The Ultimax machine gun is proudly Made in Singapore.
Today marks the end of an era as arguably the best-known Asian leader of his generation, Lee Kuan Yew--statesman, father of an independent Singapore, champion of 'Asian Values', and all-purpose pundit--has passed away aged 91. So it is that I find myself watching wall-to-wall coverage of his passing on Channel NewsAsia, which is wholly-owned by the Singaporean government through its Temasek sovereign wealth fund. Like the man himself, Channel NewsAsia is quite matter-of-fact and, er, not quite critical of Singaporean leadership under the People's Action Party.

No matter; there are a lot of tidbits that I've picked up watching the channel these past few hours. The economic story of Singapore has been rehashed countless times already, so I'll leave that to others. However, the security story has not really garnered as much attention despite it being crucial to Singapore's modern-day existence. Remember that, prior to declaring independence from Malaysia which it was a part of for two years (1963-1965), Indonesia's military was setting off bombs in Singapore during the Konfrontasi conflict Indonesia waged with Malaysia. Hence it had to develop militarily as well. For instance, it is somewhat difficult to square that these folks with an otherwise peaceful demeanor developed the famous Ultimax 100 section assault weapon (SAW) that weapons designers still regard as among the finest of its type.

More remarkably, it was later revealed that Lee Kuan Yew chose a rather politically incorrect ally to help train Singapore's armed forces: Israel. Why did it take so long for this factoid to be revealed? The optics certainly weren't good then: like Israel, Singapore was a predominantly non-Muslim country surrounded by rather hostile neighbors. After all, Malaysia kicked Singapore out, while Indonesia bombed Singapore regularly when it was still part of Malaysia. It's a tough neighborhood, and the Vietnam conflict was the last straw. From Haaretz:
Lee explained the need to maintain secrecy to his close friend in the leadership, and the first defense minister in his government, Dr. Goh Keng Swee. "We have to ensure, as far as possible, that the arrival of the Israelis will not become public knowledge, in order not to arouse opposition among the Malay Muslims who live in Malaysia and Singapore," the prime minister summed up. That, in essence, is Singapore's problem. The residents of the small island, which has an area of about 670 square kilometers (Israel is 30 times as large), are mainly Chinese, and they live between the two Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Life in the shadow of the large Muslim majority and fear of a Malaysian incursion are an integral part of the history of the two countries. Until 1965, Singapore was part of Malaysia. In that year, the British government decided to withdraw from all its colonies east of the Suez Canal. In a rapid process it was decided to sever Singapore from Malaysia and to establish it as a new and separate country.

Singapore declared its independence on August 9, 1965. At the time of its creation, it had only two infantry regiments, which had been established and were commanded by British officers. Two-thirds of the soldiers were not residents of Singapore, and in any event the leaders of the nascent state had no faith in the strength of the minuscule army. The defense minister, Goh, contacted Mordechai Kidron, the former Israeli ambassador to Thailand, and asked for assistance. Kidron arrived in Singapore within days, along with Hezi Carmel of the Mossad. "Goh told us that they think that only Israel, a small country surrounded by Muslim countries, with a strong army, could help them build a small, dynamic army," Carmel says. The two Israelis met with Lee, who writes that he "told Keng Swee to put it on hold until Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister of India, and President Nasser of Egypt replied to my letters seeking their urgent help to build up our armed forces." 
The Indians and Egyptians eventually dropped out of contention, and a long-forgotten 'special relationship' was born that was only uncovered when Lee published his 2000 autobiography:
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. The Israeli military mission was headed by Yaakov (Jack) Elazari, then a colonel, who was later promoted to brigadier general. After leaving the army, he became a consultant to the Singaporean army. Hedied 15 years ago. "To disguise their presence, we called them `Mexicans.' They looked swarthy enough," Lee wrote.

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 industries, as well. The scope of the deals, according to foreign sources, indicates that the Singaporean army is one of the major clients of Israeli combat means and military technology. 
Like any other human endeavor, training security forces well is another facet of organizational skill. As it transpired, Singapore and Israel were kindred spirits. Although Singapore eventually became quite friendly with everyone else in its neighborhood (and beyond), there was a time when it perceived a high level of external threats in Southeast Asia. It is probably not a coincidence that the need to deal with such an environment spurred not only professionalism in terms of military ability but also the economic growth necessary to sustain these armed forces:
Prior to setting out, the members of the [Israeli] military mission were invited to the chief of staff's bureau. "Dear friends," [Yitzhak] Rabin said, "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. Your success will be if at a certain stage they will be able to take the wheel and run the army by themselves. 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 judgment. I want total disregard of their decision as to whether to buy here or elsewhere." 
Even if you are not particularly fond of Singapore or Israel, there is no taking away from their historic achievements as small countries lying in relatively forbidding environs. They possessed foresight on how to run a society and the capability to realize it--things in short supply elsewhere when these nations were born. The world hasn't changed much in these respects.