Singapore has announced that it will set up an embassy in Tel Aviv, more than half a century after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. In a statement yesterday, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the new embassy will “serve as a focal point and support Singapore companies seeking to expand their collaboration with potential Israeli partners.” It did not provide a timeline for when the mission will open.
The announcement came at the start of the three-day visit by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to Israel. While Israel has had an embassy in Singapore since 1969, Singapore opted only to establish an honorary consulate in Tel Aviv at the start of their diplomatic relations, an arrangement that continues to this day.
“I welcome the government of Singapore’s decision to open an embassy in Israel for the first time since the establishment of relations,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement. “This represents another testament to the good and unique relations between the countries.”
It comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2016 visit to Israel, which according to a former Israeli ambassador to Singapore, marked “a significant step in ‘outing’ the 50-year partnership between the two nations.”
In many respects it is surprising that Singapore has waited so long to upgrade its diplomatic mission in Israel. The two countries share close affinities, as small nations surrounded by larger Muslim-majority states that they perceive as a threat, and even before Singapore and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1969,the two countries established a covert military partnership, which allowed Israel to play a key role in helping to build the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
As the historian Dhevarajan Devadas noted in a Twitter thread last year, the first batch of SAF officers were trained by Israeli instructors, while Singapore also adopted the National Service conscription and reservist systems used in Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) left an imprint on the SAF in other ways, too, Devadas notes, including the SAF’s use of the M-16 rifle. The IDF also “helped form a basic flight school, navy school & provided marching music for the earliest military parades.” Since then, Singapore has become one of Israel’s largest arms customers, procuring $551 million worth of weaponry in the 1999-2018 period.
Singapore’s approach to Israel-Palestine tensions has exhibited its characteristic subtlety and balance. The city-state has generally abstained from the frequent United Nations resolutions on Israel, but it did vote in favor of a resolution that criticized President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In this regard, the fact that the Singaporean embassy will be in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, is telling.
Singapore does not recognize the State of Palestine, unlike its immediate Southeast Asian neighbors, but it has extended aid and other forms of technical assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA). During his state visit in 2016, Lee balanced out his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by visiting Ramallah, where he paid his respects at Yasser Arafat’s tomb.
In a similar vein, on March 21, Balakrishnan visited the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, during which he met with Mohammad Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki and Health Minister Mai Al-Kaila. He also announced the opening of a Singapore representative office in Ramallah “to support the work of our Non-Resident Representative Hawazi Daipi, coordinate our technical assistance & facilitate engagement [with] the PA.”
As in Singapore’s foreign relations writ large, Balakrishnan’s visit was careful in maintaining a judicious balance.