Following the recent escalation of the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for an offensive by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israeli territory two weeks ago, Southeast Asia has been swept by a wave of solidarity for Palestinians. Support protests were held in major urban centers in the region’s Muslim-majority nations, drawing large crowds in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, as well as Cotabato in the southern Philippines.
As the momentum reaches an all-time high, with politicians and activists across the world condemning the Western community for abetting Israeli war crimes against Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip, several activists and community organizers attempted to come together to hold similar rallies in Singapore.
The city-state, which has been governed by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, only allows political protests and rallies to be held at the Speakers Corner of Hong Lim Park, and even then, only with a valid permit from the Singapore Police Forces (SPF). Early last week, Singaporean community organizer Zaris Azira took to Instagram to announce she had applied to book the park for a peace rally in support of Gaza and extended her call to all Singaporeans interested in joining.
Her post quickly spread on the social media platform, with over 740 participants registering their interest in attending the rally. However, the excitement quickly waned as SPF released a statement on October 18, saying that all applications for events and assemblies related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war would be denied.
Citing public safety and security concerns, the SPF, along with the National Parks Board of Singapore, said that “the peace and harmony between different races and religions in Singapore should not be taken for granted, and we must not let events happening externally affect the internal situation within Singapore.” This contrasted with solidarity rallies for Palestinians that had been allowed previously, with one held in 2014 amid the Gaza War.
This statement echoed comments made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam several days prior. Pointing to “deep divides in how people are reacting,” he said that “these divides are inevitably going to become deeper” as the conflict unfolds. He then called on Singaporeans to “never let external events affect [the] precious peace within Singapore.”
For Azira, SPF’s response to her rally application came as a disappointment, but not a surprise. Singapore is “generally speaking quite risk-averse as a nation, and I understand the desire to avoid any situation that could potentially spiral out of hand,” she said. “While I understand their perspective on the matter, I still do wish we could have proceeded with the rally, with the proper security measures in place.”
Many other Singaporeans shared their disappointment with SPF’s response, and the lack of opportunity to start a meaningful, necessary conversation on a complex topic of international concern. Local activist Kirsten Han voiced a similar sentiment in her weekly newsletter We The Citizens, writing that “the authorities show so little faith in Singaporeans and in our ability to engage in big and difficult but important conversations,” and that “clamping down on freedom of expression and assembly does very little to help us engage one another and learn to live with differences.”
As the lead organizer behind the rally effort, Azira witnessed Singaporeans’ will to get involved and assist in the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Concurrently with the rally application, she also released an online petition calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, drafted by an academic and local political observer. At the time of writing, the petition had garnered more than 22,000 signatures. For Azira, this mass mobilization shows there’s “very clearly a strong desire from Singaporeans to do something about this issue.”
Online efforts to support Gazans in this crisis have surged following SPF’s rejection of Azira’s rally application. Activists have sent an open letter to President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, demanding a ceasefire and immediate humanitarian action in Gaza, and local charity Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation has worked in collaboration with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East to raise funds for the people of Gaza.
“At this moment, I am just hoping that Singapore can make a clear and unequivocal call for a ceasefire, for an end to the denial of basic human rights and essentials such as water and electricity for the Palestinians, for an end to the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, and for the permanent and immediate establishment of humanitarian corridors to bring desperately needed supplies into Gaza,” Azira said.
Amid this growing call for action, the Singapore government and the Singapore Red Cross donated over half a million dollars in humanitarian relief to Gaza last week. Tharman, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also wrote condolence letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, as well as to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, and Foreign Affairs Minister Riad Al Malki.
Singapore and Israel have long enjoyed cordial relations, with cooperative efforts spanning business, trade, and the military. Following independence from Malaysia, Singapore sought consultation and advice from Israel on security matters and ended up modelling the Singapore Armed Forces after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including mandatory military conscription – although Singapore’s only extends to male citizens. A few IDF officers have also held consultative positions within the Singapore Ministry of Defense.
This close relationship has generally been low-profile, owing to tensions with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries who have never recognized Israel. Nonetheless, Singapore remains Israel’s second largest export partner in Asia after India, and the city-state opened an embassy in Tel Aviv last year.
Despite notable differences in the circumstances behind the creation of Israel and the independence of Singapore, former Foreign Minister George Yeo previously said that “Singaporeans see themselves in Israelis… both having to survive under difficult odds, being young states lacking in geographical size and natural resources, and surrounded by Muslim-majority countries.”
As tensions and divisions heighten, template letters to members of Parliament have circulated online, urging Singaporeans to call on their elected representatives to bring up the issue in Parliament. Last week, Lee announced that Parliament would have “a full discussion of Singapore’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” at their next session in early November.
“I hope that at the very least, people continue to talk and share about this issue. We cannot turn away, we cannot close our eyes,” Azira said, expressing hope that the growing momentum for action in Singapore can lead to effective action. “The more the world watches the war crimes that are currently being committed and the louder the international outcry, the stronger the pressure is for the world powers to take real action to stop the genocide.”