Why Singapore is ‘friend of all, enemy of none’ in Israel-Gaza war

The tightly-controlled city-state has turned down protest requests and urged people not to display political symbols.

Lee Hsien Loong visiting the Al Aqsa Moswue. He is wearing a pink shirt. The golden dome is behind him.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, centre, visits the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in 2016 [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Singapore – Since the war erupted in Gaza, the tiny Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore has taken a stance of non-interference, reflecting a long-held foreign policy focused on being a “friend to all and enemy to none”.

At a special parliamentary session earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong explained that Singapore’s “longstanding support for a two-state solution remains unchanged”, in that Palestinian people have the right to a homeland and that Israel has the right to live within secure borders.

Singapore “consistently takes a principled position” in line with international law and support of global peace and security, Wong stressed.

The country has come out strongly to condemn Hamas’s October 7 assault on southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and some 200 taken captive, as “acts of terrorism”.

But it has also condemned the rising death toll in Gaza, with the foreign ministry saying on Friday that it was “deeply concerned” about the humanitarian situation in the besieged enclave where more than 13,000 people have been killed since Israel’s bombardment began.

In late October, Singapore was among the 120 countries voting in favour of a resolution to protect civilians and uphold legal and humanitarian obligations during an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Singapore's Prime Minister on a visit to Ramallah in 2016. He is inspecting an honour guard accompanied by the then Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah
Then-Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (left) accompanies Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as they review an honour guard in Ramallah, West Bank, 2016 [File: Abbas Momani/AFP]

Singapore’s approach is “premised on the faithful observance of international law, especially the independence and sovereignty of nation-states,” said political analyst and Singapore Management University (SMU) associate law professor Eugene Tan.

Tan told Al Jazeera there was “no contradiction” in Singaporeans empathising with the plight of the Palestinians and taking the stance that the attacks on Israel cannot be justified.

At the same time, it is “also possible to support Israel’s right to defend itself and for Israel to avail itself of the use of force to protect its legitimate interests but also demand that Israel’s response must be consistent with the rules and requirements of public international law so that the safety, security and wellbeing of civilians are safeguarded,” he said.

“What the debate in parliament demonstrated is that Singaporeans can hold very strong views on the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East region and yet come to a consensus on how Singapore and Singaporeans should respond… In short, Singapore firmly believes that Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace, security and dignity.”

‘Generally risk averse’

Still, unlike many countries around the world, there have been no public protests in favour of either the Palestinians or Israel in Singapore.

Singapore – with a mostly ethnic Chinese population but also with a sizeable ethnic Malay-Muslim minority as well as ethnic Indians – has long prioritised preserving social cohesion and religious harmony.

The city-state came into being on August 9, 1965, after it separated from Malaysia, forming “the backdrop to Singapore’s commitment on the right to self-determination in accordance with international law”, said Tan.

Given “heightened sensitivities” surrounding the latest conflict, the Singapore government, which allows protests only by citizens and only in the  so-called “Speakers’ Corner” in the city centre, has argued that strong preemptive measures are necessary to manage the situation, citing the risk to public safety as well as security concerns.

Authorities rejected five applications to use the Speakers’ Corner for events related to the Israel-Hamas war in October, despite having allowed rallies during a previous war in 2014. It has also warned against the public display of foreign national emblems relating to the conflict and told people to be careful about supporting fundraising activities.

“My hunch is that the current situation is a lot more sensitive and emotive than in 2014, and it involves terrorist acts by Hamas,” Tan said. “I would say it is more a case of not importing foreign issues that will only create social divisions.”

Singaporean community organiser Zaris Azira was feeling helpless watching the news about Gaza on her phone, when she came across a video of thousands of Malaysians chanting for Palestine in their football stadium.

A 2014 protest at Speakers' Corner, the only place where Singaporeans are allowed to hold protests. People are holding placards reading 'Free Palestine', 'Stop killing the children'. Some have red, white and green balloons.
Protests were allowed in 2014 but this time, the government has talked of ‘heightened sensitivities’ [File:  Wallace Woon/EPA]

The 30-year-old felt motivated to do something more.

Azira applied for a permit to organise a rally at the Speakers’ Corner and found that “interest exploded”, with 740 people registering their interest to attend in less than a day. She also released a petition for Singaporeans to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, drafted in consultation with local political observer Walid J Abdullah. As of November 20, it had 26,280 signatures.

Expressing disappointment at the rejection of her application, Azira said she was not surprised, given Singapore is “generally quite risk-averse as a nation, and I understand the desire to avoid any situation that could potentially spiral out of hand”.

Singaporean activism has tended to the more subtle.

On social media, people have joined campaigns such as the #freewatermelontoday campaign or the #weargreenforpalestine movement.

An underground movement also emerged for people to show up at the Raffles Place MRT train station in green and say a prayer for Palestine, while others have taken pictures with a watermelon slice, which has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

“More and more, people want to show their solidarity with the people of Palestine, who are going through such unspeakable horrors on a daily basis. Singaporeans need an outlet to demonstrate safely, legally and powerfully,” Azira said.

Local journalist and activist Kirsten Han expressed similar views in her newsletter We The Citizens, arguing that clamping down on freedom of expression and assembly would affect Singaporeans’ ability to participate in nuanced and important conversations.

Calling the warnings and restrictions “infantilising”, she said: “We need civil society involvement, well-facilitated discussions, opportunities to educate ourselves and organise in non-violent ways for justice and human rights.”

Han added that the ability to be together in a physical space can “also be incredibly powerful in helping people process the devastation we’re seeing in the news every single day.”

In contrast, SMU’s Tan argues that the authorities’ move was prudent because of the potential for such actions to “detrimentally affect our hard-earned social cohesion and harmony”.

“Protests make for good social media posts and rabble-rousing but will not move the needle on the conflict,” he said.

A Singapore fighter jet painted in red and white flies in the air behind a Rafael surface to air missile at the Singapore air show.
Singapore received help from Israel post-independence and buys some weapons from the country [File: Joseph Nair/AP Photo]

Humanitarian assistance

In the absence of public protests, Singaporean civil society and faith communities have instead devoted their efforts to organising humanitarian aid for Gaza.

As of November 14, about 6 million Singapore dollars ($4.5m) have been donated by the public through the non-profit Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation (RLAF). Elsewhere, disaster relief organisation Relief Singapore has put out an urgent call for blankets, receiving about 2,500 to date. The blankets will be sent to the Gaza Strip, where winter temperatures can drop as low as 13C (55.4F).

“While we are aware of the politics involved in the conflict, our focus is on the most pressing humanitarian needs,” said Relief Singapore director Jonathan How. “We know the vulnerable may die of cold as winter approaches in a city that looks more like an earthquake zone. We hope that more people will step up to lend their support in this crisis.”

Ultimately, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Singapore has key national security priorities linked directly to stable relations with its closest neighbours, according to Arvind Rajanthran, an associate research fellow with the National Security Studies Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

Its next-door neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia have “Malay-Muslim majorities that frequently experience more politically charged atmospherics from the antagonism between the Israelis and Palestinians”, said Rajanthran. Both countries have seen large demonstrations in support of Gaza.

So, it was significant that at the 10th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat held on  October 30, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim agreed that their different diplomatic positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not affect the bilateral relationship, Rajanthran pointed out.

Singapore’s “friend to all” approach to foreign policy appears to have allowed it to establish longstanding good relations with both Palestine and Israel.

The prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia during their retreat in Singapore. They are standing in front of their countries' flags.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim agreed they would not allow the Israel-Gaza war to affect the bilateral relationship [File: How Hwee Young/Pool via Reuters]

The government has committed substantial technical assistance and support to the Palestinian Authority, which controls the occupied West Bank, over the years, and will continue to do so, Deputy Prime Minister Wong said in parliament.

Meanwhile, Israel helped build up the Singapore Armed Forces during Singapore’s early years and Singapore continues to cooperate closely with the country in many areas, including in science and technology, he said.

In his speech to parliament, Wong said regional internet traffic on hardline sites had increased threefold since the start of the Israel-Gaza war.

“We have also observed an uptick in anti-Singapore rhetoric, including violent threats against Singapore by regional extremist elements online,” he said.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have also increased.

In October, police received eight reports of offensive remarks or actions targeted at Jewish or Muslim people in Singapore, Wong noted. This was equal to the total number of reports on anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim conduct that police received from January to September.

Being a small state, Singapore has “little choice” but to continue its policy of non-state interference, said political scientist Antonio Rappa, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

To take the side of Israel would risk antagonising Singapore’s local Muslim community unnecessarily, while supporting Palestine would betray Israel – an “unwritten ally” of Singapore since the days of its founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, said Rappa, who is head of the security studies programme at SUSS’s business school.

Singapore has had close diplomatic ties with Israel since its independence in 1965, while Muslim-majority Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have no formal diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to Sinapore in 2017. He is walking with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Soldiers in white ceremonial dress are on one side.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official visit to Singapore back in 2017 [File: Joseph Nair/AP Photo]

On the strict controls taken by the government to clamp down on public rallies, Rappa explained that Singapore has been operating within a climate of fear for decades.

Pointing to the idea of a garrison state, Singapore still has a “fortress-like” mentality that persists today, especially as a Chinese-majority nation surrounded by larger mostly-Muslim countries, which might “create a certain degree of tension”.

“Still, it is not wise for us to bring in other people’s problems and import it into our country and create tensions within the population. We don’t want animosity and chaos created for Singapore,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera