Speech at the Conferment Ceremony at Hebrew University
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Jerusalem, 18 April 2016
Chairman of the Board of Governors, Mr. Michael Federmann,
President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Menahem Ben Sasson,
Rector Prof. Asher Cohen,
Honourable Members of the Board of Governors and Senate of Hebrew University,
Distinguished faculty members,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am deeply honoured to receive this honorary doctorate from Hebrew University today. It is not just my personal honour, but reflects the longstanding friendship between Israel and Singapore, and between our two peoples.
The earliest Jewish people migrated to Singapore in the 19th century, mostly from Iraq, the Middle East. One famous visit is intimately linked to the establishment of Hebrew University, and it was the visit which was alluded to earlier, by Professor Albert Einstein in 1922, who met Singapore Jewish community and urged them to contribute to the Hebrew University’s establishment. I thought I had done some research, but I came just now, I was given a comprehensive presentation on Professor Einstein’s visit to Singapore. But maybe I’ve found a few facts which you may not have highlighted just now. First of all, the Singapore Jews raised £750 towards the Hebrew University. Translated to today’s currency, it is US$300,000, not a bad sum. And the other significant fact is that a week after his visit to Singapore, Professor Einstein got a call from Stockholm, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. So we have many happy memories.
Today, Singapore is home to a small Jewish community, numbering a few hundred, which has contributed to our society out of proportion to its numbers. For example, our first Chief Minister, Mr. David Saul Marshall, was a Baghdadi Jew. In recent decades, many more Jewish expatriates, including Israelis, have come to live and work with Singapore, many of them with tech companies. And there are now maybe 2,500 Jewish people in Singapore, enough to sustain one successful kosher restaurant.
今天，新加坡是一个小犹太社群的家乡，大约数百人，但为我们的社会做出了超出其规模的贡献。比如，我们的第一任首席部长大卫·绍乌·马绍尔（David Saul Marshall）先生，是位巴格达犹太人（Baghdadi Jew）。近数十年来，更多的犹太移民，包括以色列人，来到新加坡工作和生活，当中有不少从事科技行业。目前大约有2500名犹太人在新加坡，足够撑起一家犹太人洁食（kosher）餐馆的生意。
In August 1965, when Singapore unexpectedly became independent, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) helped us to develop the Singapore Armed Forces. We asked a number of countries. We were starting from zero base; we needed to build up an armed forces urgently from scratch. But only Israel responded to us, and it did so very promptly. Weeks after independence, our Defence Minister Dr. Goh Keng Swee flew to Bangkok to meet the Israeli Ambassador there, Mordecai Kidron. He reported back to his headquarters and within a few months – by the end of the year, a team of IDF advisors had come to Singapore. We called them “Mexicans” for operational security, and also because we hoped that their swarthy looks might make the cover plausible. Within less than two years, by July 1967, guided by the IDF team, the SAF commissioned our first batch of officers from the officer cadet course. And this was a decisive step in building up a credible and professional defence force for Singapore.
It was a time of great uncertainty for us. Britain was withdrawing its forces from the east of Suez, including its bases in Singapore. Without the IDF, the SAF 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. Dr. Goh would later say that “in retrospect, it’s a minor miracle that we ever got off the ground…without the Israelis, we could not have done [it]”. We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us, at our time of great need.
Over the years, our relations have expanded much further beyond defence and security, though of course, defence and security ties remain. Our companies are very active in exploring opportunities in both countries. We collaborate in technology and in R&D. The Singapore-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation (SIIRD) has funded about 150 projects over the last 20 years, providing about US$170 million in funding. And our universities and research institutes have regular exchanges, including with the Hebrew University. We have just witnessed the signing of three agreements: One with the National Research Foundation to manage Hebrew University’s research in Singapore; one with the National University of Singapore; and another one with the Nanyang Technological University, reaffirming the parties’ commitment to deepen research collaboration. And I hope we can build on these foundations and these intents to grow our relations further.
I am especially honoured that the award comes from a renowned university with outstanding strengths in research and innovation. You have a constellation of outstanding alumni – eight Nobel Prize winners, numerous Israeli Presidents and Prime Ministers, leaders in every field. You reflect the remarkable human talent, and the indomitable spirit to overcome overwhelming odds. That is the signature of Israel – whether it is irrigating the desert to make the sand green and agriculture possible, or making revolutionary advances in medical technology, or creating outstanding art, music and architecture.
That is the spirit of Israel, and Singapore looks to you and admires you, and we count our similarities. First, we are both young nations. Israel is less than 70 years old, and Singapore has just turned 50. Second, we have both had to integrate diverse groups to create a common sense of nationhood. In the case of Singapore, we are a Chinese majority society, but with significant Malay, Indian, and other races as minority communities. And we have represented in Singapore, all the major religions in the world. In Israel, you are a mainly Jewish society, but diverse none the less, with Ashkenazim from Europe; Sephardim from the Middle East; Falashim from Ethiopia; Russian Jews after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one million of them; Sabras, born and raised here; and a significant minority of Israeli Arabs. Thirdly, both countries were born in adverse circumstances and survive only by our wits, and both are determined to thrive despite our circumstances, and to build a better tomorrow for our children.
But there are also striking contrasts between our countries. First of all, Israel has the Torah and Talmud, and you trace back 5,000 years of Jewish history, including the Second Temple and Masada. Singapore’s sense of identity is only as a modern state, even though our different races belong to ancient civilisations, but different ancient civilisations. So therefore, following from this, secondly, Israel’s identity is as a Jewish state; Singapore’s identity is emphatically not a Chinese nation, but a multiracial, multi-religious society. In fact, being multi-racial and multi-religious for us is a fundamental ideal that was the reason for our independence and our raison d’être – the reason for our existence. Thirdly, Israel has had to fight several wars to defend its right to exist. Singapore has been fortunate never to have been at war with its neighbours, with one exception in the 1960s, when we had to defend ourselves against Konfrontasi, a low-intensity conflict launched by Indonesia against Malaysia, at a time when we were inside Malaysia.
We may be different, but Israel’s story is one that resonates with Singaporeans and is a powerful inspiration to us. As a young man, I read a novel: “Exodus” by Leon Uris. If you are my age, you will probably know the novel. The story made a deep impression on me. I left the book at home. One day, my father happened to pick it up and read it. I was away, so he wrote a letter to me and he told me this. He said, his comment was, the novelist did not miss a single opportunity to score a point about the justness of the cause and the passion of those who founded the state of Israel. When I wrote this up, my people did a bit of research and they discovered that David Ben-Gurion had read the same novel and came to the same conclusion. His comment was: “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.” So I recommend the book to you.
我们或许不同，但以色列的故事能够引起新加坡人的共鸣，也能对我们产生强大的启迪作用。当我年轻时，我阅读了里昂·尤瑞斯（Leon Uris）所撰写的小说《出埃及记》。如果大家与我年龄相仿，应当会熟悉这部小说。小说情节让我留下深刻印象。我把书留在家中。有一天先父碰巧看到了并读完它。我当时人在国外，于是他便在家书里提到这本小说。他的评论是：小说家淋漓尽致地论证了建国的正当性，以及那些以色列建国者的热忱。在我准备这份讲稿时，我的同僚做了点考证。他们发现（以色列国父、首任总理）大卫·本古里安（David Ben-Gurion）也读了这本小说并得出同样的结论。他的评论是：“作为一件艺术创作，它并不怎么样。但作为一件宣传品，它却是关于以色列最伟大的文件。”所以我推荐这本书给大家。
It is this passion that has thoroughly imbued the Israeli spirit. That tenacity and determination of a people, who having suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, resolved never again to be dependent on others. A people with the determination to solve whatever problems come your way, no matter how intractable or persistent, and have the confidence that you will make tomorrow better.
You will step by step build a better future, but it is a complex story. And recently I have been reading a book by Ari Shavit – “My Promised Land: The Triumph and The Tragedy”. It is non-fiction, unlike “Exodus”. It is a deeply powerful account of the story of Israel, told through the experiences and reflections of individual Israelis, but also through Arab eyes – the Arab population who lived in Palestine before the settlers arrived; the Palestinians in the occupied territories on the West Bank and the Gaza. Shavit’s book makes vividly clear how complex and tragic the Israeli-Palestinian problem is, and why a solution is so elusive. Progress will require enormous imagination, determination and political leadership on both sides, as well as getting the stars aligned in the right places in the firmament, with the great powers supporting you.
So on this trip, I am not only visiting Israel, but also the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, to signal our friendship with both Israel and the Palestinians; to better understand developments, including the Middle East Peace Process; to express our hope that both sides will take steps to resume direct negotiations and to work towards a just and lasting two-state solution.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once told a “Mexican” general who had helped start the SAF that Singapore had learnt two things from Israel: How to be strong, and how not to use our strength. I read a recent interview by Mr. Shimon Peres, and was moved by his vision, which he has long held, of Israel in 2048, 100 years after its founding. He was convinced that 2048 will be a much better world for Israel and for the Middle East. Borders will become less relevant. Science and technology will transform communities and connect peoples, and force people to become more open-minded to the world. It is an optimistic view from a person who has lived a long life and seen many things.
Today, such a Middle East seems a long way off, perhaps more distant even than 2048, and more distant than it appeared when you started out in 1948. But I sincerely hope that one day, Mr Peres’ vision will be realised. Swords will be turned to ploughshares. Israel and your neighbours will live side-by-side in peace and prosperity. And your friends in Singapore and around the world will rejoice with you too.
Thank you very much.