June 27, 2019
This year marks 50 years since Israel and Singapore officially established diplomatic relations. Over the past five decades, the two countries have rapidly developed their bilateral relationship in such fields as healthcare, information technology, biotech, defense, cultural exchanges, and tourism. In recognition of this important milestone, API interviewed H.E. Simona Halperin, Israeli Ambassador to Singapore and East Timor, on the past half century of relations and what the future holds.
Why was Israel one of the first countries to recognize Singapore’s independence and offer support and cooperation in a variety of fields?
Israel, from its early days, was there to share, with the rest of the developing world, the know-how and technologies, which provided the basis for Israel's own rapid development. MASHAV, the Hebrew acronym for Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, was established as a division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as early as 1957. What started as a modest program focused on grassroots-level human capacity building --at a time when Israel itself was still very much a developing country--has blossomed into an extensive program of cooperation throughout the developing world with the aim of ensuring social, economic, and environmental sustainable development.
How would you summarize the Israel-Singapore relationship over the past 50 years and where have you seen the greatest amount of cooperation?
The relationship that started from information sharing and development assistance back in the days that Israel and Singapore were two young countries, grew into a real partnership and collaboration rooted in the shared values and challenges of two young nations, carving their place in the international arena. Both punched above their weight in economic development, supported by a wide network of international trade relations, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as excellence in education and a strong emphasis on technology. While facing challenges of being small in size and population, as well as lacking natural resources, both Israel and Singapore compensate by having the best asset of all: human capital.
As relations build on similarities, they are also enriched by the differences between Israel and Singapore's cultures: The Confucian culture in Singapore of respect for teachers and seniors, as well as long term planning and execution abilities, as opposed to the Israeli character of challenging conventions by thinking outside the box, which leads to creative, innovative and non-traditional solutions. It is when Singapore's order meets the rebellious Israeli character that the synergy of collaboration reaches its peak and sparks fly.
What has been your greatest achievement during your tenure as Ambassador since your arrival in Singapore in 2017?
I believe it's the extensive list of activities planned in celebration of our 50th Jubilee of Diplomatic Relations – with events and collaborations including academic, scientific, and economic – with Singaporean investments in Israeli tech companies and partnerships, cultural events (including the first ever participation of an Israeli Jewish group – Yamma Ensemble – at the sacred music festival), the first ever joint stamp issue (available both from SingPost and Israel's post), and our greatest project just concluded – the TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers) MakeAthon, bringing together Israeli mentors with passionate Singaporean inventors to make solutions for people with disabilities.
Where would you like to see improvements in Israel-Singapore relations?
There is room for much greater collaboration in bringing our economies closer together. With hundreds of world-leading multinational companies opening R&D centers in Israel, there's room for many Singaporean companies to do the same. We'd like to see increased tourism in both directions, and students from Singapore considering Israel as an excellent (and cost effective) option for their studies.
Finally, celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, I believe it is time for Singapore to have an embassy in Israel, and to start direct flights between Singapore and Israel.
In April 2016, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Israel as part of a working visit to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Less than a year later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Singapore. For decades, the friendship between these two countries was kept relatively quiet. Did these two visits signify a new era for Israel-Singapore relations? If so, how have things changed since early 2017?
Both visits signaled to the business and academic communities that it's okay to do business with Israel. It was, in a way, a step that took the relations from the back room to the front of the house – and we immediately saw an increase in interest and willingness to do business.
H.E. Simona Halperin assumed her position as Israel's Ambassador to Singapore in July 2017.
AJC, through its Asia Pacific Institute (API), has been deeply committed to strengthening its relationship with Singapore over the past three decades. AJC frequently travels to Singapore and maintains close ties with Singaporean representatives in the U.S., Israel, and around the globe.