The well-regulated city-state has rejected requests for protests and advised against displaying political symbols.
In Singapore, since the war started in Gaza, the country has chosen to stay neutral. This means they’re not taking sides and are trying to be friends with everyone without making enemies. In a recent meeting in their parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said that Singapore continues to support a two-state solution. This means they believe that both the Palestinian people and Israel should have their own separate countries.
Singapore always follows international rules and supports global peace and security. They strongly criticized an attack by Hamas on southern Israel in October, calling it an act of terrorism. At the same time, Singapore is worried about the increasing number of deaths in Gaza and expressed deep concern about the tough situation there. Since Israel started bombing Gaza, more than 13,000 people have been killed.
In October, Singapore joined 120 other countries in voting for a resolution during an emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution aims to protect civilians and make sure everyone follows the laws and obligations in times of crisis.
In Singapore, the way they handle things is based on following the rules of international law and respecting the independence and sovereignty of countries, as explained by political analyst Eugene Tan, who is also an associate law professor at Singapore Management University.
Tan mentioned that it’s not contradictory for Singaporeans to feel for the difficult situation of the Palestinians and, at the same time, believe that attacks on Israel are not right. He added that it’s also possible to support Israel’s right to defend itself, as long as it follows the rules of international law to ensure the safety and wellbeing of civilians.
The recent discussion in parliament showed that people in Singapore can have strong opinions about what’s happening in the Middle East but still agree on how Singapore should respond. In simple terms, Singapore believes that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace, security, and with dignity.
‘Generally risk averse’
In Singapore, unlike many other countries, there haven’t been any public protests supporting either the Palestinians or Israel. The country, which has a majority of ethnic Chinese but also includes a significant Malay-Muslim minority and ethnic Indians, has always focused on maintaining social harmony and religious unity.
Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, and this historical background shapes its commitment to the right of self-determination, following international law, as explained by Tan.
Due to the sensitivity of the recent conflict, the Singapore government, which allows protests only by citizens at the designated “Speakers’ Corner,” has taken precautionary measures to manage the situation. They argue that these measures are necessary for public safety and security concerns. Five applications for events related to the Israel-Hamas war at the Speakers’ Corner were rejected in October, and the government has cautioned against displaying foreign national emblems related to the conflict and supporting certain fundraising activities.
According to Tan, the current situation is more sensitive and emotional than in 2014, and it involves terrorist acts by Hamas. The government aims to avoid importing foreign issues that could create social divisions.
A Singaporean community organizer, Zaris Azira, expressed a sense of helplessness while watching news about Gaza and noted the difference in the response, mentioning a video of Malaysians chanting for Palestine in their football stadium.
Feeling motivated to take action, 30-year-old Zaris Azira applied for a permit to organize a rally at the Speakers’ Corner. Interest surged, with 740 people expressing their interest in less than a day. Azira also started a petition, co-drafted with local political observer Walid J Abdullah, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The petition has gathered 26,280 signatures as of November 20.
Despite her disappointment at the permit rejection, Azira understood Singapore’s cautious approach, considering the nation’s preference to avoid potentially risky situations. Activism in Singapore has often been subtle, with social media campaigns like #freewatermelontoday and #weargreenforpalestine gaining traction.
An underground movement encouraged people to gather at Raffles Place MRT train station in green, saying a prayer for Palestine. Additionally, some have used watermelon slices as a symbol of solidarity with Palestine.
Azira highlighted the growing desire among people to express solidarity with Palestinians safely, legally, and powerfully. Journalist and activist Kirsten Han shared similar sentiments, emphasizing the importance of freedom of expression and assembly for nuanced conversations and civil society involvement. However, Tan from SMU argued that the authorities’ cautious approach is essential to protect social cohesion and harmony, stating that protests may not significantly impact the conflict.
In Singapore, instead of public protests, civil society and faith communities are focusing on organizing humanitarian aid for Gaza. The Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation (RLAF) has received about 6 million Singapore dollars ($4.5m) in public donations as of November 14. Relief Singapore, a disaster relief organization, urgently appealed for blankets, receiving around 2,500 so far. These blankets will be sent to Gaza, where winter temperatures can drop to 13C (55.4F).
Relief Singapore’s director, Jonathan How, emphasized their focus on the most pressing humanitarian needs, considering the vulnerable may face challenges with cold weather as winter approaches in Gaza.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Singapore prioritizes national security linked to stable relations with its closest neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. Both countries, with Malay-Muslim majorities, often experience politically charged atmospheres due to the conflict. Despite diplomatic differences on the issue, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim agreed during a Leaders’ Retreat on October 30 that their positions on the conflict should not impact their bilateral relationship.
Singapore’s “friend to all” foreign policy approach has allowed it to maintain good relations with both Palestine and Israel over the years.
The government has consistently provided technical assistance and support to the Palestinian Authority, which oversees the occupied West Bank, and Deputy Prime Minister Wong affirmed this commitment in parliament. Singapore and Israel have a history of cooperation, with Israel aiding in the development of the Singapore Armed Forces in its early years. Ongoing collaboration spans various areas, including science and technology.
During his parliamentary address, Wong highlighted a threefold increase in regional internet traffic on hardline sites since the Israel-Gaza conflict began. He also noted a rise in anti-Singapore rhetoric, including online threats from regional extremist elements. Instances of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have also surged, with eight reports of offensive remarks or actions in October alone, equaling the total from January to September.
As a small state, Singapore, according to political scientist Antonio Rappa, has little choice but to maintain a non-interference policy. Taking sides could unnecessarily antagonize the local Muslim community or betray Israel, which has been an “unwritten ally” since the days of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore has had diplomatic ties with Israel since its independence, while neighboring Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei lack formal relations with Tel Aviv. The strict controls on public rallies are attributed to Singapore’s historical climate of fear, described as a “fortress-like” mentality, especially given its Chinese-majority status surrounded by larger mostly-Muslim nations. Rappa emphasized the importance of avoiding the importation of external conflicts to prevent tensions and chaos within Singapore.