COMMENT: How the 1967 Six-Day War influenced Singapore’s early nation-building

Israeli soldiers sitting on tanks in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israel-Egypt border on May 25, 1967. The Six-Day War in 1967 saw Egypt’s vaunted airforce destroyed and its army humbled (AFP Photo/STF)
Israeli soldiers sitting on tanks in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israel-Egypt border on May 25, 1967. The Six-Day War in 1967 saw Egypt’s vaunted airforce destroyed and its army humbled (AFP Photo/STF)

Fifty years ago today, on 5 June 1967, a war began to rage in the Middle East that would go on to have a seismic impact on global politics to this day. Almost 8,000 kilometres away, the prime minister of a newly independent nation in Asia was keenly monitoring the progress of the Six-Day War, fought between Israel and five Arab countries.

Lee Kuan Yew knew the outcome of the war could be critical in deciding the future of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), less than two years after Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee invited the Israelis to train Singapore’s fledgling army. The year 1967 was also when Singapore instituted national service.

Before the war, two teams of senior Israeli ranking officers, led by Major General Rehavam Zeevi, had laid the groundwork for the creation of the SAF, ranging from training of recruits, commanders and officers, designing course materials to establishing SAF’s first military base.

“When the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, we were relieved the Israelis were not defeated or our SAF would have lost confidence in their Israeli instructors,” Lee wrote in his book “From Third World To First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000, Volume 2”.

In just six days, the Israelis crushed the armies and air forces of the Arab countries and dramatically transformed the map of the Middle East. The land area that Israel controlled more than tripled to include the occupied territories of the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, the West Bank and within the latter region, East Jerusalem.

As Professor Michael Leifer, an international relations scholar, noted in his book, “Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping With Vulnerability”, “Israel’s astounding victory against the Arab States in the Six-Day War in June 1967 served to vindicate the choice of (Israel as Singapore’s) defence partner.”

Developing Singapore’s army after the war

Military cooperation between the two countries intensified after the war, said Jacob Abadi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic History at the US Air Force Academy in a book written by him.

After the sweeping victory of Israel’s armoured columns during the war, Singapore decided to build a strong armoured corps in January 1968. It signed an agreement to buy 72 AMX-13 light tanks from Israel, at a time when neighbouring Malaysia did not have a single tank. A group of 36 pioneering Singapore armour officers were also trained by the Israelis at a secret location to operate the AMX-13 and in tank warfare.

In addition to creating a strong deterrent force in the army, Singapore aimed to develop a modern and sophisticated air force, with the devastating prowess shown by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) during the war providing an impetus for the Republic. Adam Tzivoni, a retired IAF colonel, was appointed in 1968 to help set up Singapore’s air force. The Singapore Air Defence Command, the predecessor of the Republic of Singapore Air Force, was set up in September 1968.

“Israel’s sweeping victory in the Six-Day War after an initial air strike, which destroyed the aircraft of all surrounding Arab countries on the ground, underscored the importance of developing an efficient air force for Singapore,” said Prof Abadi in his book, “Israel’s Quest for Recognition and Acceptance in Asia: Garrison State Diplomacy”.

Impact on international relations

The war’s impact on Singapore in its early days of nation-building extended to the arena of international relations.

A resolution sponsored by Arab states was tabled in the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Israel after the war. It was an occasion for Singapore to display its independent foreign policy before the global community.

Specifically, Singapore’s vote in the resolution could affect its relations with countries strongly opposed to Israel and determine whether the Israeli military advisers would stay.

Lee said in his book, “I was in favour of abstaining in the vote. The Cabinet agreed with my view. We abstained and the Israelis did not leave.”

Singapore’s friendly ties with Israel during its early years of independence did not sit well with many developing nations, Prof Abadi said.

“Indeed, it was a daring and provocative decision on Lee’s part to be so completely identified with Israel after the Arab states had suffered such a humiliating defeat. By its rapprochement with Israel, Singapore had alienated all nonaligned nations and was therefore a subject of condemnation in all of their meetings,” he added.

With closer military cooperation after the war, the Israelis negotiated hard with the Singapore government to upgrade their trade mission in the Republic. Once the government assessed that the regional political environment was more conducive, it allowed Israel to set up an embassy in Singapore in May 1969, which was a bold move given the geographical reality of a Muslim-majority region.

Choosing Israel’s citizen-soldier model

Since the second half of the 1960s, Singapore and Israel have expanded bilateral cooperation to include trade, technology and cultural exchange.

The defence dimension is, however, still the most significant in the relationship and influenced to an extent by Israel’s battlefield successes and experience over the decades. Today, the SAF possesses highly advanced Israeli military equipment including the Heron 1 unmanned air vehicles, the SPYDER air defence system, and the SPIKE anti-tank guided missile system.

In the early period of independence, Singapore’s leaders were considering emulating one of three small nations – Switzerland, Finland and Israel – whose close communities were able to survive and thrive despite being surrounded by much bigger neighbours. The Jewish state’s victory in the Six-Day War would have been fresh in Lee’s mind when he made known the Singapore government’s decision at a meeting of the Socialist International in October 1967.

Lee said, “In the end, Singapore opted for the Israeli pattern, for our situation it appears necessary not only to train every boy, but also every girl to be a disciplined and effective digit in the defence of their country.”