DPM Lawrence Wong on the Israel-Hamas Conflict (November 2023)
Transcript of speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong on the Israel-Hamas conflict at the Parliament Sitting on 6 November 2023.
Mr Speaker, I rise in support of the amended Motion and I thank the Members of Parliament, Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Zhulkarnain for moving this Motion.
We are all witnessing the terrible tragedy unfolding in the Middle East. The international community is urgently trying to manage the situation – to expand and sustain the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and to minimise further loss of civilian lives.
Singaporeans too are following these events closely. We are all horrified by the violence. Our Muslim community in Singapore feel it more strongly, because of the empathy and compassion for the Palestinian cause. But no matter our race, religion, or background, we cannot help but grieve that so many lives have been lost, and many more remain in danger.
As we try to make sense of what is happening, we must recognise that what we are seeing did not erupt overnight, as many have already explained. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a deeply complex one. It is a longstanding feud going back at least decades, if not centuries, involving multiple state and non-state actors. The conflict is not just between Israelis and Palestinians; or between people of different faiths as Minster Vivian had explained just now. It's a political battle for territory, self-determination and identity. What's at stake is the broader balance of power in the Middle East. Because throughout history, this land corridor between the Mediterranean coast and the vast Arabian desert has long been the battleground of ancient kingdoms and civilisations – you can go back to the Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans; the Ottomans, British and French.
That battle for regional influence continues today, including between Iran and its Arab neighbours. For years, Iran has been funding, training and arming Hamas, as well as other militia in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. It is certainly no coincidence that the brutal attacks by Hamas happened just after Israel normalised relations with the UAE and was in negotiations to do so with Saudi Arabia. Hamas must have anticipated a strong Israeli response when it launched its attacks. In fact, it could well have counted on this, so as to rally people in Middle East to its cause. But any country facing such attacks must respond. And indeed, it is distressing to see the military response by Israel taking a terrible toll on civilians in Gaza.The issue now threatens to spill over into a much larger regional conflict with major global implications.
In the end, who are the victims? The victims are the Palestinian people themselves, who are being used as pawns and human shields, amidst this proxy fight amongst bigger and regional powers.
Upholding National Interests
All this is a stark reminder to everyone in Singapore. We live in a dangerous world with complex geopolitics everywhere. We want to be friends with all. We do not import foreign quarrels or politics here. We do not choose sides. Instead, we choose what is in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.
Both Minister Vivian and Minister Maliki have both laid out at length Singapore’s position on this matter.I will not revisit everything they have said. But let me emphasise two important points that bear repeating.
First, what happened on 7 October by Hamas was a planned and coordinated terrorist attack – the brutal massacre of civilians and the taking of civilian hostages. Hamas has said they are ready to repeat these heinous attacks to "bring about the annihilation of Israel". So that is not just one time, but they are prepared to repeat the attacks. The Palestinian people have many historical grievances which we empathise with. These need urgent resolution. But there can be no excuse, no justification whatsoever for the wanton acts of violence and terrorism by Hamas. We must therefore condemn these terrorist acts unequivocally. Let's be clear: it is in our national interest to do so. To compromise on this stand would be to compromise our own security.
Second, Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself. The right to defend one's citizens and territory is a fundamental right enshrined in the UN Charter.In this case, it means Israel has the right to take action to prevent Hamas from attacking again.
But in exercising this right, Israel must comply fully with the letter and spirit of international humanitarian law, and the rules governing the conduct of war. Under the Geneva Conventions, it must respond in a proportionate manner, and do its utmost to protect the security and safety of civilians. In other words, no matter how gruesome the acts of terrorism committed by Hamas, they cannot justify a disproportionate response by Israel that imposes collective punishment on the Palestinians in Gaza. If Israel violates international humanitarian law, it risks losing the moral high ground, and undermining its own cause both domestically and internationally.
The discussions around these international rules can be fraught, and subject to differing views and perspectives. But from a humanitarian point of view, the catastrophe now happening in Gaza is horrific and unbearable. Our heart goes out to the Palestinian people.
That's why Singapore supported the latest UN Resolution calling for a humanitarian truce, leading to a cessation of hostilities. We also urge Israel to facilitate the supply of food, water, medical supplies and fuel in Gaza. And we will do our part to assist in global relief efforts. I am glad that many Singaporeans have responded to the calls for assistance, including by donating generously to the fundraising appeals by the Singapore Red Cross and Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation. These are concrete and practical things we can all do in Singapore in response to this human tragedy.
Meanwhile, Singapore's longstanding support for a two-state solution remains unchanged. We believe that the Palestinian people have the right to a homeland, and that Israel has the right to live within secure borders. A negotiated two-state solution is the only way for Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace and security. Realising this may seem difficult, now more than ever. But that should not deter us from continuing to support the international community’s efforts in this area.
Both the Palestinians and Israelis know our position and our principles well. We have good relations with the Palestinians and have committed substantial technical assistance and support to the Palestinian Authority over the years, and we will continue to do so. We also have a strong, longstanding relationship with Israel. Israel helped build up the SAF during our early years, and we continue to cooperate closely with them across many areas, including in science and technology.
We are friends with both Israel and the Palestinians. But it doesn't mean we support everything each side does. Instead, we consistently take a principled position, in line with international law and in support of global peace and security. On that basis, we have voted in favour of many Palestinian-related resolutions at the UN over the years. For example, we have criticised Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank as violations of international law. We also voted against Jerusalem being recognised as the capital of Israel.
Such unilateral moves by Israel detract from the two-state solution. That is partly the reason why more and more Palestinians feel that violence is the only way to achieve their goals. The international community must therefore give Palestinians reasons to think otherwise. A nonviolent path to an independent Palestinian state must be made unmistakably clear. Then the ideas of organisations like Hamas and its belief in the use of violence and terrorism can truly be defeated. In all that we do, Singapore will act in accordance with our national interest, and that means consistently choosing principles and international law. That is what makes a small nation like us a credible and reliable and trusted partner on the international stage.
Preserving Social Cohesion
Beyond upholding our national interests, we must not allow external events like these to divide us. In such conflicts, individual passions are bound to be aroused. In this age of social media, images, videos and stories will frequently be propagated online specifically to rile up emotions and sow distrust. This can turn a faraway conflict into an emotionally charged issue that can easily spiral out of control, even here in Singapore.
We have already seen instances of hate speech and religiously motivated attacks elsewhere in recent days. In France, a teacher was fatally stabbed by a Russian-Muslim attacker amid rising tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities there. In the US, a six-year-old Palestinian-American was fatally stabbed and his mother wounded by an American in a religiously motivated hate crime.
Singapore is not immune to such divisive forces. In the month of October alone, the Police received eight reports of offensive remarks or actions targeted at members of the Jewish or Muslim communities in Singapore. Eight may not seem like a large number to you, but in just this one month of October, weve received almost the same number of related reports as we did in the preceding nine months of the year combined. That’s a very sharp spike.
So we cannot afford to be complacent. We know from our own painful history how disastrous ethnic and religious strife can be.
That is why we have worked so hard over the years to foster social harmony across our different communities. We have built up networks of friendship and trust across different community and religious leaders, through platforms like the Racial and Religious Harmony Circles. We regularly promote inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue to bring together different communities and to respectfully discuss sensitive issues of race and religion. Our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning are also involved. To teach our young to interact with one another in a safe and respectful way. And help them to understand global issues in the context of Singapore's unique multicultural milieu.
I am very glad that our community and religious leaders understand what is at stake. Our religious leaders, in particular, are expressing their views in a way that shows sensitivity, care, and kindness; so as not to destabilise peace and harmony in our society. They have led many positive efforts to emphasise unity, not division. When the conflict first erupted, Mufti Ustaz Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir wrote to the Chief Rabbi Mordechai Abergel in Singapore, who later replied to him, and both expressed empathy and solidarity with one another. The Inter-Religious Organisation brought together various faith leaders to pray for peace and the safety of civilians in both Israel and Gaza.
On such emotive issues, it makes all the difference to have religious leaders who understand what is happening and what is at stake for Singapore. They are able to guide their flock and help to hold the social cohesion and trust between our different religious groups. Some may think that such guidance is not necessary. But they are mistaken. Just look at what’s happening elsewhere: The more extreme religious leaders on all sides tend to be the one who are more emotional, more vocal in pressing their case in advocating their own narratives. Those calling for peace, dialogue and engagement, tend to be the ones who are drowned out or silenced. What is the end result? The end result is not more light, but more darkness. Not more peace and harmony, but more division and hatred in society. And we certainly do not want that to happen in Singapore.
We should therefore be grateful for the leadership shown by our religious leaders like Mufti and Chief Rabbi. I thank them for their leadership, and I call on Singaporeans to emulate their examples, and ensure we never let anything divide us or drive a wedge in our society. All of us as individuals can do our part too. The government can provide a safe space for such sensitive conversations to take place. But we should do our part to be respectful and constructive in dialogue and discourse, both online and offline. We should strive to listen to and empathise with one another, especially when we disagree and have different views. And we should not hesitate to call out inflammatory language which seek to turn communities against each other. In this way, we can collectively strengthen the peace and social cohesion that is essential to the Singaporean way of life.
Safeguarding Singapore’s Economy and Security
I am glad that all members in this house are with the government on this as we have heard in all the speeches so far, the Workers' Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) have put out their party's position on this matter. Their positions are consistent with the government's position and, indeed, the national position. We were a little concerned at first with the Workers' Party statement, for the reasons highlighted, because it stopped short of condemning the actions of Hamas. It referred to it as a "military operation" rather than a terrorist act. The Leader of the Opposition Mr Singh has explained the context and the circumstances behind a Workers' Party statement, so we understand. But I'm sure Mr Singh would also appreciate that without the benefit of his explanation earlier, there was ambiguity about that statement. There were questions raised about the Workers' Party stance on the actions of Hamas, and some might even ask whether the WP had deliberately overlooked this just to appear more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. So I'm very glad that Mr Singh has stood up and explained the WP’s position clearly, and has condemned Hamas' acts as acts of terrorism. And perhaps, if he is so minded, Mr Singh might update the Workers Party social media platform to reflect this position, so that there is no ambiguity about the matter whatsoever. This is not a trivial matter. This is not just nitpicking at words. It is a key point of principle, because national security is at stake. Indeed, in situations like this, we must stand united. Politics must stop at the water's edge. And that means on external matters where national security is at stake, political parties should not try to outflank the government just to score political points. Let us not risk our precious unity for short term political gain, not when our collective security and fundamental interests are at stake. All of us owe this basic duty to Singaporeans. And at the end of this debate, I hope all of us everyone in this House, PAP, WP, PSP as well as all an NMPs will support the Motion and we can have a common pro-Singapore stand on the matter. This is not politics. This is our national security.
Several members also asked about the economic and security implications of the conflict on Singapore.
We are monitoring the economic situation closely. For now, the direct economic impact is small, because of our limited trade and investment linkages with Israel. But should the conflict between Israel and Hamas broaden into a regional conflict in the Middle East, there will certainly be wider implications, especially on oil and food prices. So we must be prepared for more uncertainties ahead. We are updating our drawer plans should the situation take a turn for the worse and we are impacted.
On the security front, Singapore can draw lessons from what has happened. The surprise attack by Hamas caught Israel off guard. It is a potent reminder that we must always be vigilant. This is why, since 9/11, we have raised our defence capabilities to respond to terror attacks. For example, through the Counter-Terrorism Information Facility, we work closely with other countries to share intelligence and provide early warning against terrorism in the region. The SAF and the Home Team also conduct regular exercises which have helped ensure a high level of readiness in our society against terror attacks, be it from the air, land or sea.
With the ongoing conflict, these efforts have certainly gained greater salience. We know that Singapore is an attractive target for both foreign terrorist groups as well as self-radicalised individuals. And while Israel and Gaza may be far away, what happens in the Middle East can affect us here in Southeast Asia and Singapore.
We fully expect extremist and terrorist groups in the region to use this conflict to rile up sentiments and radicalise more individuals. In recent years, we have detained Singaporeans who fell for pro-Hamas narratives and wanted to take up arms overseas. We have radicalised individuals who have also planned attacks on Singaporean targets. Since the conflict started, regional internet traffic on extremist sites has already gone up three-fold. Because we tracked these sites, we know that traffic has increased. We have also observed an uptick in anti-Singapore rhetoric, including violent threats against Singapore by regional extremist elements online.
Amidst this conflict, it is more urgent than ever that we prepare for all contingencies. That’s why our security agencies are on heightened alert, and we have put in place additional security measures as a precaution. Singaporeans must stay vigilant too, by reporting any suspicious behaviour or activity to the authorities. In the end, our ability to respond to any terrorist incident depends on all of us as Singaporeans working together. We must remain cohesive and united as a society, so that we can keep Singapore safe and secure.
Mr Speaker, the tragedies of terror, conflict, and war are sober reminders to all of us. That, above all else, we are more similar than we are different. That we can rise above what divides us, and embrace our shared humanity.
I spoke earlier about the exchange of letters between Mufti and the Chief Rabbi of Singapore. Mufti said: "Our work to put forth a different model of peaceful co-existence, where every community in Singapore can live peacefully alongside other faiths and celebrate diversity, has now become even more critical… Despite the overwhelming challenges, achieving peaceful relations is not impossible and is now the greatest urgency".
I cannot agree with him more. Achieving peaceful relations is not impossible and is now of the greatest urgency. Singapore has gone through much to get to where we are today. Singaporeans of all races and religions live side by side, we understand and share in one another's festive celebrations, and all of us are proud of our multi-racial, multi-religious identity. So, to every Singaporean, to every members of this House, I say let us be good stewards of our peace and harmony. Never take it for granted. Work at it consistently, assiduously, daily. And stand together, now more than ever, as one united people.
Sir, I support the Motion.
DPM Wong's response to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh
Mr Speaker, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for that assurance. I am glad that he will be posting the transcripts of his speech and Mr Giam’s speech on the website.
I think what's more important is not just the speeches themselves, but a clear position from the Workers' Party, that it condemns unequivocally, the acts of terrorism by Hamas. And then we are all in a common position on that.
And on national security, I fully take on board the points that he had raised. We have been, and we will continue to do this from time to time. When indeed there are national security concerns, we take the Workers' Party into confidence. We share what they are, and we would appreciate very much that across all political parties, whatever our backgrounds, we stand united as Singaporeans. Because, on such matters, there can be nothing that divides us. But united as Singaporeans, we can overcome all challenges together.
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