Excerpt of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Media Wrap-up in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Excerpt of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s media wrap-up with Singapore media in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on 20 October 2023. PM Lee was responding to questions on the situation in Gaza. PM Lee was on an official visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 17 to 20 October 2023.



Channel NewsAsia: ASEAN is under numerous stress tests including the latest Israel-Hamas war; what’s your assessment of ASEAN centrality?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: I think ASEAN has many stress tests. The issues in Gaza – big problem for the Middle East – affect us in ASEAN but it is not something which ASEAN has to have a very hardcore stand on. We've issued an ASEAN statement on what's happening in Gaza. The different countries don't all have identical positions on this issue. Some of us have diplomatic relations with Israel. At the same time, we have got a good relationship with the Palestinian Authority. So we're friends with both sides. Others have championed the Palestinian cause and do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. For example, Malaysia, Indonesia also is in a somewhat similar position. So the nuances and the way that different countries express their views will not all be the same. But to the extent that there is a consensus, it's expressed in the ASEAN statement, and I think that it's helpful to have such a stance. But it is not quite the same as dealing with say, the South China Sea, or something which is right in the middle of our own region. We have to pay attention to it, yes, but at the same time, we have to understand we have different perspectives and well, we get along and respect one another's perspectives and also respect one another.

Lianhe Zaobao: What does PM think of the public discourse in Singapore over Gaza and how concerned is PM that the latest conflict might continue to widen and affect Singapore?

PM Lee: It's always very worrying when you see humanitarian crisis developing. When innocent civilians suffer, infants, kids or grandparents, sometimes by side effect of military conflict, sometimes directly targeted. And in this case, what happened on the 7th of October when Hamas attacked Israel and launched vicious, horrible attacks against large numbers of civilians and killed 1,300 people, maybe more, mostly innocent civilians — it's horrendous. It isn't something which could be justified by any rationale whatsoever.

Whatever the background, whatever the historical situation, nothing justifies such an action, either in law, or indeed in human decency and morality. So that was what we have to be quite unequivocal about and we came out immediately to condemn it. But after that, having happened, what happens next? If you go by international law, the Israelis will have the right to self-defence, to defend themselves. Hamas has attacked Israel. They have a right to say, “I have to take away the danger to me.” It's not just international law, but it's also humanly impossible not to want to do that, having suffered such a grievous and terrifying attack. But in exercising that right, you will have yourself to comply with international law and that means the law of war and international humanitarian law, and you have to do all you can to minimise civilian casualties, and address humanitarian concerns which are going to arise. And you have to do this not just because the law is written that way, but also because from Israel's own interests, if you just respond emotionally, cathartically, but in a way which doesn't help to solve the problem, you may get yourself into a much worse situation than you're in. And that is possible. And it's something which many countries in the world are concerned about, and have spoken out about, including their closest friends. The Americans have expressed this. The British and Europeans have expressed this. We have expressed this too and it's something which we are all focused on.

In the Financial Times a few days ago, written by some very distinguished Jewish, international jurists, professors of international law. They've studied genocide, crimes against humanity, the Holocaust. They themselves are Jewish, they've got family, friends, relatives who have been caught up in the latest conflict, probably victims too. And they wrote this letter to say that we know what the pain is, we know what the law is, but we strongly counsel Israel and Israel's leaders to act in a restrained way, in a thoughtful way, in a way which will not make your problem worse or diminishes humanity. It is an FT article Minister Shanmugam shared on his Facebook Page because he thought it was significant. And I think it's very significant that these are people who wish Israel well, who are expressing such concerns and such views. We wish Israel well, we also wish the Palestinians well.

Our own population in Singapore I think are following events very closely. It always happens every time there's violence in the Middle East. And it's quite understandable. We're all connected to it. We all see the material online, we read the horrendous stories, heartrending stories. When a bomb lands in a hospital, hundreds die, for what? Why? And you cry out for some comfort and some answer, which you don't always get. And particularly I think the Muslim population in Singapore are very agitated about it because there's a certain feeling of empathy and compassion, particularly closely felt for the Palestinian cause. And it's completely understandable. And it's something which we have to take into account, to explain that this is what the government also understands and expresses. But at the same time, we also have to do what is the sensible thing for Singapore, to maintain relations with both the Israelis as well as the Palestinians, and to do what we can do to provide humanitarian support for the civilian victims in Gaza especially, but also in Israel. And then to express our long-term position, which is that we believe that the two sides have to live in peace. There's really no alternative to that and to live in peace, the only way to get there is to have a two-state solution. In other words, for the Palestinians to acknowledge that Israelis have a right to exist and to have a nation, a state, a country. And the Israelis to acknowledge that the Palestinians have a right to exist and to live in their own country. And you have to work towards such an outcome. It looks very far off. It has not made a lot of progress in the last 10, 15 years. But unless you can make progress in that direction, you are doomed to generations of bloodshed and tragedy. And I don't think either side really wants that. How to get from here to there, that's very hard, but I don't think we can afford to give up on that aspiration. And that's the way we have explained our position.

A lot of questions have been filed in Parliament because it's naturally a matter of great interest and the MPs will express these concerns of their voters, of their constituents. And when Parliament sits at the beginning of November, we will have a full discussion.