Monday, June 07, 2010

A deep, dark, secret love affair (Part 1)

(From an Israel's paper)

A team of IDF officers, known as the `Mexicans,' helped Singapore establish an army. It was the start of a very special relationship.

Christmas Eve, 1965, is the unofficial date of the start of the great and continuing love story between Israel and Singapore, a love affair that was kept a deep, dark secret. The international press, like the Israeli media, tried to bring the tale to light. Occasionally, scraps of information leaked out; some were published, some were denied, many were disregarded. The Israelis, as usual, wanted to rush to tell all their friends, but managed to overcome that desire. The fear that the thies would be terminated if they became public knowledge had its effect. Israel imposed a total blackout on the story and the secret was preserved. Until the other side could no longer contain itself.


In his book, "From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000," published in 2000, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and its first prime minister, disclosed the secret that had been kept for almost 40 years: It was the Israel Defense Forces that established the Singaporean army. The Israeli military mission was headed by Yaakov (Jack) Elazari, then a colonel, who was later promoted to brigadier general. After leaving the army, he became a consultant to the Singaporean army. Hedied 15 years ago. "To disguise their presence, we called them `Mexicans.' They looked swarthy enough," Lee wrote.

Singapore's army is today considered the strongest and most advanced of the military forces in Southeast Asia. The alliance between the Israeli and Singaporean defense establishments intensified and expanded, and it now encompasses cooperation between the two countries' military industries, as well. The scope of the deals, according to foreign sources, indicates that the Singaporean army is one of the major clients of Israeli combat means and military technology. Singapore's aircraft industry is cooperating with its Israeli counterpart and with Elbit Systems in upgrading the F-5 warplanes of the Turkish Air Force. A few years ago, Singapore's defense minister revealed that the Gil antitank missile, which is manufactured by Raphael (Israel Armaments Development Authority), was developed in cooperation between the two countries.

Surrounded by Muslims

Lee explained the need to maintain secrecy to his close friend in the leadership, and the first defense minister in his government, Dr. Goh Keng Swee. "We have to ensure, as far as possible, that the arrival of the Israelis will not become public knowledge, in order not to arouse opposition among the Malay Muslims who live in Malaysia and Singapore," the prime minister summed up. That, in essence, is Singapore's problem. The residents of the small island, which has an area of about 670 square kilometers (Israel is 30 times as large), are mainly Chinese, and they live between the two Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Life in the shadow of the large Muslim majority and fear of a Malaysian incursion are an integral part of the history of the two countries. Until 1965, Singapore was part of Malaysia. In that year, the British government decided to withdraw from all its colonies east of the Suez Canal. In a rapid process it was decided to sever Singapore from Malaysia and to establish it as a new and separate country.

Singapore declared its independence on August 9, 1965. At the time of its creation, it had only two infantry regiments, which had been established and were commanded by British officers. Two-thirds of the soldiers were not residents of Singapore, and in any event the leaders of the nascent state had no faith in the strength of the minuscule army. The defense minister, Goh, contacted Mordechai Kidron, the former Israeli ambassador to Thailand, and asked for assistance. Kidron arrived in Singapore within days, along with Hezi Carmel of the Mossad. "Goh told us that they think that only Israel, a small country surrounded by Muslim countries, with a strong army, could help them build a small, dynamic army," Carmel says. The two Israelis met with Lee, who writes that he "told Keng Swee to put it on hold until Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister of India, and President Nasser of Egypt replied to my letters seeking their urgent help to build up our armed forces."

It's not clear whether Lee, in fact, believed India and Egypt were capable of, or interested in, building up Singapore's army. Many Israelis believe the two leaders were approached only for appearance's sake. After a few weeks of waiting, India and Egypt congratulated Singapore on its independence but did not offer military aid. Lee ordered Goh to push ahead in contacts with the Israelis.

At the same time, in the wake of reports sent by Kidron and Carmel, the Israeli defense establishment deployed to supply military aid to Singapore. In discussions conducted by the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, with the participation of the deputy chief of staff and head of the Operations Branch, Ezer Weizmann, it was decided to make Major General Rehavam Ze'evi, who was then deputy head of the Operations Branch, responsible for building the Singaporean army. Ze'evi (nicknamed "Gandhi" ) paid a secret visit to Singapore and the preparatory work began on his return. "Gandhi said he wanted to create an ideal army for Singapore, something we hadn't built here," Carmel says. "Instead of setting up a Defense Ministry and a General Staff, Gandhi suggested an integrated organization, a more economical structure. So there wouldn't be too many generals and too few soldiers."

Ze'evi appointed Elazari, who worked under him in the Operations Branch, as head of the team he established. Lieutenant Colonel Yehuda Golan, then-commander of an armored division (he retired from the IDF with the rank of brigadier general), was subsequently added to the team. Some members of the team "concentrated on writing the chapters that dealt with building army bases. I wrote the chapters dealing with the establishment of an infantry," Golan says. Initially they produced the "Brown Book," dealing with combat doctrine, followed by the "Blue Book," dealing with the creation of the Defense Ministry and intelligence bodies. The Brown Book was translated into English and sent to Singapore's government for its perusal. In October 1965, a military delegation from Singapore arrived in Israel.

"The delegation arrived in order to tell us: `Well done, but to implement the book, you are invited to come to Singapore,'" Golan recalls. Prior to setting out, the members of the military mission were invited to the chief of staff's bureau. "Dear friends," Rabin said, "I want you to remember several things. One, we are not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony. Your task is to teach them the military profession, to put them on their legs so they can run their own army. Your success will be if at a certain stage they will be able to take the wheel and run the army by themselves. Second, you are not going there in order to command them but to advise them. And third, you are not arms merchants. When you recommend items to procure, use the purest professional military judgment. I want total disregard of their decision as to whether to buy here or elsewhere."

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