RIYADH: The “sensible thing” for Singapore to do is to maintain relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and to provide humanitarian aid for civilians in the Israel-Hamas conflict, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Oct 20).
Mr Lee was addressing questions from reporters near the end of his trip to Saudi Arabia to attend the inaugural summit between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, and it first established ties with ASEAN in 1990.
The meeting happens at a time of tumult in the Middle East. Militant group Hamas launched raids into Israel on Oct 7, killing about 1,400 people – most of them civilians – and taking around 200 hostages.
In response, Israel has laid siege to Gaza, carrying out waves of strikes on the Palestinian enclave, enforcing a blockade and massing troops on its border ahead of an expected ground assault.
ASEAN has issued a statement on the conflict, urging an immediate end to violence. It also reaffirmed its support for a negotiated two-state solution that would allow both Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace.
“It’s always very worrying when you see humanitarian crisis developing, when innocent civilians suffer – infants, kids, old folks, grandparents – sometimes as a side effect of military conflict, sometimes directly targeted,” said Mr Lee.
People in Singapore are following the events closely, he said.
“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,” said Mr Lee, adding that it is “completely understandable”.
“But at the same time, we also have to do what is the sensible thing to do for Singapore – to maintain relations with both the Israelis as well as the Palestinians and to do what we can to provide humanitarian support for the civilian victims, in Gaza especially, but also in Israel,” he said.
In the long term, Singapore believes that the two sides have to live in peace, Mr Lee said, adding that “there is really no alternative”.
“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,” he said.
“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, we are doomed to generations of bloodshed and tragedy.
“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.”
Members of Parliament have filed questions on the issue, and there will be a full discussion when parliament sits in November, said Mr Lee.
He also said that the attack by Hamas against large numbers of civilians in Israel was “horrendous” and could not be justified, but Israel, in exercising its right to defend itself, should comply with international law.
“If we go by international law, the Israelis will have the right to self-defence, to defend themselves,” said Mr Lee.
He added: “But in exercising that right, you have yourself to comply with international 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 interest, if you just respond emotionally, cathartically but in a way which doesn’t help to solve a problem, you may get yourself into a much worse situation.”
Mr Lee also spoke about possible economic cooperation between ASEAN and GCC. At a time when countries are “tense with one another”, it is good for ASEAN countries to cooperate with other like-minded countries.
“We have not formally met as ASEAN and as GCC as one dialogue – this is the first time – so it’s really just putting some agenda items on the table,” said Mr Lee.
“But of course, each of the countries has had its own links between the Middle East and Southeast Asia.”
Singapore, for example, has a free trade agreement with the GCC and has a lot of trade with its member nations, Mr Lee noted.
However, with the establishment of formal dialogue, the countries from each bloc can collaborate on a “more institutionalised basis, region to region”, he said.
“The focus, I expect, will be more economic cooperation, but it’s always good to have a regular dialogue and new areas of potential collaboration will over time … pop up,” he said.
He added that he hopes for more business opportunities and cooperation with Saudi Arabia, for instance in logistics, energy and digitalisation.
“I hope that we will be able to develop the volume of trade, which is already quite good, and investments, which is still quite modest,” he said.
Mr Lee has also asked for the quota for Singapore Muslims to go on the Haj to be increased, as the queue to go on the pilgrimage is very long.
“We have asked if they (Saudi Arabia) can give us some flexibility for a few years, so that we can help to clear at least a part of the queue, and then they can revert back to a longer-term allocation,” said Mr Lee.
“They have heard us and I’m hopeful that they will work something out.”