Wednesday, 20 April 2016

PM Lee official visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Singapore hopes for day when Israel lives in peace with neighbours
From Israel, Singapore learnt how to be strong and how not to use its strength, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech at the Hebrew University, which on Monday conferred on him an honorary doctorate.
The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2016


The earliest Jewish people migrated to Singapore in the 19th century, mostly from Iraq, the Middle East. One famous visit is intimately linked to the establishment of Hebrew University, and it was the visit which was alluded to earlier, by Professor Albert Einstein in 1922. He met the Singapore Jewish community and urged them to contribute to the Hebrew University's establishment. I thought I had done some research, but I was given a comprehensive presentation on Professor Einstein's visit to Singapore. But maybe I found a few facts which you may not have highlighted just now. First of all, the Singapore Jews raised £750 towards the Hebrew University. Translated to today's currency, it is US$300,000 (S$403,200), not a bad sum. And the other significant fact is that a week after his visit to Singapore, Professor Einstein got a call from Stockholm, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. So we have many happy memories.

Today, Singapore is home to a small Jewish community, numbering a few hundred, which has contributed to our society out of proportion to its numbers. For example, our first Chief Minister, Mr David Saul Marshall, was a Baghdadi Jew. In recent decades, many more Jewish expatriates, including Israelis, have come to live and work in Singapore, many of them with tech companies. There are now maybe 2,500 Jewish people in Singapore, enough to sustain one successful kosher restaurant.


In August 1965, when Singapore unexpectedly became independent, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) helped us to develop the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). We asked a number of countries. We were starting from zero base; we needed to build up an armed forces urgently from scratch. But only Israel responded to us, and it did so very promptly. Weeks after independence, our Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, flew to Bangkok to meet the Israeli Ambassador there, Mordecai Kidron. He reported back to his headquarters and within a few months - by the end of the year - a team of IDF advisers had come to Singapore. We called them "Mexicans" for operational security, and also because we hoped that their swarthy looks might make the cover plausible. Within less than two years, by July 1967, guided by the IDF team, the SAF commissioned our first batch of officers from the officer cadet course. This was a decisive step in building up a credible and professional defence force for Singapore.

It was a time of great uncertainty for us. Britain was withdrawing its forces from the east of Suez, including its bases in Singapore. Without the IDF, the SAF could not have grown its capabilities, deterred threats, defended our island, and reassured Singaporeans and investors that Singapore was secure, and that Singapore had a future. Dr Goh would later say that "in retrospect, it's a minor miracle that we ever got off the ground… without the Israelis, we could not have (done) it". We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us, at our time of great need.

Over the years, our relations have expanded much further beyond defence and security, though, of course, defence and security ties remain. Our companies are very active in exploring opportunities in both countries. We collaborate in technology and in R&D. The Singapore-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation (SIIRD) has funded about 150 projects over the last 20 years, providing about US$170 million in funding. Our universities and research institutes have regular exchanges, including with the Hebrew University. We have just witnessed the signing of three agreements: one with the National Research Foundation to manage Hebrew University's research in Singapore; one with the National University of Singapore; and another one with the Nanyang Technological University, reaffirming the parties' commitment to deepen research collaboration. I hope we can build on these foundations and these intents to grow our relations further.


I am especially honoured that the award comes from a renowned university with outstanding strengths in research and innovation. You have a constellation of outstanding alumni - eight Nobel Prize winners, numerous Israeli presidents and prime ministers, leaders in every field. You reflect the remarkable human talent, and the indomitable spirit to overcome overwhelming odds. That is the signature of Israel - whether it is irrigating the desert to make the sand green and agriculture possible, making revolutionary advances in medical technology, or creating outstanding art, music and architecture.

That is the spirit of Israel, and Singapore looks to you and admires you, and we count our similarities. First, we are both young nations. Israel is less than 70 years old, and Singapore has just turned 50. Second, we have both had to integrate diverse groups to create a common sense of nationhood. In the case of Singapore, we are a Chinese-majority society, but with significant Malay, Indian and other races as minority communities. And we have represented in Singapore all the major religions in the world. In Israel, you are a mainly Jewish society, but diverse none the less, with Ashkenazim from Europe; Sephardim from the Middle East; Falashim from Ethiopia; Russian Jews after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one million of them; Sabras, born and raised here; and a significant minority of Israeli Arabs. Thirdly, both countries were born in adverse circumstances and survive only by our wits, and both are determined to thrive despite our circumstances, and to build a better tomorrow for our children.

But there are also striking contrasts between our countries. First of all, Israel has the Torah and Talmud, and you trace back 5,000 years of Jewish history, including the Second Temple and Masada. Singapore's sense of identity is only as a modern state, even though our different races belong to ancient civilisations, but different ancient civilisations. So therefore following from this, secondly, Israel's identity is as a Jewish state; Singapore's identity is emphatically not a Chinese nation, but a multiracial, multi-religious society. In fact, being multiracial and multi-religious for us is a fundamental ideal that was the reason for our independence and our raison d'etre - the reason for our existence. Thirdly, Israel has had to fight several wars to defend its right to exist. Singapore has been fortunate never to have been at war with its neighbours, with one exception in the 1960s, when we had to defend ourselves against Konfrontasi, a low- intensity conflict launched by Indonesia against Malaysia at a time when we were inside Malaysia.

We may be different, but Israel's story is one that resonates with Singaporeans and is a powerful inspiration to us. As a young man, I read a novel: Exodus by Leon Uris. If you are my age, you will probably know the novel. The story made a deep impression on me. I left the book at home. One day my father happened to pick it up and read it. I was away, so he wrote a letter to me and he told me this. His comment was, the novelist did not miss a single opportunity to score a point about the justness of the cause and the passion of those who founded the state of Israel. When I wrote this up, my people did a bit of research and they discovered that David Ben-Gurion had read the same novel and came to the same conclusion. His comment was: "As a literary work, it isn't much. But as a piece of propaganda, it's the greatest thing ever written about Israel." So I recommend the book to you.

It is this passion that has thoroughly imbued the Israeli spirit. That tenacity and determination of a people, who having suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, resolved never again to be dependent on others. A people with the determination to solve whatever problems come your way, no matter how intractable or persistent, and have the confidence that you will make tomorrow better, and step by step build a better future.


You will step by step build a better future, but it is a complex story.

Recently I have been reading a book by Ari Shavit - My Promised Land: The Triumph And The Tragedy. It is non-fiction, unlike Exodus. It is a deeply powerful account of the story of Israel, told through the experiences and reflections of individual Israelis, but also through Arab eyes - the Arab population who lived in Palestine before the settlers arrived; the Palestinians in the occupied territories on the West Bank and the Gaza. Shavit's book makes vividly clear how complex and tragic the Israeli-Palestinian problem is, and why a solution is so elusive. Progress will require enormous imagination, determination and political leadership on both sides, as well as getting the stars aligned in the right places in the firmament, with the great powers supporting you.

On this trip, I am not only visiting Israel, but also the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, to signal our friendship with both Israel and the Palestinians; to better understand developments, including the Middle East Peace Process; to express our hope that both sides will take steps to resume direct negotiations and to work towards a just and lasting two-state solution.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew once told a "Mexican" general who had helped start the SAF that Singapore had learnt two things from Israel: how to be strong, and how not to use our strength. I read a recent interview by Mr Shimon Peres, and was moved by his vision, which he has long held, of Israel in 2048, 100 years after its founding. He was convinced that 2048 will be a much better world for Israel and for the Middle East. Borders will become less relevant. Science and technology will transform communities and connect peoples, and force people to become more open-minded to the world. It is an optimistic view from a person who has lived a long life and seen many things.

Today, such a Middle East seems a long way off, perhaps more distant even than 2048, and more distant than it appeared when you started out in 1948. But I sincerely hope that one day, Mr Peres' vision will be realised. Swords will be turned to ploughshares. Israel and your neighbours will live side by side in peace and prosperity. And your friends in Singapore and around the world will rejoice with you too.

Palestinians and Israelis 'must find way to peace': PM Lee
Path is tough but both sides need to work on two-state solution, says PM Lee at end of Mid-East trip
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy NewsEditor, Politics, In Tel Aviv, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2016

After a week-long trip, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday night that he has a better feel of the arduous journey towards peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He acknowledged that making headway will not be easy.

But it is necessary, he stressed, encouraging both sides to start taking steps, build on them and work towards a deal on a two-state solution.

Both sides see the need to seal the deal, he said.

"The Palestinians are quite clear that they must have a two-state solution and they are pushing for it strongly.

"The Israelis also understand that they have to move towards a two-state solution, because if they don't do that, there's no other alternative that is viable for them.

"But the difficulties in making progress are not simple," he said in an interview with Singapore media at the end of the trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The need to resume negotiations on a two-state solution was a key theme in Mr Lee's discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, and Palestinian PM Rami Hamdallah on Wednesday.

Confidence in a solution has waned on both sides of late.

Israeli leaders cite Palestinian incitement of violence as a stumbling block to peace, while Palestinian leaders say the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land is a major obstacle.

The situation is daunting and Mr Lee told reporters the stalled peace process was a case of "if you try to do everything at once, you will fail, because some of the problems are just too hard to solve straightaway".

"It's not just a matter of substance, of what deal can be made, but also of the trust and the mutual confidence that exists, and the goodwill that must be built up over time so that you can make a deal together," he added.

"They understand it and both sides would like to do it, but (are) realising it is hard."

Mr Lee's visit also enabled Singapore to renew its friendship with three important partners in the Middle East.

In Israel, he received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University and witnessed the signing of agreements on research and development collaboration. He also met technology industry leaders, and said he hoped more Israeli companies would find it worthwhile to have a presence in Singapore.

In the Palestinian Territories, he announced a doubling of an enhanced technical aid package to $10 million, and found its government was interested in developing the middle level of its education system - the equivalent of polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Its Economy Minister Abeer Odeh, who accompanied Mr Lee in Ramallah, had visited Singapore last month and was impressed by the ITE.

Mr Lee said: "So we are inviting them to come, to see how we do it, and we can do a consultancy study with them and identify how perhaps we can help them to get started."

In Jordan, he met King Abdullah II and its PM Abdullah Ensour, with discussions centred largely on ways for Jordanian officials to build their capabilities in such areas as water management and nursing.

Mr Lee also exchanged notes on the security situation as some Jordanians have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). "They worry about the impact of Daesh not just in the region but wider," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"Between governments and security agencies, we quietly exchange information and deal with the problem. We have been reasonably effective in Singapore and we have benefited from information and intelligence sharing with partner agencies, counterparts and other countries," he added.

A visit to sacred sites, Holocaust museum
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor, Politics, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2016

TEL AVIV • The Middle East is the cradle of civilisation, with many sites of significance to mankind.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, strode through several of these places which are holy to Judaism, which began around 3000BC, Christianity and Islam.

Mr Lee visited St George's Church in Jordan on Sunday and viewed a floor mosaic, the Madaba Map, which dates back to the sixth century AD. It is believed to be the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land.

On Monday, he went to Al Maghtas, considered the original site of Jesus' baptism on the Jordan River.

The Singapore delegation was then driven to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem's Old City - a historic area just under 1 sq km - Mr Lee was taken to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has two of the holiest spots for Christians: the place where Jesus was believed to have been crucified as well as his tomb. Different parts of the church are owned by different denominations, and the keys safeguarded by two Muslim families. Mr Lee also visited the Western Wall, part of the remains of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in AD70. It is also the holiest of Jewish sites where Jews are allowed to pray.
On Tuesday, Mr Lee visited Yad Vashem, a museum to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

And on Wednesday, he toured the Temple Mount complex, also in the Old City, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims, are located. The complex is managed by an endowment the Jordanians oversee.

He was also shown the inside of the mosque, which is normally not open to non-Muslims.

Asked about the sites he visited, Mr Lee said the Yad Vashem memorial goes beyond just relating the experience of the six million Jews killed in World War II by the Nazis.

It also had a message to humankind in general of "how you must work very hard to avoid massacres, genocides and evil things happening". It is, he added, a "reminder that civilisation is fragile - you may think all is well and you can just take it casually, but actually, unless you work at it, civilisation is fragile and human lives are precious, and you can have very bad outcomes".

At the Dome of the Rock, Mr Lee was taken to see the Foundation Stone, believed by many to be the first part of the world to be created.

Muslims believe it was also where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on a night journey.

Mr Lee said it was moving "to see a spot which is sacred to many faiths", and to see the faithful praying or just having a moment of contemplation and meditation.

"At the same time, it's a reminder of how complicated things are in the Middle East to solve," he added. "These are problems which will take a very long time to resolve. But while they are being resolved, all faiths can share, can have access to it, can consider it sacred and deeply meaningful - and can learn to live in peace and harmony with one another."

Singapore to boost technical assistance to Palestinians
PM Lee assures Palestinians of Republic's commitment to helping them build capacity and skills
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor, Politics, In Ramallah, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

Singapore is committed to supporting Palestinians in building their capacity and skills, and will double the sum of its enhanced technical assistance package from $5 million to $10 million.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this commitment at a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah yesterday, PM Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin told reporters after the meeting.

PM Lee, the first Singapore Prime Minister to visit the Palestinian Territories, also encouraged the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to resume negotiations to find a just and durable peace in a two-state solution - with Israel and Palestine living side by side, she added.

Under the technical assistance package, Singapore has hosted study visits for Palestinian officials in such areas as education, anti-corruption reform, and economic development. Singapore will also share its experience in vocational and skills training.

"PM Hamdallah welcomed this as the Palestinians valued their friendship with Singapore," Ms Chang said. "He expressed appreciation for Singapore's assistance as education was a key focus for the Palestinians."

Palestinian news agency Wafa quoted Dr Hamdallah as telling Mr Lee: "Your country is a pioneer in the field of vocational training; we could learn a great deal from you."

He added: "We consider Singapore a model in the field of desalination and we hope to benefit from your experience in water management."

Dr Hamdallah met PM Lee at his office in the Palestinian Territories yesterday morning.

They then visited the mausoleum of the first Palestinian Authority president, Mr Yasser Arafat, where PM Lee laid a wreath.

Dr Hamdallah then hosted him to lunch. He welcomed the first visit by a Singapore prime minister and conveyed the warm greetings of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is overseas.

Meanwhile, PM Lee invited Dr Hamdallah to visit to Singapore, which he accepted. He also reiterated a standing invitation for President Abbas to visit Singapore.

At their meeting, Dr Hamdallah briefed the Singapore delegation about the situation in the Palestinian Territories and reaffirmed the PNA's commitment to the two-state solution.

PM Lee had, at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous day, conveyed Singapore's hope that the Israelis and Palestinians can restart talks for a two-state solution.

It was a point he also made when Israel's Leader of the Opposition Isaac Herzog called on him yesterday.

Both men also exchanged views on developments in Israel and the region, Ms Chang said.

"Mr Herzog agreed that the two-state solution remains the only viable option to achieve a just and durable peace for Israel and Palestine," she added.

Yesterday, Mr Lee visited Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where Muslim leaders showed him around the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque - the third holiest site for Muslims who believe it was where Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven on a night journey.

In the afternoon, he called on Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

At the meeting, both men reaffirmed the long-standing and close relations between the two countries, Ms Chang said.

PM Lee also expressed his appreciation to Mr Rivlin for his presence at the state funeral of founding PM Lee Kuan Yew in March last year.

Mr Lee then travelled to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv where he laid a wreath at the Rabin Memorial, built in honour of former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr Rabin's historic 1993 handshake with Mr Arafat set in motion Palestinian self-rule, but he was killed in 1995 by an Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process.

Today, Mr Lee meets former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, who also played a key role in the peace process as foreign minister.

For that, Mr Peres, Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

Singapore calls for Israel, Palestine to restart talks
Singapore hopes both sides can make progress towards two-state solution to longstanding conflict: PM Lee
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy NewsEditor (Politics) In Jerusalem, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2016

Singapore hopes the Israelis and Palestinians can restart talks for a two-state solution, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We are friends with both Israel and Palestine. We hope that you will be able to resume negotiations and make progress towards a just and durable solution to a longstanding and complex conflict," he said. "We hope to see a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security one day."

He was giving a short speech at an official ceremony at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, where he was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Lee said Singapore is concerned about developments in the Middle East, including the Israeli- Palestinian problem and their peace process.

World leaders have maintained that a two-state solution is the only viable resolution to the conflict, and recently expressed concerns over the lack of progress. This week, United States Vice-President Joe Biden criticised both sides for obstructing the peace process.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon also warned that such a solution seemed more distant, citing a surge in violence triggered by individual terror attacks as well as Israel's expansion of settlements.

On Monday, a bus bombing in Jerusalem injured about 20 civilians. Singapore condemned the attack, saying it was "confident that the authorities will bring those responsible for this act of terror to justice swiftly".

Mr Netanyahu said he appreciated Singapore's "swift and unequivocal" condemnation of the attack.

Yesterday, Mr Lee - the first sitting prime minister to visit Israel - also spoke of Singapore's long and deep relationship with Israel, starting with its help in building the Singapore Armed Forces.

He noted he last visited Israel in 1977, as a young army officer accompanying then chief of general staff Winston Choo, now Singapore's Ambassador to Israel. He said he was glad he could return to thank Israel personally, see developments for himself, and exchange views on the region and security issues.

During their meeting, both prime ministers agreed to intensify cooperation, particularly in cyber security.

They also welcomed the signing of an agreement between officials of both countries, to jointly provide technical assistance and training to developing countries, Mr Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said.

Both men also encouraged Israeli and Singaporean entrepreneurs and businesses to enhance collaboration and explore investment opportunities, Ms Chang added.

On Monday, Mr Lee witnessed the signing of agreements between Jerusalem's Hebrew University and Singapore's National Research Foundation, as well as between the university and the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

Israel, Mr Lee added, is the second-largest contributor of foreign direct investment in Singapore from the Middle East, and Singapore hopes to learn more from its technical prowess and ecosystem. The United Arab Emirates is the largest contributor of foreign direct investment in Singapore from the region.

"You have the highest number of scientists, technologists and engineers per capita in the world, and the third-highest number of patents per capita," he said. "Many Singaporean firms are interested in doing business with you and investing in Israel, as some have already done."

Mr Netanyahu, speaking before Mr Lee, said the visit reflected a "coming of age" of the relations between the two countries, which he said were "both small nations that leave a very large imprint on the world scene" and are anchors of stability in their respective regions.

Israel and Singapore are working together in areas from water management to biotechnology, he noted, adding that "innovation and technology are key to seizing the future".

Mr Netanyahu also said he greatly admired the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, "one of the great statesmen of the 20th century who laid solid foundations for your country, but also who taught many of us the idea of economic vision and enterprise that was put to test, and is now the great success that Singapore is".

Mr and Mrs Lee were hosted to dinner by Mr and Mrs Netanyahu yesterday. Today, Mr Lee will meet Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah. He will also call on Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem.

PM Lee visits Holocaust memorial
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor, Politics, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2016

On the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem is a solemn memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Six million Jews were systematically discriminated against in Nazi Germany and areas it occupied during World War II on the basis of their ethnicity, and killed.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday visited the memorial, Yad Vashem, where he rekindled an eternal flame in their memory and laid a wreath in a solemn ceremony.

He wrote in the guestbook that he was deeply moved by the memorial: " 'Never again!' - but we have yet to realise that pledge in full measure. Mankind continues to inflict and suffer terrible and tragic violence. May the message of Yad Vashem inspire us to build a more peaceful world for future generations, and for all races and religions."

The memorial was designed by architect Moshe Safdie, who was also behind the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Mr Lee also visited the Israel Museum and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible.

PM Lee takes stock of Singapore's ties with Israel
Singapore grateful for help in building credible, professional SAF, says PM Lee, as he receives honorary doctorate
By Zakir Hussain Deputy News Editor Politics, In Jerusalem, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrived in Israel from Jordan yesterday, on the second leg of his week-long trip to the Middle East.

His first stop here was the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he met its leadership and received an honorary doctorate.

Speaking at the ceremony and thanking them for the honour, he took stock of Singapore's long friendship with Israel, in particular the role it played in helping build a credible and professional Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

"Without the IDF (Israel Defence Forces), the SAF could not have grown its capabilities, deterred threats, defended our island, and reassured Singaporeans and investors that Singapore was secure, and had a future," he said. "We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us at a time of great need."

PM Lee also expressed the hope that Israel and the Palestinians will take steps to resume direct negotiations and work towards a just and lasting two-state solution.

He noted that over the years, Singapore's relationship with Israel has broadened beyond defence and security to collaborations in technology research and development.

Yesterday, PM Lee witnessed the signing of three agreements between the university and Singapore's National Research Foundation, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, respectively.

Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson said awarding the doctorate to PM Lee was to recognise his longstanding leadership as a champion of economic and civil reform, his investment in education, research and development, as well as his warm support of Israel-Singapore friendship and of the Jewish community in Singapore.

Singapore, he noted, was a model of a state run by scholars, "where the PM is himself in charge of research and innovation".

In his speech, PM Lee noted that ties between the people of Israel and Singapore began long before both became independent.

The earliest Jews in Singapore arrived in the 19th century, mostly from the Middle East, and their descendants have contributed out of proportion to their numbers in the country. Among them Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall.

Mr Lee noted that renowned physicist Albert Einstein visited Singapore in 1922 , met the local Jewish community and urged them to contribute to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was set up in 1918 and opened its doors in 1925. The Jewish people in Singapore raised some £750 - worth about S$400,000 today. Israel, he added, reflects a remarkable human talent and "the indomitable spirit to overcome overwhelming odds" - from irrigating the desert to revolutionary advances in technology.

Singapore had much in common with Israel. Both are young nations that had to integrate diverse groups to create a common sense of nationhood, and both are determined to thrive despite their circumstances.

But there are also striking contrasts, he said. Israel can trace 5,000 years of Jewish history and its identity is as a Jewish state, while Singapore "is emphatically not a Chinese nation, but a multiracial, multi-religious society".

Israel had to fight several wars to defend its right to exist, while Singapore has been fortunate never to have been at war with its neighbours, except during the Konfrontasi period - when Indonesia waged an undeclared war in the 1960s to oppose Malaysia's formation.

Mr Lee noted that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is complex, and a solution remains elusive.

"Progress will require enormous imagination, determination and political leadership on both sides - as well as getting the stars aligned, in the right places in the firmament, with the great powers supporting you," he said. This is why he was also visiting the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah this week "to signal our friendship with both Israel and the Palestinians", he added.

He also noted that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew once told an Israeli general who helped start the SAF that Singapore learnt two things from Israel: "How to be strong, and how not to use our strength." PM Lee said he was also moved by former Israeli PM Shimon Peres' vision, in a recent interview, of Israel in 2048 - 100 years after its founding. Mr Peres believes 2048 will be much better for Israel and the Middle East, where borders will become less relevant and science and technology will transform societies, connect peoples and force them to become more open-minded to the world.

"Today, such a Middle East looks a long way off - more distant even than 2048," Mr Lee said. "But I sincerely hope that one day, Mr Peres' vision will be realised. Swords will be turned to ploughshares, Israel and your neighbours will live side by side in peace and prosperity, and your friends in Singapore and around the world will rejoice with you too."

Yesterday, PM Lee also visited Jerusalem's Old City. He will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today.

Singapore, Jordan eye closer economic ties
Both sides also agree on need to cooperate closely in countering extremism and in sharing of expertise
By Zakir Hussain,  Deputy News Editor Politics, In Amman, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2016

Singapore and Jordan have agreed on the need for closer cooperation in countering extremism, sharing of expertise and stepping up economic cooperation.

These were among the areas discussed when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was hosted to lunch by King Abdullah II of Jordan at Al Husseinieh Palace yesterday, the second day of Mr Lee's visit to Jordan.

They also agreed on the urgent need for Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations to achieve the two-state solution, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said after the meeting.

King Abdullah has been a strong voice of moderation and an advocate of a viable and lasting solution to conflicts in the Middle East.

He initiated the Amman Message in 2004, which underlines the key principles of tolerance, moderation and dialogue that Islam teaches - a message that is seen as a response to Muslims who sow violence in the name of faith and others who depict Islam as violent and stir anti- Muslim sentiment.

Mr Lee conveyed his appreciation for King Abdullah's "leadership role in promoting the Amman Message and inter-faith dialogue, which has greater salience at a time of heightened religious and sectarian strife", the PMO said in a statement.

Jordanian news agency Petra reported that both leaders stressed the need to address the threat of terrorism posed by groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a holistic manner.

They also reaffirmed the warm and friendly ties between their countries. Jordan was one of four countries that sponsored Singapore's bid for United Nations membership in 1965, and Singapore signed its first free trade agreement (FTA) in the Middle East with Jordan in 1994.

Since assuming the throne in 1999, King Abdullah has made 12 visits to Singapore.

Mr Lee was greeted yesterday morning by Prime Minister and Defence Minister Abdullah Ensour at an official welcome ceremony and inspected the Royal Guards.

Both leaders agreed to step up cooperation in capacity-building programmes to support human resource development in Jordan.

Singapore would be happy to share its experience in areas such as vocational and skills training, water resource management, public sector leadership and mediation, Mr Lee said.

Dr Ensour updated him on economic developments in Jordan and invited Singapore companies to take advantage of Jordan's FTAs with several countries.

Dr Ensour and his wife also hosted an official dinner in honour of Mr and Mrs Lee yesterday evening.

Today, Mr Lee will be hosted to breakfast by Chief Adviser for Religious and Cultural Affairs, Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal.

He will then head to Israel, the next stop on his visit to the region during which he will also visit the Palestinian Territories.

100 Singaporean students meet PM Lee, Masagos
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor Politics, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2016

Singaporean Amrullah Mohd Zain, 22, is in the middle of exams for his course in Islamic jurisprudence at Yarmouk University in Irbid.

But last Saturday, the undergraduate and 60 fellow students took a 90-minute bus ride to Amman to meet visiting Singapore leaders.

They were among 100 Singaporeans studying in Jordan who had a dialogue in Jordan's capital city with Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli and MP Intan Azura Mokhtar.

They also met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is on a visit to the Middle East, at a reception.

Mr Masagos told reporters after the closed-door session that the students are aware of their role in guiding the Muslim community in a way that contributes to social harmony when they return home.

Studying in the Middle East lets them deepen their technical understanding of Islam and builds their credibility, he said. And having gone through formal Islamic education in Singapore up to pre-university level, they are grounded in practising their faith in a multi-religious society.

Mr Masagos said returning students can contextualise Islamic teachings and inoculate the wider community against radical persuasions. He added: "Religion, when taught in context, will contribute towards harmony and respect for each other."

He noted that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has been actively engaging Singaporeans studying in the Middle East. Muis officers stationed in Singapore's missions in Cairo and Jeddah also ensure the students' needs are taken care of, especially in emergencies. They also update the students on happenings back home and "make sure they understand, and not just read things from the Internet and then interpret it any way the Internet is persuading them to", he said.

Several students raised concerns about Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim sentiment, gaining ground. Mr Masagos said it was in the community's interest to make sure it interacts with wider Singapore society in a meaningful way to build trust. He added that the students understand Islamophobia could develop in the light of recent events around the world, but are confident "we can change that, we can prevent that from happening in Singapore".

He also said the students, having lived in the Middle East and mastered Arabic, could work for Singapore companies in the region. He added that he has asked companies like Keppel, Hyflux and Sembcorp to look at tapping their expertise.

PM Lee urged the students to stay in touch with friends and family and keep abreast of developments in Singapore: "We are all part of the Singaporean family."

He spent 11/2 hours speaking to them, asking them questions ranging from their fluency in Arabic to how they coped with winter.

The students told him about the volunteer work they were doing.

Mr Amrullah said Singaporeans on his campus were raising funds to provide meals to children of Syrian refugees living near the city. Jordan has taken in a large number of refugees fleeing from conflict in neighbouring areas.

Ms Zahratur Rofiqah, 22, in her third year studying jurisprudence at the University of Jordan in Amman, said she teaches English to Palestinian children once a week. She hopes to go into social work when she returns to Singapore.

"Helping others helps us fulfil a spiritual need," she said. "As Muslims, it is important to be a voice for love, peace and restraint. There are things we can do to nurture mutual understanding and respect with Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

PM Lee Hsien Loong explores Petra during Jordan visit
He will be hosted to lunch by King Abdullah II today and will meet counterpart for dinner
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor Politics, In Petra, The Sunday Times, 17 Apr 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong began his trip to Jordan yesterday with a visit to the country's most well-known site - the sprawling ancient city of Petra.

On arriving in Petra, Mr Lee, who is on his first official visit to Jordan, was presented with a red-and-white keffiyeh, a symbolic headdress for Jordanians, held in place by a black rope-like circlet known as the agal.

Mr Lee and his wife were accompanied by Mr Nayef H. Al-fayez, Jordan's Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, and hosted by Mr Mohammad Al-Nawafleh, the chief commissioner of the Petra Development and Tourism Authority.

Known for its rose-red rock structures, Petra was a bustling city whose strategic location near the Mediterranean and Red Seas saw merchants trade frankincense from southern Arabia, silks from China and spices from India in its markets.

It also saw a constant stream of travellers and pilgrims, who marvelled at its hydrological engineering, which Mr Lee was briefed about.

To cope with the harsh desert environment and arid landscape, the Nabataean people built the city's developed structures and systems to manage the supply of water, especially during periods of dry weather. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean Empire from around the 1st century BC, and the Romans took over some 200 years later.

But a large earthquake in AD363 destroyed much of the city.

Another quake in AD551 and a change in trade routes led to its abandonment, until it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

Now a Unesco world heritage site, Petra was also the location for a number of scenes in the Hollywood movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It was also named one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007. Today, tourism is a key contributor to the Jordanian economy.

However, tourist guides and others in the industry lament that the ongoing conflict in Jordan's neighbours - Syria and Iraq - has affected visitor numbers.

Yesterday evening, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli and MP Intan Azura Mokhtar also had a closed-door dialogue with Singapore students pursuing higher education in Islamic religious studies and Arabic in Jordan.

Mr Lee also met Singapore students at a dinner reception.

Today, Mr Lee will be hosted to lunch by Jordan's King Abdullah II.

He will also meet Prime Minister and Defence Minister Abdullah Ensour, who will host him to dinner.

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