Gaza through diverse Singaporean eyes

Academic Views / Friday, June 11th, 2021

Faizah Zakaria, Assistant Professor at the NTU School of Humanities with a focus on environmental and religious histories, considers Singaporean discourse on the recent Israel-Palestine crisis, and questions the notion of ‘objective’ and pragmatic ‘views from nowhere’. Views expressed here are her own.

Singaporeans tend to pride ourselves on pragmatism, including in our relationships with other countries. Pragmatism here refers to being untethered to ideology and an acute awareness of geopolitical realities that could diminish our security as a nation. Tied to this is a valorisation of self-professed objectivity—to use philosopher Thomas Nagel’s definition, a “view from nowhere”.[1] Those who present such points of view often claim a monopoly on “objective” thinking. They consider departures from that position as stemming from emotion and irrationality, qualities they associate with a diminished ability to think clearly and independently, making these alternative ideas less worthy.

Online political discourse among Singaporeans about the recent Israel-Palestine crisis shakes that complacency and demonstrates that ‘views from nowhere’ emerge from specific entry points. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been one of the most divisive and intractable on the planet since the formal establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, an event that Palestinians remember as the naqba (Ar. catastrophe) that made refugees out of many of them. The most recent escalation of violence in April-May of this year was catalysed by repressive responses by Israeli police to Palestinian protest at Al-Aqsa mosque over forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, a Arab-majority area in Jerusalem. Many Singaporeans responded to these events through social media activism. Questioning the value and viability of supposedly neutral pragmatism, such activism sought to uphold human rights as a means to build peace. At stake in the discourse generated is not whether we should be pragmatic but how pragmatism is best enacted and what ends it serves.

A May 21 commentary in The Straits Times, titled ‘Seeing the Gaza violence through Singaporean eyes, exemplifies a position that purports to be pragmatic, clear-eyed and laser-focused on national interests. In it, former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan quoted famed Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp to support his view that the Palestinians’ struggle was futile on a pragmatic level. Kausikan wrote,

Sooner or later, this Gaza conflict will end. When it does, what Vietnam’s General Võ Nguyên Giáp, the hero of Dien Bien Phu, once told the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is pertinent and should not be forgotten: “PLO people come to me all the time asking for advice on how to get rid of Israel. After all, we Vietnamese defeated both France and the United States. My answer is always the same: the French went back to France and the Americans went back to America. The Jews have nowhere to go. So you can’t beat them.”

This anecdote was put in service of a larger argument that emphasises that the conflict is complicated, and that as a small nation, “we [Singapore] should also not let emotions lead us to advocate policies that erode the principle of the right to self-defence in a way that could one day rebound against ourselves.” Kausikan worried that taking stances on the Israel-Palestine conflict would bring the chickens home to roost back home, where Singapore may be denied its right to self-defence.

Bilahari Kausikan cites Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp in support of his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is some dispute as to Giáp’s words and views. (Photo: Wikimedia)

What are Singapore’s national interests in the matter, though? How is the principle of the right to self-defence best upheld? Kausikan’s column implies only one apparently rational way forward—protecting Israel’s right to self-defence at all costs. History suggests that Giáp might beg to differ. The quote might not have been the advice directed to the PLO at all.[2] In the 1970s, Giáp was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and a friend to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. He received a Palestinian delegation in Hanoi in 1970, reportedly telling them “The Vietnamese and Palestinian people have much in common, just like people suffering from the same illness.”[3] That illness was, of course, colonialism. There is no historical evidence of Giáp advocating for Israel’s right to self-defence, but there is evidence that Giáp thought a change of tactics was in order. In the late 1960s, he reportedly told Arafat to “turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights.”[4]

Arafat did not take this advice—for decades, his struggle for Palestinian rights was tainted by an association with terror tactics—but other movements for Palestinian rights, such as the Boycott, Sanction and Divest movements (BDS), did. Following the most recent bombardment of Gaza in response to Hamas rocket fire, social media users amplified these movements’ calls for Palestinians’ right to life and liberty with the hashtag #FreePalestine. Singaporean netizens did not remain aloof; they emerged on different sides of the debate, forming two symmetrical online groups “Singaporeans for Israel” and “Singaporeans for Palestine”, for example.

The two groups did not gain similar traction online. At present, 52 members are in “Singaporeans for Israel”, whose main platform was Facebook. Their posts, initially public, were later made private. “Singaporeans for Palestine”, on the other hand, has more than 2,000 followers at the time of writing and the demographic seems to skew young, as seen from their use of Instagram as their main channel. For this group, Palestinians are more than their political representatives, Fatah (the political arm of PLO in the West Bank) and Hamas (the present government in Gaza). The poor leadership and inter-factional disputes between the two Palestinian parties do not absolve Israel’s responsibility for human rights abuses that contributed to the Palestinian political quagmire—checkpoints, choking off essential services, illegal settlements, destructive shelling of infrastructure and possibly, intentional maiming.[5] Even as Israel’s right to self-defence should be upheld, poor political leadership should not justify a broad denial of rights for the Palestinian people.

For Singaporeans sympathetic to Palestinians, national interests demand the cessation of human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians, because if human rights are not universal, we, as Singaporeans, also lose. The pragmatic position, from this point of view, was to work towards reforming existing power structures that enabled the devastating treatment of Palestinians, with apparent impunity. Younger people in Singapore are calling for the disaggregation of politics at two levels: distinguishing Palestinians from their poor political leadership on one hand, and distancing themselves from the Singapore state‘s formal position that purports to represent them on the other. 

“Singaporeans for Palestine” as a constituency has been quietly growing over the past decade, leading to occasional questioning of Singapore’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In 2013, Singapore abstained from voting for or against the successfully passed United Nations General Assembly resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement explaining that while Singapore supports “the rights of the Palestinian people to a homeland… it is precisely because the rights and responsibilities of both sides are inextricably intertwined that no unilateral move can result in a just, peaceful and durable outcome.” Detecting public unhappiness with this decision, leader of the Workers’ Party (WP) Pritam Singh raised a question in Parliament. At that time, Kausikan slammed Singh for this as he “should have known better than to play with fire [by asking] a question about Singapore’s Middle East policies that could have stirred up the feelings of our Muslim ground against the Government.” This critique confined the unease with Singapore’s Middle East foreign policy to the Muslim community and dismissed them as emotional.

Yet discourse over Gaza in Singapore media and social media over the past month showed that both these charges are debatable. Many tweets, Instagram posts and Tik Tok videos criticised the use of seemingly neutral language that camouflages the imbalance of military, economic and political might between the two sides, while obscuring the reality that Palestinian territories are essentially occupied by Israel. They objected to the characterisation of forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah that precipitated the latest round of violence as a “property dispute”. and pointed an accusing finger at Israeli settlement building projects in Palestinian territories and forced evictions of Arab Israelis from parts of Jerusalem, deemed illegal in international law.[6] These posts were shared and re-shared by a diverse cross-section of Singaporeans, not just the Muslim community. They were grounded in an awareness of contraventions of international rule of law, not emotions alone—the same international rule of law that affords some protection to smaller states like Singapore.

Thoughtful engagement with Singaporeans concerned about Middle Eastern politics, wherever our sympathies may lie, requires more than typologising narratives into an emotional/objective binary. Rather, such efforts necessitate an acknowledgement of diversity and geopolitical considerations. As historian Koh Choon Hwee asked, when making a case for understanding Singapore’s place in the world through lens of the Middle East, “what kinds of forces have estranged us culturally from certain parts of the world, priming our sympathies one way and inciting antagonism or mistrust another way?” Commentaries like Kausikan’s helpfully caution us against simplistically characterising Gaza as a binary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or worse, as a clash between two religions.

There are claims concerning neighbouring Arab states’ political inaction and fears of Iran, whom some, like Kausikan, cast as a bad-faith actor keen to estrange Arab peoples from their governments following the United States-sponsored 2020 Abraham Accords. This view rests on an interpretation of the United States as neutral power broker eager to check the influence of a state that it considers a sponsor of terror. For others uncomfortable with US foreign policy, especially during the Trump Presidency, the Abraham Accords capped four years of marginalising the Palestinians in the peace process.[7] Some observers from the United States argue that the Accords killed the two-state solution, which could well prove to be a viable and sustainable arrangement for Israel and Palestine to peacefully co-exist.[8] Regardless of where our sympathies lie and whom we are inclined to mistrust based on our perspectives on politics, it is unhelpful to regard one side as inherently more emotional or susceptible to propaganda than the other—especially when trying to engage diverse publics. In practice, assertions of pragmatism and objectivity in Singapore make little mention of the emotional priming they actually incorporate.

In 2014, hundreds of people gathered at Hong Lim Park to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. (Photo: Cherian George)

While Singapore officially adopts a stance that claims moral equivalence in the conflict, it maintains some commitment to respond to humanitarian crises in the region and beyond. This position was reflected in the actions of state-affiliated bodies and to some extent, state officials with respect to Palestine. The Rahmatan lil-Alamin Foundation run by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), a statutory board, partnered with UNRWA to spearhead a fund-raising campaign for humanitarian relief for communities in Gaza. As the conflict ground into a tentative ceasefire on May 21, Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim issued a statement that he was glad that violence against civilians had halted, and criticised Israel’s use of “disproportionate force” against Palestinians. During this two-week period, 248 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel were killed. This emphasis on mitigating the humanitarian cost of such a crisis represents a third way in which the Singapore state attempts to thread the needle without obviously taking sides.

However, this supposedly apolitical humanitarian stance cannot escape pressure from at least two sides—one that stresses historic Singapore-Israel ties and our vulnerability in the region, and another advocating for Palestinian rights that is much less authoritative at the state level but grounded in society. Recent discourse over Gaza indicates dissatisfaction with a cultivated image of neutrality undergirded by claims of objectivity and pragmatism and a corresponding desire among younger Singaporeans to tackle power asymmetries at home and abroad. How this newer discourse develops and how the Singapore state responds will be key in shaping of a national public sphere that no longer regards any aspect of policy, even foreign policy, as the sacrosanct purview of establishment elites.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not an isolated instance of Singaporeans’ desire for a more just and grounded foreign policy. For instance, a recent petition demanded the removal of the chair Yale-NUS’ governing board for her business ties with the Myanmar military. Policies that shroud humanitarian relief or business relations as somehow intrinsically neutral, pragmatic and objective are increasingly scrutinised in Singapore, especially among younger constituencies. Responsible consideration of complex issues requires not only thoughtful assessment of evidence, but also an awareness of positionality. Simply accepting the supposed superiority of ‘views from nowhere’ and their claims of being ideology-free based on hand-me-down tropes cannot pass as informed or insightful. That would amount to insisting on staying at the station when the train has already left.


[1] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, (Oxford University Press, 1989).

[2] Kausikan did not provide a source for the Võ Nguyên Giáp quote. I found the verbatim quote in Emmanuel Navon, The Star and The Scepter: A Diplomatic History of Israel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), p. 164. Navon stated that Giáp said this to Israel general Meir Dagan, not the PLO. No date or source for this quote was cited in Navon’s book.

[3] P. Chamberlin, “The Struggle Against Oppression Everywhere: The Global Politics of Palestinian Liberation,” Middle Eastern Studies, 47:1, (2011), p. 25.

[4] On Giáp’s words to Arafat, see V. Prashad, “Putting Palestine on the Map,” Jadaliyya, discussing the work of Sarah Schulman and Paul Chamberlin, accessed on 24 May 2021. Note that even Navon’s book, where this quote was probably sourced, made it clear that the relationship between Vietnam and Israel in the 1970s were friction-filled, in part because of Israel’s strong ties with the United States. See Navon, The Star and the Scepter, pp. 190-7.

[5] On the maiming of Palestinians, see Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, (Duke University Press, 2017).

[6] “Stop evictions in East Jerusalem neighbourhood immediately, UN rights office urges Israel,” UN News, 7 May 2021, accessed on May 21, 2021. Kausikan called used the term “property dispute” in his May 21 commentary, while the UN rights office avoided the same language.

[7] See for instance, Mark Stone, “‘You killed two-state solution’: Top Palestinian says Israeli deal with UAE destroys peace hopes,” Sky News, August 19, 2021, accessed on May 30, 2021.

[8] See for instance, David Gardner, “Two-state solution is becoming a cause of the pastFinancial Times, September 23, 2021, accessed on May 30, 2021.

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