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Speech by Minister at the Middle East Institute and the Asia Society Policy Institute Conference

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Desmond Lee

Topic(s): Other Updates

Mr Bilahari Kausikan,
Chairman of the Middle East Institute

Former Ministers, Ambassadors and Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. A very good morning to all. It is my pleasure to join you at the inaugural conference jointly organised by the Middle East Institute and the Asia Society Policy Institute, on the relationship between Asia and the Middle East.

2. I am glad that Singapore enjoys friendly bilateral ties with all countries in the Middle East, carefully nurtured over many decades. There have been regular high-level political exchanges, which have added momentum to our bilateral cooperation. Most recently, we welcomed His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, who made his third State Visit to Singapore. We endeavour to further strengthen such relationships.

Singapore’s Ties with the Middle East

3. Our economic and social links with the Middle East go back a long way. Many of the early Arab settlers came to Singapore by way of Palembang, where their families established strong trading networks. One such prominent trader who moved to Singapore was Syed Omar Aljunied. We are commemorating Singapore’s Bicentennial this year to mark the arrival of Stamford Raffles in 1819. Syed Omar Aljunied came that same year. We have highlighted him in our commemoration, as he was a great philanthropist who donated money and land for various community needs, including the building of Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka. The mosque still stands today, in Clarke Quay. If you also have the chance to visit the Maritime Experiential Museum on Sentosa, you will find “The Jewel of Muscat”.It is a replica of a 9th century Arab dhow that used to traverse the seas between the Middle East and China through Southeast Asia. These economic and social links point to deep-rooted engagement between our regions.

4. Our ties have withstood the test of time. Today, many of Singapore’s aspiring Islamic religious teachers – more than 500 of them – are studying in the Middle East and North Africa. This is no surprise. Indeed, the Middle East has inspired and influenced the religious beliefs, values, and practices of billion-strong faith communities. The major world religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism trace their origins there. The democratisation of the internet, technology, and social media, have further enhanced the speed and reach at which ideas, practices, and movements can spread across the globe.

5. Thus, although Singapore is not a key player in the Middle East, we closely monitor the developments that unfold there. We are clear-eyed about what role Singapore can play. We do not presume to act as mediators to solve the various conflicts. Instead, we hope to enhance our cooperation in areas of common concern, to create win-win outcomes.

6. One area, for example, is our partnership with like-minded countries in the Middle East to counter terrorism. We are keenly aware of, and alert to, the risks of returning foreign terrorist fighters, especially with ISIS losing territory. The tragic attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand emphasise the importance of promoting moderation and interfaith understanding.

7. Besides our partnership against terrorism, Singapore has also engaged the Middle East in a wide range of other areas. Under the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP), we have shared our experience in healthcare, governance, culture and the environment.

Approaches towards Social cohesion

8. But we are fully cognizant of the complexities inherent in the Middle East. Ethnicity, religion, momentous historical developments, diverse economic structures, and different demographic realities – the Middle East is marked by variety.

9. By all counts, in comparison, Singapore is a small country, and a young nation. Our circumstances may be different. But we understand, to some degree, what this diversity looks like. Singapore was created out of a mix of languages, cultures, ethnicity, and religions, stemming from our immigrant roots. In the early years leading up to our independence in 1965, these were fault-lines that threatened to tear our society apart. Early immigrants to Singapore would hardly have identified themselves as Singaporeans. Social ties were fragile. The slightest provocation could incite violent conflict. Our students learn about the painful lessons of the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 and the race riots in 1964.

10. The strong community relations we have today did not develop by accident. It required continuous effort, by the Government and the different race and faith communities.

11. On one hand, we have a firm hand Government put in place laws prohibiting hate speech, and other forms of hatred based on intolerance and incitement to violence. Government intervenes to ensure that there is integration, such as through ethnic quotas in public housing. This approach is not without its critics. But we do not shy away from this, because we fix our eyes on the bigger picture of a peaceful multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic country that we call home.

12. On the other hand, beyond the hard bench of law enforcement, the relational motivations are even more important. This goes beyond superficial “tolerance”, to a sincere appreciation of our commonalities and differences. Friendships must be built on goodwill and trust. Hence, we have expanded dialogues and platforms for citizens to engage one another honestly and openly, share their perspectives, and agree to disagree respectfully. It is a tough balancing act. But one we believe is necessary to protect our social fabric.

Stability Through an Economic Future

13. The Middle East has a young and vibrant population. Stability in the Middle East will depend on securing the economic future of young people. In this regard, the most valuable contribution Asia can make is one of example – of course adapted to the specific conditions of the region. In the last few decades, Asia’s focus on economic development has uplifted many from poverty.

14. In the case of Singapore, we have abided by open market and free trade principles. Singapore has signed Free Trade Agreements with Jordan, as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2018, our total trade with the Middle East grew by 21.5% from S$50.6 billion to S$61.5 billion. We encourage Singaporean companies to expand overseas, including the Middle East. Singapore companies there are active in a broad spectrum of sectors, such as oil and gas, environmental technologies and joint industrial R&D projects. Big and small companies can be found in the GCC countries, and others further afield including Israel and Egypt.


15. Singapore welcomes any who wish to study our model, and we are happy to partner others to pursue joint areas of cooperation. There is much more that both regions can do to together for mutual benefit and prosperity. In so doing, we rekindle the ancient links that bind us.

Thank you.