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Blame the Latest Israel-Arab War on... Singapore?

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Israel's last big military venture into Gaza began soon after Barack Obama's 2008 election and before his 2009 inauguration. It's more than ironic that this is happening again between Obama's re-election and his coming re-installation.

But here I won't get into conspiracy theories or into "who started it" in 1936, 1948, 1967, 1973, 2006, 2009, or now. Been there, done that, and, tragically, not enough has changed since the last time.

What I do have now that I didn't in 2009 is a small part of the story of Israel's militarization that sheds light on Israel's inclinations and strategic judgments. Before telling it, let me emphasize that ever since I assessed the first Gaza war, online and on NPR, I've considered Hamas' end game and how it does business inexcusable. But equally so -- and arguably more stupid, because unsustainable -- has been Israel's long "holding pen" strategy against Gaza and, arguably, the West Bank.

Now that each side has again provoked the other's darkest impulses, I can offer only a bit of background to the tactically and technologically clever but strategically and politically bone-headed conduct of Israeli politicians. It concerns a country whose similarities to Israel are a lot more striking than its obvious differences.

In 1965, when Singapore declared its independence, its first prime-minister (and, for many years, its virtual dictator) Lee Kuan Yew asked Israel to design, set up, and supervise its military machine. Israel did precisely that. How successfully? Just this month, the Bonn International Center for Conversion published a world-wide survey ranking Israel the world's most militarized nation -- and Singapore the second-most.

You can read about the Bonn Center's ranking here. To find out how Israel and Singapore actually got together on this, you'd have to have been reading accounts like this one on "Israel's Deep Dark Secret Love Affair" with Singapore in Haaretz, one of several Israeli newspapers that, even when partisan, are far more open about Israel itself than major U.S. news organizations are.

I knew nothing about this love affair in 2009, when, while watching office parks and eight-lane expressways gliding by my window on a Tel Aviv-to-Haifa train, I mentioned to my wife that Israel has become the Singapore of the Middle East. I had no idea then that Singapore had long been the Israel of Southeast Asia not only economically and geo-politically -- as a glance at a couple of maps and statistical tables will suggest -- but militarily, with all the intimacy of that "Deep, Dark, Secret Love Affair" that's now nearly 50 years old.

The similarities of these two little engines that could (and did) become models of state capitalism with high per capita incomes and growth rates haven't often been noted. Both have been governed and stamped by the British. Both have populations of 5 or 6 million, including 2 or 3 million second-class citizens and non-citizens, some of them migrants, some of them openly despised.

Both Israel and Singapore are non-Muslim, and both face much larger, less-than-friendly Muslim neighbors -- in Singapore's case, Indonesia and Malaysia, the latter of which expelled Singapore in 1965 (or lost it, depending on who's telling), amid high racial tensions.

Yet another striking analogy involves the fact that the politically dominant majority of Singapore's population consists not of indigenous natives but of "overseas" Han Chinese," whose literary and commercial strengths long ago earned them the sobriquet "the Jews of Southeast Asia" and the envy and resentment due a wealthy, elitist, and supple minority.

Like Jews who live outside Israel, the Han Chinese are minorities in most countries outside China, but here a real difference dogs the similarity. The similarity is that in Singapore, the Chinese are 75% of the population, and Malays are 15%, Indians 8%' in Israel, Jews are 76%, with the rest mostly Palestinian Arabs, most of them Muslim some of them Christian. In Singapore the Chinese have a status, power, and reputation that will sound familiar to Palestinians and others who regard Israel's Jews as arrogant interlopers.

The difference is that Israel's Jews, unlike Singapore's Chinese, have never been the rooted, dominant majority in any other country besides ancient Israel itself, where Hebrew was spoken 700 years before Arabic. And there are other differences of consequence: Singapore is an island, a micro-state smaller in area and population than New York City's five boroughs. Israel is 30 times larger, geographically, and in some ways more dangerous and endangered.

That said, Singapore's and Israel's situations at international crossroads of trade and power at opposite ends of the Asian continent incline them both to serve as investment and cultural entrepots and as political mediators. Without oil, water, or minerals to speak of, both live mainly by their wits, which is to say by trade. But both are compelled to militarize, and both have formidable armed forces, with defense budgets that consume 5 or 6% of GDP, a proportion much higher than that of all but a few other nations, including even China.

The International Political Review calls Singapore's armed forces "the most technologically advanced military in Southeast Asia" and notes that while everyone in the region fears China and no one could prevail against a Chinese onslaught, China fears that any such onslaught would bring a very painful Singapore Sting.

The punchline to all this, not very funny but very, very true, is that no sooner had Singapore gained its independence in August 1965 than its British-educated founder and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew (whose eldest son is now prime minister), invited Israel to organize his armed forces, because he saw all the parallels between the two young nations that I've just noted.

On Christmas Eve, 1965, six Israel Defense Force officers and their families moved to Singapore, followed by waves of consulting teams that established the country's "Total Defense" combat doctrines, its recruitment and training regimens, its intelligence services, and its state-of-art arms procurement.

"We are not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony," chief of staff and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin admonished these teams. He needn't have worried. Singapore's highly intelligent, eloquent, ruthlessly energetic dictator knew how to collaborate without being colonized, something one couldn't say about some of the Americans he's been collaborating with most recently. He was as deft and determined as the Han Chinese in other countries who, even as minorities, dominate major industries, banks, and even English-language media in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The Israelis militarized Singaporean society, even with Israeli military songs, to which Lee's soldiers marched in one of Singapore's first real Independence Day parades. Less symbolically, they showed Singapore how to establish military conscription in a hitherto un-militaristic populace that, according to at least one survey, ranked the profession of soldier far below that of thief, while placing artists, teachers and merchants on top.

So determined was Lee to adjust this that when Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, vindicating his decision to work with it and boosting Singaporeans' confidence in their Jewish military mentors, Singapore's UN delegation surprised other Third World nations by abstaining on a resolution condemning Israel.

Israelis persuaded Lee to make conscription universal to tap well-educated, prosperous Han Chinese as well as the Malay, Indian, and other minorities. That produced an intelligent, dynamic army and a disciplined male student population, and non-Singaporean university students at the country's universities can receive substantial tuition subsidies but must accept what the National University of Singapore calls "a service bond under the terms of the tuition grant to work for a Singapore-registered company for three years upon completion of their degrees so as to discharge some of their obligations to the Singapore public." In some professions, the mandatory service is to government agencies, for up to six years. Such disciplined incentives produce more than a little griping, but little softness or self-indulgence.

All this has posed an exquisitely discomfiting dilemma for Yale's neoconservatives, who never hesitate to ridicule leftists who've collaborated with authoritarian "Third World" regimes. Now they find themselves looking into a mirror and falling spookily silent about Yale's collaboration with Singapore in setting up an undergraduate liberal arts college.

When Shaunziming Tan published a damning essay about Yale's and other Western universities' collaborations with such regimes, Michael Rubin of the neoconservative flagship Commentary Magazine commented, quite rightly, that

"Foreigners flock to American universities because of their freedom and opportunity. How sad it is then, as Tan describes, that so many American university presidents are willing to compromise basic values in order to make a quick buck, often padding endowments which already reach billions of dollars. That will not bring progress; it is simply intellectual prostitution."

Unlike Yale in Singapore, Israel was smart enough to keep its name out of the public eye at the time, eager though it was to advance its national interests and prestige.

So it's noteworthy -- and perhaps commendable -- that Rubin condemned Yale and other universities for accommodating to an authoritarian regime that has worked so closely with Israelis without drawing criticism from defenders of authoritarian regimes at Commentary.

At least this should teach other neoconservatives what Yitzhak Rabin and Lee Kuan Yew always understood and what I learned after my epiphany on the road to Haifa: matters like these cannot be viewed clearly through binary, left-vs.-right lenses: Leftists who supported "people's liberation struggles" by helping to harvest sugar cane in Cuba or crops in early Israeli socialist kibbutzim believed that nation-building requires disciplined struggle and sacrifice to lay the groundwork for prosperity and, with it, national pride, often at cost to individual freedom.

But even in the 1960's, when Singapore was getting underway, it was already more authoritarian in its nation-building than Israel had been, at least among its own Jewish citizens, but even to some extent among Arabs who became citizens of Israel. Perhaps that was because Jews, fleeing recent destruction and facing new/ancient enemies with Western Enlightenment traditions, some of them as socialists, bonded in relatively more democratic, egalitarian ways.

Although Singaporean society hasn't had to be on military alert as much as Israel, neither has it become the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, a region bristling with huge armies. Singapore does have enough economic and military power to take another bit of advice that the Israelis of Rabin's time gave it and should take more seriously themselves than they have under Netanyahu: Keep your vast military under the radar, if possible while strengthening and showcasing your diplomatic, cultural, and educational offerings.

Singapore is trying to become the education center of Southeast Asia by setting up a liberal arts college that bears Yale's imprimatur, while controlling the showcase as tightly as it does the military. "Increasingly we are noted for taking up the knowledge industries and doing cutting edge stuff," says Ambassador Chan.

Note, though, that, in this official view, education is an "industry," perhaps even a "cutting edge" weapon of sorts. Can any liberal democracy ever hope to flourish while pacing a gilded but iron cage?

Correction: This post originally misstated that Michael Rubin "has propagandized for war with Iran" and has since been updated.

Correction: This post originally misstated the terms of Singapore's incentive program for university students. This has since been updated.