The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)
A Deep, Dark, Secret Love
(A team of IDF officers, known as
the ‘Mexicans’, helped Singapore establish an army. It was the start of a
very special relationship.)
By Amnon Barzilai
Christmas Eve, 1965, is the unofficial
date of the start of the great and continuing love story between Israel
and Singapore, a love affair that was kept a deep, dark secret. The
international press, like the Israeli media, tried to bring the tale to
light. Occasionally, scraps of information leaked out; some were
published, some were denied, many were disregarded. The Israelis, as
usual, wanted to rush to tell all their friends, but managed to overcome
that desire. The fear that the ties would be terminated if they became
public knowledge had its effect. Israel imposed a total blackout on the
story and the secret was preserved. Until the other side could no longer
In his book, "From Third World to
First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000," published in 2000, Lee Kuan Yew,
Singapore's founding father and its first prime minister, disclosed the
secret that had been kept for almost 40 years: It was the Israel Defense
Forces that established the Singaporean army. The Israeli military mission
was headed by Yaakov (Jack) Elazari, then a colonel, who was later promoted
to brigadier general. After leaving the army, he became a consultant to
the Singaporean army. He died 15 years ago. "To disguise their presence,
we called them `Mexicans.' They looked swarthy enough," Lee wrote.
Singapore's army is today considered
the strongest and most advanced of the military forces in Southeast Asia.
The alliance between the Israeli and Singaporean defence establishments
intensified and expanded, and it now encompasses cooperation between the
two countries' military industries, as well. The scope of the deals,
according to foreign sources, indicates that the Singaporean army is one
of the major clients of Israeli combat means and military technology.
Singapore's aircraft industry is cooperating with its Israeli counterpart
and with Elbit Systems in upgrading the F-5 warplanes of the Turkish Air
Force. A few years ago, Singapore's defence minister revealed that the Gil
antitank missile, which is manufactured by Raphael (Israel Armaments
Development Authority), was developed in cooperation between the two
Surrounded By Muslims
Lee explained the need to maintain
secrecy to his close friend in the leadership, and the first defence
minister in his government, Dr. Goh Keng Swee. "We have to ensure, as far
as possible, that the arrival of the Israelis will not become public
knowledge, in order not to arouse opposition among the Malay Muslims who
live in Malaysia and Singapore," the prime minister summed up. That, in
essence, is Singapore's problem. The residents of the small island, which
has an area of about 670 square kilometres (Israel is 30 times as large),
are mainly Chinese, and they live between the two Muslim countries of
Malaysia and Indonesia. Life in the shadow of the large Muslim majority
and fear of a Malaysian incursion are an integral part of the history of
the two countries. Until 1965, Singapore was part of Malaysia. In that
year, the British government decided to withdraw from all its colonies
east of the Suez Canal. In a rapid process it was decided to sever
Singapore from Malaysia and to establish it as a new and separate
Singapore declared its independence on
August 9, 1965. At the time of its creation, it had only two infantry
regiments, which had been established and were commanded by British
officers. Two-thirds of the soldiers were not residents of Singapore, and
in any event the leaders of the nascent state had no faith in the strength
of the minuscule army. The defence minister, Goh, contacted Mordechai
Kidron, the former Israeli ambassador to Thailand, and asked for
assistance. Kidron arrived in Singapore within days, along with Hezi
Carmel of the Mossad. "Goh told us that they think that only Israel, a
small country surrounded by Muslim countries, with a strong army, could
help them build a small, dynamic army," Carmel says. The two Israelis met
with Lee, who writes that he "told Keng Swee to put it on hold until Lal
Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister of India, and President Nasser of
Egypt replied to my letters seeking their urgent help to build up our
It's not clear whether Lee, in fact,
believed India and Egypt were capable of, or interested in, building up
Singapore's army. Many Israelis believe the two leaders were approached
only for appearance's sake. After a few weeks of waiting, India and Egypt
congratulated Singapore on its independence but did not offer military
aid. Lee ordered Goh to push ahead in contacts with the Israelis.
At the same time, in the wake of
reports sent by Kidron and Carmel, the Israeli defence establishment
deployed to supply military aid to Singapore. In discussions conducted by
the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, with the participation of the deputy
chief of staff and head of the Operations Branch, Ezer Weizmann, it was
decided to make Major General Rehavam Ze'evi, who was then deputy head of
the Operations Branch, responsible for building the Singaporean army.
Ze'evi (nicknamed "Gandhi" ) paid a secret visit to Singapore and the
preparatory work began on his return. "Gandhi said he wanted to create an
ideal army for Singapore, something we hadn't built here," Carmel says.
"Instead of setting up a Defence Ministry and a General Staff, Gandhi
suggested an integrated organization, a more economical structure. So
there wouldn't be too many generals and too few soldiers."
Ze'evi appointed Elazari, who worked
under him in the Operations Branch, as head of the team he established.
Lieutenant Colonel Yehuda Golan, then-commander of an armoured division
(he retired from the IDF with the rank of brigadier general), was
subsequently added to the team. Some members of the team "concentrated on
writing the chapters that dealt with building army bases. I wrote the
chapters dealing with the establishment of an infantry," Golan says.
Initially they produced the "Brown Book," dealing with combat doctrine,
followed by the "Blue Book," dealing with the creation of the Defence
Ministry and intelligence bodies. The Brown Book was translated into
English and sent to Singapore's government for its perusal. In
October1965, a military delegation from Singapore arrived in Israel.
"The delegation arrived in order to
tell us: "Well done, but to implement the book, you are invited to come to
Singapore," Golan recalls. Prior to setting out, the members of the
military mission were invited to the chief of staff's bureau. "Dear
friends," Rabin said, "I want you to remember several things. One, we are
not going to turn Singapore into an Israeli colony. Your task is to teach
them the military profession, to put them on their legs so they can run
their own army. Your success will be if at a certain stage they will be
able to take the wheel and run the army by themselves. Second, you are not
going there in order to command them but to advise them. And third, you
are not arms merchants. When you recommend items to procure, use the
purest professional military judgment. I want total disregard of their
decision as to whether to buy here or elsewhere."
Wake-Up At 5:30 A.M.
On December 24, 1965, about five months
after Singapore became an independent state, six IDF officers and their
families set out on an unknown mission. "Elazari and two other officers
dealt with the establishment of the Defence Ministry," Golan relates.
Elazari operated according to a number
of basic principles, from which the original Israeli team and those who
followed did not deviate. The first was to build up a cadre of local
commanders and instructors. The second was that the instructional material
would be written by the cadets who would be trained as officers. And the
third was that practical
training would be conducted by Singaporean instructors.
"We wanted to recruit a group of
people who had some sort of military experience and would be ready to
serve in a career army," Golan explains. "We organized things so that they
would appoint one of their number to serve as commander. As head of the
group, the cadets chose someone of Indian origin named Kirpa Ram Vij, who
would eventually become chief of staff of the Singapore Armed Forces. For
three months we gave an intensified officers course."
The first course had an IDF format:
wake-up at 5:30 a.m., callisthenics, personal arrangements, parade.
Training began at 7:30 a.m. and went until 1 A.M. "After a few days of
training a group of cadets showed up and said, ‘Colonel Golan, the Arabs
aren't sitting on our heads here. What do we need this madness for?' I
called Elazari and explained the situation. He arrived a few days later
with Defense Minister Dr. Goh, who told the cadets, `Do what Colonel Golan
tells you to do, otherwise you will do double.” Parallel to conducting the
course, the Israeli team supervised the establishment of the first
military base, based on plans of the Israeli Engineering Corps.
Construction of the base was completed in three months. In under a year,
the Israeli team conducted a course for new recruits, a platoon commanders
course and an officers course, on the basis of plans that were sent from
Israel. All told, about 200 commanders were trained.
Jobless Instead Of Soldiers
Once the staff of commanders was ready,
it was possible to start creating the standing army on the basis of
conscription. The Israelis prepared to establish two more infantry
regiments, according to the IDF model, with each regiment consisting of
three companies of riflemen, an auxiliary company and an administrative
company - a total of 600 soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Shefi, who was
an instructor in a company commanders course, was sent as an adviser. "We
discovered that there was psychological resistance to conscription in
Singapore," he relates. "Of 10 professions, that of soldier was ranked
last. In first place was the artist, followed by the philosopher, the
teacher and the merchant, and the thief was in ninth place. Soldiering was
considered a contemptible profession. In Singapore, conscription
The Israelis faced a problem. To evade service, most of the young men of draft age (18-24) who were of Chinese origin furnished proof that they were employed. Some 70 percent of the inductees were unemployed and of Malaysian origin - the opposite of their proportion within the population. Elazari and Golan complained to Lee and Goh, but the prime minister was undeterred. "I want you to recruit the most primitive people in the country, the uneducated and the jobless," he told them.
Stunned, the Israelis tried to persuade
him to reconsider, but he was adamant: "In the Second World War, I saw the
Japanese and the British. All the British soldiers were intelligent and
educated. But as soldiers they were worthless. The most primitive Japanese
soldier gets an order and executes it, and they were extraordinary
Golan says, "Yaakov and I tried to
explain to him that it's not a question of education but of motivation.
The Japanese soldier was motivated because he was fighting for his
emperor, who for him was God. For him, he was ready to sacrifice his life.
Along with the two tracks of compulsory
service and career army, Singapore also adopted the IDF's model of reserve
service. Every soldier who completed his regular service was obligated to
serve another 13 years, until the age of 33. A system to mobilize there
serves was established and the Defence Ministry carried out
surprise call-up exercises. Because of
its small size and its lack of areas for live-fire training, Singapore had
to establish training bases in friendly neighbouring countries.
The unquiet in Singapore, and above all
the fear of an invasion by Malay forces, together with the rapid
development of the Singaporean army, generated additional needs. With the
creation of the infantry, the Israeli team made an in-depth study of the
battles fought by the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II and
of how they succeeded in invading Malaysia and Singapore. Shefi was given
the task of delivering a talk on the subject to Singapore's
On the basis of the lessons the
Israelis drew from the engagements fought by Japan and Britain, they
created a naval force based on sampans. "The boats were made of wood and
could carry10 to 15 soldiers, and they were appropriate for the conditions
of the sea and for the jungle rivers," Golan says. "On a stormy sea they
can be operated with oars or a motor. We asked the Singaporeans to
purchase20 boats and we set up a small base where infantry companies
trained in raids and navigation."
Retired Colonel Asher Dar says, "The
second team that arrived in Singapore applied what Yehuda Golan did in the
form of combat doctrine. We trained in flanking manoeuvres with
small boats and in live fire using artillery. When the head of the
training department, Yitzhak Hofi, visited Singapore, we carried out a
model landing of an infantry brigade that set sail in boats at night at a
distance of 12kilometers with the aid of shore navigation only."
The waiting period in Israel on the eve
of the 1967 Six-Day War was a rough time for the Israeli team in Singapore.
"We were relieved the Israelis were not defeated or our SAF [Singapore
Armed Forces] would have lost confidence" in the Israeli instructors, Lee
writes. In January 1968, Singapore decided to create an armoured corps. In
great secrecy, an agreement was signed for the purchase of 72 AMX-13light
tanks from IDF surplus. It was a bold decision: Malaysia, the country's
large neighbour, didn't have tanks.
On Independence Day, August 9, 1969, a
major surprise awaited the invited guests, including the defence minister
of Malaysia: 30 tanks rolled past the reviewing stand. "It had a dramatic
effect," Lee writes. Malaysia had cause for concern. Its defence minister
recommended to his guests that they take steps to persuade the
In the wake of the Israeli victory in
1967, the veil of secrecy over the ties between the two countries was
lifted a bit. The Singapore delegate at the United Nations abstained in a
vote on a resolution condemning Israel that was sponsored by the Arab
states. Contacts began to establish full diplomatic relations. In October
1968,Lee permitted Israel to establish a trade mission and in May
1969authorization was given for the establishment of an Israeli
embassy in Singapore. The status of the Israeli military mission to
Singapore was also strengthened, and the mission heads who followed held
brigadier general rank. The first Israeli military delegation laid
Foundations Of The Air
The small Israeli team in Singapore was
augmented by professional military advisers for the various corps. The
chief armoured corps officer, Major General Abraham Adan, arrived to give
advice on procuring armoured vehicles. In 1968, Adam Tzivoni, a retired
colonel who had been head of the planning and weapons branch in the
"As compensation for the hasty departure of the British army, the British government gave Singapore a grant of 50million pounds to acquire British-made aerial systems: planes, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles," Tzivoni relates. "The British didn't like me at all. My first task was to approve the deals. It turned out that the English tried to sell Singapore junk. Apart from a deal for Hunters, I vetoed all the deals. "Under Tzivoni's supervision, a flight school was established in Singapore, as well as a technical school, a squadron of Alouette 3 helicopters was purchased and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns were acquired.
Uzis And Israeli Marching
After the creation of the Singaporean army's infantry regiments, the question arose of what weapons the nascent armed forces would use. The commanding officers wanted the Uzi, the Israeli submachine gun. The Israeli team took an objective view and rejected the idea. True, the Uzi was considered a superb weapon in the 1960s, but only for short ranges.
A regular army needs an assault rifle,
the Israeli team asserted. Representatives of Israel Military Industries
exerted pressure on the Defence Ministry to sell the new Galil assault
rifle. However, the team decided that the rifle wasn't yet full ready and
recommended the American M-16.
Another major headache for the Israelis
concerned the decision about which mortars to procure for the new army.
Infantry regiments are equipped with 60 - 52 mm and 18 mm mortars. The
weapons, which were developed and manufactured by the Soltam company,
based in the town of Yokne'am, were sold to the Israel Defence Forces and
exported worldwide. "Even though we thought these were the best
The Israeli team asked a British firm
that dealt in organization and consultation on military subjects to
examine a series of mortars and recommend the best one. The report stated
that the best of the lot was an 18 mm mortar manufactured in Britain.
However, considering the price, the recommendation was to buy the Soltam
product. The Singapore Armed Forces acquired the Israeli mortar.
"The Israelis emphasized military
skills and high motivation. Smartness on parade and military tattoo, the
SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] never learned from the `Mexicans.' Whatever
smartness the SAF had" derived from the British officers who commanded the
army's first two regiments, Lee writes.
"Our motto was that we would not stick
our nose into what the Singaporeans could do themselves," Golan notes.
"They wanted us to organize the Independence Day parade for them. We
argued that a state military parade reflects the country's mentality
The Jungle Combat Manual
The Singaporeans took the Israelis by
surprise when they insisted on getting a course on jungle
combat. Singapore has a tiny natural jungle of no more than five or six
square kilometres, but the neighbouring states have larger jungles. Yehuda
Golan: "I told them they were right but that I wasn't the right guy,
because I knew
"Three months later, the two officers
returned with the knowledge they acquired in Malaysia, and we decided to
conduct a course in jungle combat," Golan continues. "Out of curiosity, I
decided to join. It looked very bad - it was clear that they had taught
them British methods from the Second World War period. I decided to take
Time Lapse Video of Singapore