by Kenneth Yeo
I am currently on an overseas exchange programme in Israel, particularly because of my interest in defence, security, and unconventional threats, which Israel is quite well-known for its research on.
Israel draws close parallels to Singapore – a small nation state, without natural resources, and made up of immigrants. The relationship between both countries extends over 50 years ago, when Singapore gained independence and needed support to establish its’ military. Israel extended a helping hand. Since then, both countries have had a deep relationship, cooperating extensively in commerce and defence. But beyond trade, there is deep mutual respect citizens of both countries have for each other.
Before starting the exchange programme, I taught at the Palestinian Refugee School. One day in the teachers’ office, one of the local teachers offered me Arabic Coffee (something I’m still getting used to), and we chatted. He asked: “Where are you from?” and I told him: “Singapore”, half expecting the usual “Is it part of China?” response. That perception by the way, still seems prevalent amongst some of the other exchange students I met from Germany, France and Netherlands. In terms of the language, Singapore and China sounds very similar in Hebrew, and the confusion would not have been unexpected.
To my surprise, the teacher said: “Singapore?! You mean the country to the South of Malaysia? The country that is number one in Education? We need to learn from you!” He then shared this information with the other teachers in the school.
Since that day, every teacher in the school knows me as the “Singaporean Guy”. It is not just education they admire Singapore for. Many people were full of praise for Singapore’s responsible governance, meritocracy and discipline. In fact, there is a saying in Israel. “Think like Singaporeans, fight like Israelis.”
Of course, being a pragmatic Singaporean, I didn’t indulge too much in the praise. No system is perfect. Having gone through polytechnic before university, I know that our education systems has its flaws, especially for the less conventional students. In education and in society-at-large, we need to keep getting better at accommodating more diverse talents and interests. We are moving towards that directions that rewards merit and qualities, and not just grades.
But we can learn something else from this phrase – that we must not give up our fight whether for survival or for progress. In contrast to Singapore, Israelis live in an environment of conflict and uncertainty. Threats and challenges emerge both internally and externally. It is remarkable that their spirit remain indomitable. But these circumstances also forces them to be more vigilant, and to think more creatively and innovatively for solutions – whether in water, or military technology among others. They are willing to take more risks, and nothing is taken for granted.
Singapore, and Israel, like many smaller countries around the world will continue to be tested on its resolve, unity and agility. Our circumstances haven’t changed very much. Small, young, multi-racial/ diverse and operating in an increasingly uncertain world. But we are determined to thrive, and to excel. And we do so by remaining united, and proudly Singaporean.
The author is a young student and activist. All views are his own.