By Jesse Lempel/TPS
Jerusalem (TPS) – Over 40 years after breaking the local boycott against Israel and offering to house a makeshift Israeli embassy on his personal property, Singaporean businessman Seow Kee Quek visited the Jewish state for the first time this week.
“I am now 70 years old. It took me about 41 years to get to the place that I gave a small help to,” Quek told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
The ‘small help’ refers to Quek’s bold decision to rent space in the 1970s to the Israeli government on the 4th floor of the Oversea Union Bank building, owned by the Quek family – a prominent family in the island city-state. As a landlord, Quek even took a loss in forgoing “high returns” on the rent, he told TPS.
“None of the major property owners wanted to permit a space and every single one was afraid of local terrorism and backlash by the Muslim community,” explained Rodney Rahmani, a Jewish American friend and business partner of Quek who joined him on his visit to Israel.
“Mr. Seow Kee Quek personally stepped up and against the entire old money establishment in Singapore, made his opinion known that it is the duty and obligation of all Christians and moral people of the world to stand with Israel,” Rahmani added.
“I was frankly a little bit worried,” Quek told TPS. “But I knew that with God’s help nothing bad would happen.”
The building at 15 Scotts Road was chosen for the new Israeli contingent, Quek explained, because it housed “a bank and a vault underneath, and it was secure.”
Quek, a member of Singapore’s Christian minority, described the tumultuous period of conflict after Singapore’s founding in 1965 amid violence with the country’s Muslim neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia.
“There was bombing at the time in Singapore,” Quek said. “We had lots of trouble, and Israel was in the center of it, actually.”
The founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, revealed in his autobiography how Israel had been instrumental in creating the Singapore Armed Forces. Following its independence in November 1965, Singapore turned to several countries with a request for military consultants and material aid, including India, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. However, only Israel consented to help the newly formed nation, wrote Lee Kuan Yew.
At the time, however, the Israeli involvement was a closely guarded secret. Quek recalled with a chuckle how the founding prime minister spoke in interviews of “Mexicans” providing the young country – when in fact the help was coming from Israel.
“He couldn’t say Israelis because we are completely surrounded by Muslims countries, and it was very sensitive,” Quek told TPS.
Things have changed since then, as evidenced by last month’s visit to Israel by Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, son of the founding prime minister.
During his trip this week, Quek visited Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem – where he met with Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan. Quek professed that he was “very surprised” to meet the rabbinically bearded Ben-Dahan.
“As a rabbi, I could hardly picture how he could be in the position of deputy defense minister,” Quek told TPS. “He looks to me like Santa Clause – he’s so saintly and so sweet and smiley. How can a man like that be put in such a serious position?” Quek wondered.
On the subject of security, Quek was quick to say that he found Israel to be a thriving and secure country. Yet he also had some words of encouragement for the Middle East’s embattled democracy in its conflict with the Palestinians.