Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated on 1 July 1969 with a grand parade and march-past at the Jalan Besar Stadium presided over by then Minister for the Interior and Defence Lim Kim San.1 Public outreach activities such as camp “open houses”, exhibitions, selling of flags, and displays were held as part of the celebrations.2 The day itself was set aside for servicemen and servicewomen to reaffirm their loyalty and commitment to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the nation.3

Now known simply as SAF Day, the occasion continues to be commemorated annually through a grand parade presided over by the President of Singapore. The parade recognises the best armed forces units, remembers servicemen who have died in the line of duty, and troops the colours.4 SAF Day is also a day for employers, NSmen and those who have completed their National Service to rededicate themselves to the service of the nation.5

Defending independent Singapore
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was created following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia with the creation of the Ministry of the Interior and Defence (MID) to take charge of internal security and national defence. Dr Goh Keng Swee was the first minister, with George E. Bogaars as permanent secretary. This ministry took charge of the police, the small corps of militia volunteers, and the two Singapore Infantry Regiment battalions (1 and 2 SIR).6 The ministry’s initial objective was to build up a small professional army supported by a large People’s Defence Force (PDF) consisting of part-time volunteers. Towards this end, the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI) was established in February 1966 to train commissioned and non-commissioned officers.7

For defence and nation-building, the National Service (NS) (Amendment) Bill was introduced in March 1967.8 The new legislation mandated the compulsory conscription of 18-year-old male citizens and permanent residents for national service, the majority of conscripts to serve part-time in the PDF, Vigilante Corps or Police Special Constabulary. The top 10% of each cohort would have to serve full-time for two years. The first batch of full-time NSmen was absorbed into two new army battalions: 3 and 4 SIR.9

In January 1968, the British government announced an accelerated military withdrawal schedule that would see all British military forces out of Malaysia and Singapore by April 1971.10 This prompted the accelerated expansion of the SAF. The Enlistment Bill passed in 1970 made full-time NS compulsory for the majority of conscripts.11

Defence spending also increased and by late 1969, the SAF had expanded to six full-time infantry battalions supported by artillery, armour, combat engineer and signals units.12 In August 1970, MID was split into the Ministry of Defence, which took charge of the SAF, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controlled the internal security forces.13

The First Armed Forces Day
July 1 was first celebrated as Armed Forces Day in 1969. This special day was set aside for the armed forces to “rededicate themselves to bear true faith and allegiance to the President and the Republic, support and defend the Constitution, stay loyal to the country, people and Government, and defend the honour and independence of the Republic of Singapore”.14

The day started with a main muster parade at MID headquarters on Pearl’s Hill as well as several other smaller parades at various SAF camps. During the parades, a message from Lim, who had replaced Goh as interior and defence minister, was read. The message reminded the armed forces of their mission to “build a multi-racial nation in which there is stability, equality, opportunity, prosperity and freedom for all”.15 This message was especially pertinent to the SAF, which had already proved to be a disciplined and professional multiracial force during the May 1969 racial riots.16

Student members of the National Cadet Corps also held their own parades in schools where they took oaths of loyalty. In a separate message to the cadets, Lim reminded them that they had to be always ready to “defend all that we, as a multiracial society stand for”.17

Celebrations on the day ended with a grand parade and march-past in the evening at the Jalan Besar Stadium presided over by the minister. More than 1,500 men and women infantry battalions, SAFTI, PDF, artillery, engineers and the Singapore Maritime Command (SMC) took part in the parade. Lim presented 3 SIR with the SAF Flag for winning the best unit award.18  In his speech, Lim described the presentation of the flag as “symbolic of the trust the nation has placed upon the armed forces” and the flag itself as “a focal point of our loyalty to the Republic’s Armed Forces”.19

Outreach activities
Various public outreach activities were organised in conjunction with the first Armed Forces Day. Military camps in Bedok, Taman Jurong, Guillemard and Holland Road were open to the public during the first week of July. Visitors were shown various aspects of life for NS soldiers.20

There was a month-long armed forces and police exhibition at the Beach Road Camp that traced the development of Singapore’s military and security forces from 1819 to 1969.21 Some 700 cadets and girls from the PDF sold red-and-white paper flags with a lion’s head above crossed swords and a gun that day. Funds raised were to be donated to local ex-servicemen and volunteers who fought during World War II. This new practice was meant to replace Poppy’s Day, which was a British tradition of selling red paper poppies on November 11 (Armistice Day) to commemorate those who died in World War I.22

The highlight of the first Armed Forces Day celebrations was a joint police and military display for the public held at the Jalan Besar Stadium. The two-hour programme included physical training, taekwondo martial arts, arms, combat, foot and rifle drills performed by NSmen, formation and precision riding stunts by the Police Mobile Squad gymkhana team; the hoisting of a ship’s mast by the SMC; and a “singing rifles” performance by the combined bands of the Police, SIR and Gurkhas bagpipes. Tickets for the three-day display were sold at S$1 and S$0.50 and the proceeds donated to the National Defence Fund.23
Continuing a tradition
The Armed Forces Day tradition lives on today as SAF Day. The occasion is commemorated with a grand parade presided over by the President of Singapore and the Minister for Defence. The parade includes the servicemen reciting the SAF pledge in which they reaffirm their loyalty and commitment to Singapore. There is then an observance of a one-minute silence to remember those who died in the course of duty.

The highlight of the parade is the presentation of awards to the best SAF units by the defence minister and the presentation of the SAF state colours to the best combat unit by the president. A trooping the colours ceremony is then performed to allow servicemen to recognise their regimental colours.24 In addition to the parade, SAF Day rededication ceremonies are held across the island. First introduced in 1987, the ceremonies are for employers to pledge their support for Total Defence and for NSmen to rededicate themselves to national defence.25

1. R. Chandran, “1,500 in Big Parade,” Straits Times, 2 July 1969, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Flags, Not Poppies, in S’pore Now,” Straits Times, 29 June 1969, 3; “S’pore Forces Show They’re ‘Fighting Fit’ at Display,” Straits Times, 1 July 1969, 4; “Life in an N-Service Camp,” Straits Times, 3 July 1969, 8; “Explaining the Workings of Jeep-Mounted Gun That Doesn’t Kick Back,” Straits Times, 6 July 1969, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “A Special Day for Republic’s Armed Forces from This Year Onwards,” Straits Times, 26 June 1969, 8. (From NewspaperSG); Lim Kin San, “The Armed Forces Day Parade,” speech, Jalan Besar Stadium, 1 July 1969, transcript, Ministry of Culture, 2. (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. PressR19690701); Ministry of Defence, “History of SAF Day Parade,” news release, 21 June 2013.
4. Singapore. Ministry of Defence, Our Army Customs and Traditions: Understanding Why We Do What We Do (Singapore: Mindef, 2006), 85, 88.
5. “Guide to Organising the SAF Day Rededication Ceremony,” Ministry of Defence, March 2013, 1.
6. Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore (N. S. W.: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 9. (Call no. RSING 355.3095957 HUX); G. Foo-Tan, “The Ministry of Interior and Defence,” This month in HISTORY, 7, no. 11 (November 2003): 1.  
7. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 10.
8. Singapore. Parliament, Second and Third Readings of the National Service (Amendment) Bill, vol. 25 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 14 March 1967, cols. 1197–1257. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
9. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 13.
10. Malcolm H. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 328–329. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET)
11. Singapore. Parliament, Second and Third Readings of the Enlistment Bill, vol. 25 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 21 May 1970, cols. 48–55. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
12. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 13.
13. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 13.
14. “Special Day for Republic’s Armed Forces.”
15. Chandran, “1,500 in Big Parade.” 
16. Mickey Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service (Singapore: MINDEF Public Affairs, 1997), 79–80. (Call no. RSING 355.22 CHI)
17. Chandran, “1,500 in Big Parade.” 
18.  “Special Day for Republic’s Armed Forces”; Chandran, “1,500 in Big Parade”; “Machine Gun Girls of Singapore Step Out,” Straits Times, 3 July 1969, 9. (From NewspaperSG); “SAF Day Parade 2007 – Award Winners: 1969–1980,”  Ministry of Defence, 30 May 2007.
19. Lim, “Armed Forces Day Parade,” 2.
20. “Life in an N-Service Camp,” Straits Times, 3 July 1969, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Explaining the Workings of Jeep-Mounted Gun.”
22. “Flags, Not Poppies, in S’pore Now,” Straits Times, 29 June 1969, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Chandran, “1,500 in Big Parade.” 
23. “Joint Police and Military Show for Defence Fund,” Straits Times, 20 June 1969, 5; “S’pore Forces Show They’re ‘Fighting Fit’ at Display,” Straits Times, 1 July 1969, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Ministry of Defence, “Our Army Customs and Traditions,” 85, 88.
25. “SAF Day Combined Rededication Ceremony,” Ministry of Defence, last updated 1 July 2011.  

Further resource
Shaun Seah, “A Rugged Society: Adventure and Nation-Building,” BiblioAsia 16, no. 4 (2020).

The information in this article is valid as at 17 October 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Singapore Armed Forces Day
Politics and Government
Singapore. Armed Forces