Misusing the Singapore Flag and Other National Symbols

Last updated on February 17, 2023

Singapore national flag

In 2011, a YouTube clip showing then-Member of Parliament Penny Low using her phone during the singing of the National Anthem at the National Day Parade went viral. The response from netizens was swift yet divided. While some criticised her actions as being disrespectful, others viewed them as a sign of her national pride and eagerness to share the proceedings with her constituents.

What do the Singapore statutes offer on this controversial issue? Of course, most Singaporeans would know that articles such as the National Flag would be protected by Singapore law. However, does this protection extend to other less commonly-known symbols? What exactly constitutes a misuse of these National Symbols? This article seeks to answer these questions and explains the consequences and penalties for misusing National Symbols in Singapore.

It will cover:

What are the National Symbols in Singapore? 

The National Symbols were first introduced in 1959, where three symbols were unveiled during the installation of Encik Yusof bin Ishak as the Head of State – the National Flag, the National Anthem and the National Coat of Arms. Alongside the symbols, the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules (SAFNA) was passed in 1959 as a statutory form of protection against their misuse. The following are currently classified as Singapore’s National Symbols:

  • National Flag
    • Consists of 2 equal horizontal sections, red above white. In the upper left canton is a white crescent moon, beside 5 white stars arranged in a circle.
  • National Anthem
    • The official recognised anthem that most Singaporeans are undoubtedly familiar with – all primary and secondary schools sing the National Anthem and recite the Pledge during their morning assembly/flag-raising. 
  • National Coat of Arms
    • Consists of a shield depicting a white crescent moon and 5 white stars against a red background. A lion on the left and a tiger on the right support the shield. Below the shield is a banner with the words “Majulah Singapura” inscribed on it.

There has been an ongoing movement to rewrite the book on the topic of National Symbols. In 2022, the National Symbols Bill (NSB) was passed in Parliament. While it has yet to become law, on its codification, the NSB will repeal and replace SAFNA. Additionally, it seeks to extend the National Symbol status to more symbols, specifically:

  • The National Pledge
    • Much like the National Anthem, most Singaporeans have undoubtedly recited the National Pledge in their schooling days. The exact words of the National Pledge are stipulated in the First Schedule of the NSB. 
  • The Public Seal of Singapore
    • Consists of the National Coat of Arms of Singapore encircled by the words “Republic of Singapore”.
  • The Lion Head Symbol
    • A depiction of the Lion Head Symbol is available in the First Schedule of the NSB. 
  • The National Flower
    • More commonly known as the Vanda Miss Joaquim (Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim).

What Does It Mean to Misuse the National Symbols?

In general, most people have a very simple idea when it comes to National Symbols – as long as respect is accorded to them, all will be well. However, SAFNA details more specific guidelines for how you should use National Symbols. While showing respect is a general rule surrounding National Symbols, the guidelines for usage also differ for each unique National Symbol.

Admittedly, the general rule of treating National Symbols with respect has not been elaborated on in SAFNA. However, in 2022, the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY) released a statement of intention laying out clear guidelines for using National Symbols, including examples of what constitutes disrespectful use in the NSB.

Misuse of the National Flag

In 2015, a junior diplomat at the Israeli Embassy used the Singapore Flag as a table cloth at a party. Following investigations by the police, the Israeli Ambassador was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a statement of apology was later issued by the Israeli Embassy.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside the political realm, residents have also used the National Flag for a variety of purposes – covering shoe racks, canopy covers, etc.

These are some of the more obvious misuses of the National Flag. However, what exactly are the regulations surrounding the use of the National Flag?

What constitutes misuse of the National Flag? 

One of the most important principles embodied in SAFNA is that in all uses of the National Flag, you must treat the National Flag with respect. While this is not further elaborated on, a common-sensical approach is best.

Specifically, and subject to the approval of the Minister, you may not use the National Flag, or any image of it, for:

  • Commercial purposes (i.e. incorporating the flag on any commercial product for sale);
  • Advertisements (newspaper advertisements, television advertisements, etc.);
  • Events relating to death (funeral proceedings, wake, memorial services, etc.);
  • Costumes or attire (shirts, dresses, etc.);
  • Furnishing or decoration (curtains, blinds, etc.);
  • Covering objects (tablecloths, banners, etc.); or
  • Containing objects (i.e. paper, plastic or refuse bag).

Additionally, should you wish to display the National Flag outside a building, it must be displayed on or in front of the building. In an open space, the National Flag is to be flown from a flagpole, and properly illuminated at all times.

With regard to vehicles, while it is possible to obtain approval from the MCCY Minister, the general rule is that non-government vehicles may not display the National Flag.

However, in cases of:

  • Trademarks; or
  • Modifications to the design of the National Flag on production (barring Government departments),

the general rule is that you are not allowed to do so, with no exceptions.

Additionally, any display of a damaged or improper and unclean flag constitutes misuse. While SAFNA does not go into greater detail on impropriety, a rule of thumb would be to ensure the National Flag is unmodified and in pristine condition.

National Day celebrations period

That being said, during the National Day Celebrations Period (from 1st July to 30th September), certain guidelines in SAFNA are relaxed. Namely, 

  • The National Flag may be incorporated into non-commercial visuals. This includes Flag decals and stickers, posters or other visual images;
  • The National Flag may be displayed on all vehicles (other than a hearse);
  • The National Flag or an image thereof may be incorporated as part of any costume or attire;
  • The National Flag may, but need not, be flown from a flagpole, and need not be properly illuminated.

While no approval is required during this period, users should ensure that:

  • There is no disrespect to the National Flag;
  • Any Flags produced or displayed should not bear any graphics or words superimposed on the design of the Flag;
  • The Flag should not be displayed below any other flag, emblem or object.

Finally, for commercial purposes such as advertisements, any use of the National Flag is subject to approval from the MCCY.

Misuse of the National Anthem 

When can you perform it?

You are allowed to perform the National Anthem when the President receives a general salute. For instance, the National Anthem is played at every National Day Parade, when the President is receiving a general salute.

Additionally, the National Anthem may be performed or sung on any appropriate occasion. This is usually during solemn occasions, in line with the general rule of showing respect to National Symbols. An example of this would be singing the National Anthem during school assemblies, where respect is being shown to the National Symbol.

How can you perform it?

In 2019, the National Day Parade featured Ramli Sarip, who performed a “gritty and soulful” rendition of the National Anthem. Though this was met with controversy among the general public due to the different style spun on the performing of the National Anthem, there was no controversy from a legal standpoint – the rendition was in line with SAFNA.

In the same year, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed a rendition of the National Anthem that featured a few minor rearrangements – changes in tempo, better audio equipment being used, more youths in the singing section, and so on. There were even more drastic changes to the National Anthem previously – in 2001, the SSO adjusted the key of the tune a tone lower. However, as was the case of Ramli Sarip, these rearrangements were completely acceptable in the eyes of the law.

So, what exactly are the rules surrounding the performance or singing of the National Anthem? SAFNA provides that though musical rearrangements are allowed (provided due respect is shown), you cannot:

  • Incorporate it into any other composition or medley;
  • Sing any translation of the lyrics; or
  • Perform part of it. In other words, regardless of the arrangement, the complete tune and the complete official lyrics of the National Anthem must be performed.

In summary, should you wish to add a unique twist to the National Anthem, be sure not to stray too far from it.

Misuse of the Coat of Arms 

In 2022, Pine Garden Bakery posted a picture of their “passport cake” on Facebook – modelled after the Singapore passport. This was met with a swift response from MCCY, which informed the Bakery that the cake was in violation of the laws surrounding use of the National Coat of Arms. The cake was no longer in production following MCCY’s order.

SAFNA is more stringent for the Coat of Arms compared to its other counterparts. Though exceptions can be made with prior written permission of any authorised officer or the MCCY Minister, the general rule is that the Coat of Arms is limited to government use, and not for public use.

In essence, you are not allowed to:

  • Print, publish, manufacture, sell, offer for sale or exhibit for sale
  • Cause to be printed, published, manufactured, sold, offered for sale or exhibited for sale
  • Send, distribute or deliver to, or serve on, any other person
  • Cause to be sent, distributed or delivered to, or served on, any other person,

any item on which appears the Arms. This also applies to items that resemble the Arms to such an extent that the item may be mistaken for a depiction of it. Additionally, you cannot use the Arms on any writing, material or object.

Penalties for Misuse of National Symbols

Should you be found guilty of misusing any National Symbol, the penalty is a fine of up to $1,000. This figure is standardised across all National Symbols.

However, once the NSB takes effect, the penalty will be raised to a fine of up to $30,000 and/or imprisonment for a term of up to 6 months.

Other forms of legal action that can be taken 

SAFNA does not provide for any legal action that can be taken by the government other than the imposition of a fine.

However, this did not stop the Singapore government from ordering Pine Bakery to discontinue its production of the “passport cake” and delete any related promotional images. This is very much akin to a mandatory prohibitory injunction, where a court order restricts certain actions or occurrences – in this case, the production of the cake.

Similarly, on the related topic of national songs, the government flagged the 2021 composition “We Can Achieve” (a non-National Song), which was almost identical to “Count on Me, Singapore”, save for minor differences, and was prepared to initiate legal proceedings for copyright issues pursuant to the Copyright Act. However, the matter was eventually dropped when the composer of the song removed it from all platforms and submitted an apology.

It is thus clear that the Singapore government’s response to such cases of misuse extends far beyond the ambit of SAFNA.

Applicable defences

While SAFNA does not mention any applicable defences, it expressly states that no misuse can be found in certain cases (as mentioned above) should the Minister have given his permission for the use. As such, it would be prudent to obtain the relevant approvals or permission before using a National Symbol.

From the “We Can Achieve” saga, it can also be inferred that the Singapore government would prefer not to engage in legal proceedings if it is convinced that there was no malice or ill intention involved in the alleged misuse. Initiative in rectifying the alleged misuse may also play well with the government. As such, these may act as a partial defence should you find yourself in such a situation.

In summary, though the guidelines surrounding the use of National Symbols stipulated in SAFNA are rather strict and restrictive, the government relaxes its stance on the use of the National Flag during National Day Celebrations. That being said, the general rule is to always treat National Symbols with respect.

There still exist certain gaps in SAFNA. The NSB, which will replace SAFNA in the future, provides a more comprehensive guide on the use of National Symbols. As such, do look out for the NSB for more information and guidance.

If you have been charged with misusing a national symbol, you may want to discuss your options with a criminal lawyer who may also advise you on whether you are able to raise a defence.

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