National flag is for tying your hands

One more law for the trash bin: the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act. That is the discipline master’s rulebook on when and how sheep may fly the national flag or sing the national anthem.

I am pretty sure most Singaporeans did not even realise that we have this law. Certainly not our water polo team at the Guangzhou Asian Games, who designed their own swimming trunks with the crescent moon and stars on them. Now they are being rewarded for their creativity and patriotism by being told in the sternest of voices: You guys broke the law.

There is also the controversy about it being obscene, but I will come to this later.

This Act is one of the shortest in our statute books. It simply says:

The President may make rules for all or any of the following purposes:

(a) to prescribe the manner in which and the places and times at which the Arms and Flag of Singapore may be displayed, exhibited, flown or used;
(b) to prescribe the manner in which and the places at which the Singapore National Anthem may be performed;
(c) to prescribe that any act or omission in contravention of any rules made under this Act shall be an offence and to prescribe penalties for those offences which penalties shall not exceed a fine of $1,000.

What and where are the rules?

They can be found here. There is also an archived copy on this site.

As you can see, Rule 9 (3) (e) says “The flag shall not be . . . incorporated or worn as part of any costume or attire.”

The same law also controls how the national anthem is to be performed. In the Third Schedule to the Rules, there is a simple score for Majulah Singapura that essentially fixes the harmonic progressions (if you can read music, check for yourself). Hence, the version of the anthem performed at the opening ceremony of the Youth Olympics a few months ago also broke the law:

It broke the law in two ways. Not only were the chord progressions different, the tempo as performed was dirge-like and much slower than the required 116 crotchets per minute.

Citizen watchdogs, this is what you must do: If our waterpolo players are in any way disciplined, warned, compelled to apologise or convicted in court for breaking the law, raise a stink and demand that Vivian Balakrishnan, the chief honcho organising the Youth Games must likewise be punished — more severely too because of his rank.

But wouldn’t we undermine the majesty of the law if it is violated with impunity?

Frankly, this and other trashbin laws deserve no majesty.

* * * * *

Once again, this reveals archaic ideas about the relationship between citizens and state. Once again, we have something akin to a lèse majesté law or a contempt of court law. The symbols of state are tightly controlled; respect is demanded (not earned). Flag burning, like criticising the judiciary, is a punishable offence.

How is this culture of obedience that such laws and political education beat into citizens in sync with dreams of a thinking and creative society?

Patriotism when people do things with the flag or anthem, when people use them in ways meaningful to themselves, is more substantive than the formality of prescribed kowtowing. Even when people burn the flag, or add critical rap lyrics to the anthem, it only signals depth of feeling about nation and state. We should be happy that people do things with these symbols, for it means people are taking ownership of the nation.

* * * * *

There’s yet another law that will trip somebody up sooner or later. The National Emblems (Control of Display) Act forbids the display in any public place such as a road, street, or walkway, and in any school, of flags, banners and emblems of foreign states.  Any resemblance or likeness of a foreign leader is also banned.

Even if you hang a foreign flag or banner within private premises, it is still illegal if it is visible from the street or public area. This is considered a very serious offence. The police can seize you without the need to get a warrant and throw you into a lock-up.

Consider these:

1. How many bars hang flags?

2. How many supermarkets have buntings strung up in conjunction with a French Food Festival or Australian Wines Week?

3. Wearing a T-shirt with the goateed visage of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as a fashion symbol.

I should add however that this law makes an exception for diplomatic missions.

* * * * *

Straits Times readers’ reactions to the design were mixed. Some think it is a nice and striking design — I do too. Many others disagree.

Unfortunately, it has also raised eyebrows. ‘Disgusting’, ‘nauseating’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘disrespectful’ were some of the remarks made by upset netizens on The Straits Times’ online forum.

The issue is over the ‘suggestive’ positioning of the crescent moon over the crotch.

Chief financial officer Lim Seng Choon, 40, said: ‘It looks a bit obscene and awkward.’

— Straits Times, 25 Nov 2010, Water polo team’s trunks ‘inappropriate’

The government, for its part chose to call the design “inappropriate”.

The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (Mica), which governs the use of the national flag, revealed yesterday that the team did not seek its advice or approval for the design.

‘We would have told them that their design is inappropriate, as we want elements of the flag to be treated with dignity,’ said Carol Tan, director of Mica’s resilience and marketing division.

— ibid.

A few comments on the newspaper’s online forum suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the crescent moon could have been bigger — the better to intimidate their opponents.

That’s the right attitude, in my view. So what if it’s over the cock? Why is the penis considered undignified? Why so prudish? Let me assure you, an erect penis is a thing of beauty.

12 Responses to “National flag is for tying your hands”

  1. 1 -M- 26 November 2010 at 23:16

    I think the real concern here is not the flag, but the crescent that is on you know where. I’ve never once believe that the crescent was on the flag because we are a “young” nation/country…without going into details, we know who we might offend and the move by the government is probably one of damage control here, that’s my guess.

  2. 2 KiWeTO 27 November 2010 at 11:45

    “this is my country; you are all guests, even with your PINK membership cards.”

    Far from being an enlightened society we be.

    Other far larger nations take no issue with their sportsmen wearing their flag, or draping it around them on the winners podium. By these laws, our medal-winning athletes are all in contempt of country, and criminals.


    [’tis the mark of the insecure that cannot rise above any slight, imagined or real, to their reality. Crescent trunks just proves again that this is a country that doesn’t believe its people believe in it.]

  3. 3 marine parade lobster 27 November 2010 at 17:37

    Hmmm does that mean a group of soccer fans wearing the soccer jersey of another country can be breaking the law under the National Emblems (Control of Display)? Since its actually a display of “emblems of foreign states”

  4. 4 99 27 November 2010 at 19:00

    On the swimming trunks, the crescent moon is half rather than whole; the stars are not arranged in a circle; in fact, it’s not even five stars, of equal size, but 2 big + 1 small + 1/6 small + 1/3 small; everything is tilted at an angle; the white part of the actual flag is missing; the trunks are trunk shaped whereas the actual flag is rectangular; and that phallic thingy is actually not a moon but a boomerang.

    How does the law define the Singapore flag? Those things the boys were wearing were trunks, not flags .

  5. 5 George 27 November 2010 at 19:08


    Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

    Do you know whether it is an offence NOT to sing the National Anthem during school assembly. I know for a fact that literally thousands of students are not doing it or not doing it properly every school day during assembly. One school I heard resorted to making the students do an ‘encore’ when the P felt it was not done well enough – and have to give up when the second time was also equally ‘half-hearted’.

    I hope the MOE is not going to sent more edits down to the school to punish the pupils. As you say, this would be typical response of fossilized minds.

  6. 6 George 27 November 2010 at 19:31

    Why is it appropriate to start and end daily broadcast on radio and tv with the anthem? Is this also required of the commercial channels by Starhub and Singtel? Why the national anthem and not any other tune or song? Strange way to make national sovereignty don’t you think, if this is the reason?
    Remember years ago, the anthem would come on and the flag flashed on the cinema screen before a movie. Why and what significance.

    What about the way the flag is displayed/not displayed by households. You know what I mean, some were twisted into the shape like a yew tieu by the elements, some displayed the wrong way, etc.

    I hope this ‘incident’ would serve to give notice to the govt to seriously review everything regarding the flag, anthem, other emblem of states etc

  7. 7 ape 27 November 2010 at 20:37

    Ape wasn’t even looking at where the crescent is placed… all that ape see is a group of fine sportsman represented Singapore and proudly bears the Singapore flag on them.

  8. 8 mr.udders 27 November 2010 at 23:08

    “Let me assure you, an erect penis is a thing of beauty.”

    Well played, sir. Well, played.

  9. 9 Robert L 28 November 2010 at 20:20

    Dear YB

    Sorry, but I need to point out, because it’s important, that a literal reading of the rules leads to a firm conclusion that the state flag consists of those stars and the crescent, placed in the proper position within a rectangular form consisting of two bands of red and white.

    It’s important because Singaporeans are already noted to be docile and fearful of breaking the laws. It would make matters worse if we promote an exaggerated reading of the laws where none exists.

    The stars and crescent illustrated on a handbag or clothing is outside the scope of the laws regarding the state flag. The stars and crescent need to be drawn together with the red/white rectangle in order to be considered under the jurisdiction of the state flag.

    I would like to see many Singaporeans wearing that swimwear to at least show that Singapore has a fun side. It’s really quite attractive. Not that I am against the officials banning it for use by a national team, that’s a different thing altogether.

  10. 10 Ken 28 November 2010 at 23:22

    Hi Alex, I take your point that the laws on the use of the national symbols are akin to those relating to contempt of court and lese majeste. The US doesn’t have the same restrictions that we have regarding the use of national symbols. Yet, however disrespectfully the stars-and-stripes is sometimes treated, it still inspires a measure of awe and respect in Americans.

    The flag that turns up on silly novelty jockstraps is the same one draped across the coffins of fallen soldiers. And most people have no problem with that.

    Our polo boys shouldn’t be blamed for neglecting to consult the authorities over their speedos. It would be unreasonable to expect all our national athletes to consult MICA on the placement of the Singapore flag on their competition attire.

    MICA, for its part, acted in a characteristically heavy-handed, rigid manner, and its response was poorly-timed. After all, the polo players were national athletes representing our country at an important regional tournament. The government should have appreciated this, and acted in a supportive manner. Instead, the controversy has distracted from achievements and contributions of our polo team.

    A better approach would have been for the ministry to remain silent, and to leave it to the team/sports authorities to reveal that it had not been consulted. (If that point is even an important one to make.)

  11. 11 yawningbread 28 November 2010 at 23:39

    Robert L – Thanks for pointing it out, I think you are absolutely right. So it should be perfectly legal to put parts of the flag on various things, just not the whole flag.

  12. 12 The Pariah 7 December 2010 at 13:55

    Based on what Robert L said, then MCYS has no leg to stand on.

    Those swimming trunks are not rectangular by any stretch of imagination. Unless the back-side is white, the other half colour of the flag is missing.

    If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

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