The stories behind our seven National Symbols

Between the flag-waving and festivities of August 9, the policies for peoples’ futures announced at the National Day Rally (Aug 20) and the different visions for continuing Singapore’s success brought forward during this campaign season, it is now a time for Singaporeans to feel, well, acutely Singaporean. 

With the national coat of arms, flag and anthem — and lately the pledge, lion head symbol, public seal and the national flower — there are seven National Symbols for expressing our Singaporean identity during this impassioned time.   

And clearer, more flexible rules on using them, as well as stronger safeguards against their misuse recently (Aug 1) came into effect. These include not adding pictures or words to the flag and allowing the respectful and non-commercial use of the flag on attire. 

Diverse public viewpoints, including the multi-sector Citizens’ Workgroup on National Symbols and sector-specific engagements with overseas Singaporeans, school students and arts practitioners impelled this clarity and flexibility — the rules were finally brought about by our parliamentarians.  

“The National Symbols belong to Singapore and all Singaporeans,” said Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling last year (Sep 14) when she spoke upon these actions for protecting patriotism. 

What exactly is the history behind these symbols, though? 

The Flag 

It sounds strange after 58 years of independence, but red and white was never the first choice for the Singapore flag. 

“I had produced prototypes with different colours for the Cabinet to decide. I explained to them why we cannot use red and white, white and red. White above red is the flag of Poland. Red above white is the flag of Indonesia,” reminisced one of our founding fathers, former Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, about those two months in 1959 when he was tasked to design a new flag for the new nation. 

Source: PAP 

The Legislative Assembly liked that colour scheme, however (and they also liked DPM Toh’s design of five stars and a crescent moon). So, on December 3 that year, the Singapore flag flew proudly for the first time, side-by-side and at equal height to the Union Jack; our founding fathers insisted.  

“We could not call ourselves a nation because our defence and foreign affairs was still in the hands of the British. But we must make a beginning,” said DPM Toh.   

The Anthem and the Pledge 

Majulah Singapura is a short length for a national anthem. That is on purpose. 

“A national anthem, it must be brief, to the point: which people can remember easily, and can be sung,” said DPM Toh, who worked with legendary composer Zubir Said to produce it.  

“Today’s anthem lasts only one minute or two minutes at the most. That’s all. But it is full of meaning,” he added. 

Indeed, the lyrics of Majulah Singapura and the pace of its melody do speak to how the anthem is for a nation planning to go forward resolutely into the future; it is still very relevant today

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

The National Pledge which Singaporeans have today is, rather similarly, a shortened version from the three drafts submitted earlier by founding fathers Ong Pang Boon and S Rajaratnam.  

Its words were chosen to remind Singaporeans that together we can build a nation “regardless of race, language and religion”, no matter then or now.    

The Coat of Arms and the Public Seal 

DPM Toh also brainstormed Singapore’s coat of arms, which Singaporeans can see every day on coins and dollar notes. 

Singapore’s crescent moon and five stars are on it, but unlike other coats of arms, has no crown. 

“We were a republic, no crown,” emphasised DPM Toh, who added the lion and tiger to the coat of arms since they were particularly Singaporean and local symbols.  

All these together were a “merge with our own ideas of self-governing Singapore”, he added. 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Meanwhile, the Public Seal, which is the Coat of Arms encircled by the words “Republic of Singapore”, appears on official documents. 

“It is befitting for it to be recognised as a National Symbol of Singapore under the Bill,” noted MOS Low, referring to the National Symbols Bill she read out in Parliament last September.  

This Bill involved officially expanding the number of Symbols; this keeps pace with how Singaporeans now want to express their patriotism in more creative ways. 

The National Flower and Lion Head 

The national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, was named in honour of the first woman in the world to breed a hybrid orchid — in 1893 right in her garden in Singapore.  

Miss Joaquim — “Agnes” to her friends and family — was already “well-known for her success as a horticulturist”, read a contemporary report. The beautiful, hardy flower boosted her renown worldwide, and as a hybrid represents the harmony between Singapore’s different races.    

Source: National Archives of Singapore, NParks 

The lion head symbol was the winning entry from a 1986 islandwide design competition. The PAP Government of the day wanted a new symbol which exemplified the then-two-decade-old nation for individuals to use; there are use restrictions on the flag and coat of arms for non-government and commercial use. 

“Singaporeans feel a strong sense of ownership of the National Symbols and agree that these Symbols encapsulate the ideals of what it means to be a Singaporean and to be a member of the Singapore community,” said MOS Low. 

“We pay special attention to these Symbols because they remind us of who we are, our journey as a nation, and the values and aspirations we espouse.” 

Source: Low Yen Ling/ Facebook 

Here’s, then, to the National Symbols Bill helping Singaporeans unite, and keeping the image of Singapore respectable and unmistakably exceptional.  

And, storied as these National Symbols are, here’s to how every Singaporean now has more opportunities to interweave them into his or her own personal history.