Although the SAF was established in 1965 and Singapore only gained her current version of a National Service-based armed forces in 1967, the history of her defence started long before that. Under colonial rule that started in 1819, Singapore relied on British forces to protect her from all threats. A turning point occurred in 1854 with the creation of the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps (SVRC), a volunteer organisation to maintain internal security.
In 1888, the SVRC became the Singapore Volunteer Artillery (SVA), and its success prompted formation of other volunteer corps. In 1901, these were all consolidated into the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC). In 1922, the SVC was renamed the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF) to include volunteer forces from Malacca and Penang.
In December 1941, the Japanese campaign into South East Asia had begun. The British commanders had thought that Singapore was an "impregnable fortress", but troops stationed here were inexperienced compared to the Japanese forces.. On 10 Dec 1941, disaster struck when two British battleships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, were sunk by Japanese planes. On 8 February, the Japanese crossed the narrow Straits of Johore into Kranji and Sarimbun, beginning their invasion of Singapore. For the next seven days, the British put up stiff resistance but were no match for the Japanese. Volunteer forces also fought alongside regular forces in the Battles of Bukit Timah and Pasir Panjang to fend off the Japanese. Despite all their efforts, on 15th February 1942, Singapore was surrendered.
During the Japanese occupation, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF) and local forces were indispensable to the war effort. SSVF corpswoman Elizabeth Choy was detained and interrogated by the Kempeitai alongside other locals following the Double Tenth Massacre. Men and women such as Lim Bo Seng joined special operations forces, gathered intelligence and fought where they could. The Chinese in Singapore's volunteer armies were targeted during the Sook Ching Massacre, or sent with other prisoners of war to build the Death Railway.
In May 1945, the war in Europe ended with Germany's surrender. Soon after, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively signalled the end of Japan's war efforts. On 15 August 1945, the Japanese invaders in Singapore laid down their arms and the Japanese occupation was over.
The perceived failure of the British to defend Singapore against the Japanese during WWII caused Singaporeans to desire greater autonomy from the British and precipitated the formation of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF), which had been dissolved, was reinstated in 1949 as the SVC to keep peace domestically.
The year 1957 saw the establishment of the first battalion of regular soldiers, the First Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR). 2 SIR joined 1 SIR in 1962. Their first real test came in 1963 in the form of Konfrontasi. 1 SIR, 2 SIR, the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) and the Vigilante Corps (VC) were all deployed to protect strategically important sites. The VC found incredible support from citizens, with 91.4% of eligible men volunteering.
On 9 August 1965, after more than 100 years of British colonial rule and two tumultuous years under the Malaysian Federation, Singapore was declared a sovereign and independent nation. It was a time of great uncertainty as the leaders were faced with the enormous task of charting the path of our national destiny. Nevertheless, Singapore was determined to not only survive on its own but to succeed.
An urgent priority after independence was to build up Singapore's own defence capability. Singapore then had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and some 1,000 men and two ships. There was no airforce. Singapore's armed forces had to be created virtually from scratch.
In August 1965, the Ministry of the Interior and Defence (MID) was established with Dr. Goh Keng Swee as its first Minister. The key priority then was to build up the Army into a credible force as soon as possible. With its small population and the need to channel resources to economic development, it was decided that Singapore's defence would be based on citizen armed forces. However, there was no military tradition in Singapore. The bulk of the population had traditionally held military service in low esteem. An intense educational effort was required to overcome such attitudes. Ministers, Members of Parliament, senior civil servants and community leaders volunteered to serve in the People's Defence Force. In this way, they set an example and drove home the message that it was the responsibility of every citizen to defend their nation.
National Service started two years later in 1967. The NS (Amendment) Bill, 1967 was first read in Parliament on 27 Feb 1967. After a spirited debate in Parliament, the Act was finally passed on 14 Mar 1967.
The passing of the NS (Amendment) Act in mid-Mar 1967 was a turning point in the lives of Singaporean males. Between 28 Mar and 18 Apr 1967, registration began in earnest at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) and its district offices in Katong, Serangoon and Bukit Panjang. Pink reminder cards were sent by post to the first batch of citizens who were born between 1 Jan 1949 and 30 Jun 1949 - some 9,000 of them. This marked the beginning of the citizen army and also the start of NS as a way of life for the male citizens of Singapore.
On 31 Jan 1974, the Shell Oil Refinery located on Pulau Bukom Besar, (an island lying south of Singapore) was attacked by four terrorists who were armed with submachine guns and explosives. The group comprised two Japanese from the Japanese Red Army (JRA) or 'Sekigun' and two Arabs from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The attack on Pulau Bukom Besar went wrong from the start. To escape the botched attack, the terrorists then hijacked the ferryboat 'Laju' at the Bukom jetty and headed for the sea. The 'Laju' was soon sighted by patrol boats and pursued. At the Eastern Anchorage, they were intercepted and completely surrounded by 15 marine police boats, custom launches and three Singapore Maritime Command gunboats. The 'Laju' incident is a measure of the confidence and daring of members of the Singapore Commandos (formed just five years earlier) to provide the necessary assurance for Singapore officials to act as guarantors in a potentially explosive situation. It also demonstrates SAF's operational readiness to handle any crisis and situation that threatens the security of Singapore.
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) began as the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force (SNVF) in 1966 with just three ships, RSS Panglima, RSS Bedok and RSS Singapura. RSS Singapura, moored at Telok Ayer Basin, served as the SNVF's first headquarters. Thus, the newly formed naval force had only two seaworthy ships to form its sea defences.
What the SNVF lacked in resources was made up for in determination and hard work. Though a small force to begin with, the SNVF underwent a period of rapid growth and development. It had started off with former members of the Royal Malaysian Navy, who were mobilised to form the nucleus of the fledgling force. The following year saw the SNVF boost its numbers to 89 mobilised personnel and 278 volunteer officers and men. Some were women from the Singapore Women's Auxiliary Naval Service (or SWANS), which had been formed in 1957. On 5 May 1967, the Singapore Naval White Ensign was hoisted with pride, signalling that Singapore finally had a navy to call its own. There was no looking back from then on, as it embarked on a gradual upgrading of its equipment, personnel and facilities. From the two ships in 1966, it subsequently grew into a modern force, and officially was renamed the "Republic of Singapore Navy" in April 1975.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force also has very modest beginnings. In 1968, the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) was formed. It started with eight Cessna 172-H aircraft to train its pilots, and by 1970 Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft had been added to the fleet. When the British forces were withdrawn in 1971, Tengah, Seletar, Sembawang and Changi airbases were entrusted to the SADC. SADC became the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) in 1975.
The Ministry of the Interior and Defence (MID) initially oversaw both internal and external defence, but as the defence structure grew and the work became more defined, it separated into two specialised ministries. Thus, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were formed in 1970.
When the SAF first started in the 1960s, the most urgent focus for what we now call the 1st Generation SAF was to provide for Singapore's basic defence. The 2nd Generation SAF, from the early 80s to late 90s, saw the upgrading and modernising of our Army, Navy and Air Force. Post-9/11, there was a shift in the security landscape, which widened to include non-conventional threats such as terrorism and piracy.
Resource constraints and the emergence of advanced warfighting technologies also drove the SAF to rethink our development trajectory. To meet new security challenges effectively, the SAF embarked on a 3rd Generation transformation journey in 2004 and continues today to upgrade its capabilities into an advanced networked force.
Today, the SAF is respected as a strong and professional armed forces. The SAF has developed leading-edge capabilities, networked together as an integrated fighting system.