The military way

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11 Jan 2024 | COMMUNITY

The military way

Customs and traditions of the SAF, such as salutes and parades, are more than mere symbols. We demystify some of the more common practices.

//Story by Hong Ong Tat / Photos by PIONEER photographers

The SAF Day Parade 2023 featured the State Colour of the recently formed Digital and Intelligence Service for the first time.
English 华文

As a relatively young military organisation, some of the customs and traditions practised by the Singapore Armed Forces can be traced back to Singapore's colonial years and to practices shared by military forces around the world.

Even though some of the SAF's practices are borrowed, the values they represent are clear. Apart from fostering a common bond within the military community, they are powerful representations of the discipline and bearing of those who serve in the military.

What are Colours?

Military regiments began carrying coloured flags to identify themselves on the battlefield from around the 1600s. These highly-visible flags also served as a rallying point for troops.

Where the Colours stood was often the scene of the most bitter fighting, as capturing the other side's Colours was symbolic of striking at the heart of the unit. Thus the most senior and bravest sergeants were chosen to protect the flag bearer who was usually the most junior officer.

A solemn and dignified ceremony, the Uncasing of Colours takes place during important occasions like the National Day Parade and the SAF Day Parade. [Photo courtesy of NDP 2023 EXCO]

Today, the Colours have evolved to simply represent a unit's prestige and honour.

They help to foster a sense of pride and loyalty towards the SAF and are frequently paraded at auspicious and significant occasions such as the National Day Parade, where they are accorded the highest honour and respect. For example, military personnel are expected to stand and salute as the Colours pass their immediate front.

The Colours are fashioned by hand from the finest silks, in accordance with their importance and solemnity. There are strict protocols governing the consecration, transportation and retirement of Colours. With care, each Colour has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

Soldiers saluting during the opening ceremony of Exercise Valiant Mark 2019.

Why salute?

Saluting is one of the most common and basic forms of military courtesy. The practice may be traced back to medieval knights who lifted their helmet visors when encountering others, to confirm if the other is friend or foe.

Another explanation says that travellers often approached each other with their sword arm – usually the right arm – in plain sight and with open palms to signal that they had no ill intentions.

In short, the military salute is a sign of mutual trust and confidence. In practice, salutes are accorded by a junior service personnel to an officer who is senior in rank.

How do you salute at sea?

Warships at sea salute each other for the same reasons military personnel do on land. First, a call to attention is sounded on the junior ship, notifying all crew on the upper deck to face the senior ship.

Then the call to be "Still" is piped using a high-pitched whistle note played on the Boatswain's call for 8 seconds. This brings the ship to attention while the bridge team pay their compliments to the senior ship. The "Carry On" call, a 2-second whistle comprising a high and a low note is then piped.

The crews of both ships usually wave to one another as a friendly gesture at this juncture. As a sign of respect, merchant ships also salute passing warships by dipping their national flags.

Trainers ensuring that the troops' bearing and drills are perfected during rehearsals for the SAF Day Parade 2023.

What is a pace-stick?

No, it's not a stick to beat you with… But those who have been through NS may still attest to the feeling of fear and awe at the sight of a Parade Sergeant Major (PSM) with his pace stick.

The symbol of the PSM's authority as a master of drill, parade and ceremony, the pace stick is also used as a tool to measure the distance taken in a single marching step.

The modern pace stick is an adaptation of a similar item used by the Royal Regiment of Artillery in Britain. The gunners used it to ensure correct distances between guns on the battlefield, so as to deliver effective fire.

The commissioning pennant (thin red flag to the right of the naval ensign) being raised for the first time on RSS Independence, signalling the Littoral Mission Vessel's service to the Republic of Singapore Navy in 2017.

What's in a Commissioning Pennant?

The Commissioning Pennant is the mark of a Navy ship in active service. It is first flown on the main mast when the ship is commissioned and taken down when it is decommissioned.

Singapore's pennant is a red longitudinal stripe that bears the country's crescent moon and five stars and it is flown at all times as long as a ship is in commissioned (active) status.

The commissioning pennant of RSS Brave is lowered as the patrol vessel retires, along with sister ships RSS Fearless and RSS Dauntless, in a sunset ceremony at Tuas Naval Base in 2019.

As professional navies began to take form in the late 1600s and the need to distinguish their ships from merchant ships at a distance arose, navies adopted long narrow flags to be flown by their ships on the main masthead.

Early flags and pennants were very large, so as to be easily visible. By 1870, the largest pennant on record measured 21.3m long.

Over time, the flying of flags and pennants became standard naval practice. Even as warships took on distinctive forms and could no longer be mistaken for merchant ships, flags and pennants continued to be flown, but shrunk to a fraction of their earlier size.

Suggested Reading
What is the Trooping of Colours? Feature
What is the Trooping of Colours?

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Q&A with Consecration RSM

2WO Hong Wei Quan, Consecration Regimental Sergeant Major for this year's SAF Day, answers all your questions about military Colours and the Consecration of Colours ceremony.