History of Singapore’s Military Traditions: Don’t Step on The F**king Grass

I remember enlisting into Tekong as a starry-eyed recruit, thinking that I could get through Basic Military Training without being knocked down or punished. I mean by all accounts I was a good boy. I was a prefect in school and never had any discipline issues. How hard could BMT be? 

Fast forward to the third day of BMT and I was already on all fours facing cement, while the sergeant chewed me up. 

The reason? 

I walked on grass. 

As soon as you enlist into the Singapore Armed Forces, commanders are likely to lecture you at length about military etiquette. From soldierly conduct like saluting officers, to unsoldierly conduct such as crossing the parade square, there’s an entire list of dos and don’ts that are emphasised at the Basic Military Training Centre. But the issue here is that no one explains why these traditions exist. Yeah, soldiers follow them because they are told to do so, and don’t want to get shouted at. But considering how seemingly pointless a lot of these traditions might seem, many also resent them. 

Having gotten my glorious pink IC back, and having read a bit of military history, I can now proudly report to you that not all of these customs are meaningless. 

The Salute

The modern Singapore Armed Forces salute. (Source)

You would be surprised to find out that even the simplest of military traditions are prone to screw-ups. After our sergeants told us that we were required to salute officers when we encountered them, one brave soul (presumably trying to get into OCS) decided to try his hand at it. Confidently calling the company to attention, he ran to the officer and sedia-ed himself. It was all perfect until he pulled his open palm over to his head. Both the officer and the company burst out in laughter. 

It was the wrong way to salute. 

In the military, saluting is the most basic form of courtesy and respect. Think of it as an exchange of greetings between superiors and their subordinates. But the origins of the salute boils down to practicality. During the Age of Chivalry in Medieval Europe, knights adopted a method of assuring other travellers that they meant no harm. The right hand was used to raise the visor on their helmets, thereby exposing their faces. This allowed knights to distinguish enemies from allies. 

The act then evolved in 15th century Europe. During this period, two powerful families emerged in Italy. The first one was the Medici family, bankers often referred to as the Renaissance Godfathers. The second, more infamous one was the House of Borgia. Known for greed, scandals, incest, and corruption, the Borgia family simply got rid of people who stood in thier way. While poison was common in those days, the period also saw an increase in assasination attempts by knife and dagger. Thus, during the time of Borgia, people greeted each other by raising their right hand to show that they were not concealing a dagger. It was also during this period that travellers started doing the open-palm salute, indicating friendly intent and a lack of dangerous weapons. 

This closely resembles the open-hand salute that the British Army has been practicing since 1917. The Singapore Armed Forces also carried this tradition on until 1976, after which it adopted the current hand-down salute. According to the SAF, the decision was made because the new salute was less awkward on the wrist and looked smarter (not the case for that one kid, though).

Interestingly, the awkwardness of the British salute is well documented. During World War II, British recruits would use this to their advantage in something called the salute trap. The act involved gathering as many conscripts in a group, and then waiting for an officer. When one appeared some distance away, the conscripts would walk towards them, one after another. The aim here was to force the officers to salute as many soldiers as possible, making the officer’s arm sore in the process. Considering that officers were obliged to return salutes, they stood defenseless against the prank.

Crossing the Parade Square

An OCS commissioning parade in progress. (Source)

It’s one of the mysteries of life. It is okay for soldiers to exercise on the parade square  — running, jumping, squatting, getting knocked down, the whole hog. Heck, it is even okay for tanks and armoured vehicles to rumble all over it. Why, then, is it not okay and disrespectful to cut through the parade square? 

In Britain, the military practice in the 17th and 18th Century was that when regiments marched into cities, towns and villages that they were going to be stationed at, a place of assembly was decided upon. This could have been a market square, the street outside the officer’s lodging or even an open patch of grass. If they were engaged in active outfield operations, soldiers would form up in front of their tents. They would then assemble at this designated space before and after each battle. When retreat was called, units would assemble at the spot to roll call and count the dead. A hollow square was formed, with the dead placed within the square. As such, in order to not disrespect their dead comrades, soldiers would avoid crossing the square. 

Fast forward a few hundred years to when barracks were built for British troops in the 19th Century, normally arranged around a square. This left an open space in front of each building. As such, the space assumed the role of a very sacred place of assembly. It is symbolic of the British practice of arranging fallen soldiers in a square and as such, it is deserving of deep respect. Much like how soldiers in the 18th Century were not allowed to cross the hollow square, the soldiers of today are encouraged not to cross the parade square.

Don’t Walk on Grass

The origin of this tradition was a bit harder to track down. While the rest of the military traditions had evolved from older practices, and incorporated into official policies, the don’t walk on grass rule isn’t really official.

Coxey’s Army in action. (Source)

Probably the only instance of anyone being official charged with the offense of walking on grass dates back to 1890s America. Due to an extended period of economic recession in 1893, and increasing levels of unemployment, Jacob S. Coxey (an American politician who ran for elective office several times in Ohio) organised a march to Washington D.C. With thousands of unemployed people joining the march, Coxey’s group was named Coxey’s Army. The objective of the Army was to march to the U.S Capitol to demand that the government allocate funds for infrastructure programs and job creation. However, rather unceremoniously Coxey was arrested halfway through his speech for the crime of walking on the grass of the Capitol. Considering the context in which the arrest happened – in order to crush a protest – it probably didn’t contribute to the military tradition of avoiding grass patches.

It is also highly unlikely that restriction came about for horticulture’s sake — there are plenty of unmanicured, dried and worn-down patches of grass throughout Singapore’s camps. After all, these are army camps we are talking about, not tourist attractions. So why then do soldiers even follow this tradition? Just like the parade square rule, it comes down to symbolism. There is a belief in the army that if soldiers are willing to take short-cuts to save them a second here and there, then they’ll see no issue in cutting corners in other aspects of their work. Considering that one of the most important attributes of any army is discipline, soldiers are hence not allowed to walk on the grass.

Colours Party

A SAF Colours Party during the Chief of Defence Forces handing over parade. (Source)

Most of us have probably seen a Colours Party procession on television. It’s the parading of different unit flags that happens in important events like National Day, SAF Day and Anniversary Day. They are usually large scale parades that are significant to servicemen and women. But why all the fuss? Military parades happen for all sorts of events, from BMT to ORD to everything in between. Why are they even called “colours” in the first place, when they are very obviously flags?

In 17th Century Europe, when armies started adopting the regimental system, literal colours were assigned to regiments. Units could be labeled red, blue and green for example. Around the same time, halfway across the world, the Manchus of Qing China tried experimenting with this colour system as well. The logical extension of this system was for units to carry flags of their respective colours into battle for identification. Thus, military flags started being known as colours.

Without modern technologies like radios, communication on the battlefield was another issue that soldiers faced during that period. Being carried at the center front rank, flags were useful as they served as a guide and rallying point. They were also a sign of how the battle was going, considering that it was possible to strategically confuse and disrupt opposing regiments by taking away that rallying point. If the flag stopped flying, soldiers knew the battle was over for them. For this reason, flags and their bearers became targets, with the most contested battles happening around them. These flag bearers were called the ensigns and were the youngest officers in the company.  Soon, sergeants were appointed to protect that officer and offer support in the hotly-contested battle for the flag. Translated to today’s Singapore Armed Forces, this is exactly why the colour of a unit is carried by a junior Officer, and is escorted by two sergeants and one warrant officer.

Conclusion

The Singapore Volunteer Corps in training. (Source)

From flag parties to salutes, many of the army’s traditions are based on symbolism and reverence for past sacrifices. There is a debate to be had here about how much we should let this reverence for the past affect the present. After all, efficiency is also another goal that armies strive towards and many of these traditions are rather impractical. But, in an organisation that places importance on collectivism rather than individualism, these practices help build camaraderie, a community, a shared identity. 

After all, have you ever been in the army if you haven’t been knocked down for some breaking seemingly trivial?

I know I have. I was that kid that saluted with an open palm.

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