Representing an entire country with one piece of cloth is no easy task. That is especially the case for a young, diverse country with no unifying traits or ideologies. 

The period after World War II saw the awakening of anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments in Singapore – a call for Merdaka (or independence) permeated the region. While Singapore was still of strategic importance to the British, they were willing to ease restrictions and slowly let the city rule itself. In the 1955 elections for example, residents were allowed to vote for 25 out of the 32 seats in parliament. By 1959, this program of self-governance had reached completion, with every seat in parliament elected by popular vote.

While on paper Singapore was now self-governing, in reality, the state was in its infancy. There was no flag, no national anthem, no pledge – all of the things that you would expect an independent country to have, didn’t exist. After gaining a landslide victory in the 1959 Legislative elections, the People’s Action Party recognised this problem. “We couldn’t get the loyalty of the people if we told them to salute the Union Jack or sing God Save the Queen. We had to have our own flag, anthem and crest,” said Toh Chin Chye, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. Thus, in October 1959, Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew tasked Toh with creating a state flag. The brief was simple: the flag had to look different, and had to symbolise Singapore’s multi-racialism and multi-culturalism.

Together with two civil servants from the Culture Ministry, Toh first studied the national flags of other countries and regions. Then, the trio developed several different designs and made physical prototypes to evaluate each design. The Singapore flag as we now know it was unveiled on 3 December 1959, a mere two months after work first started. It was launched together with the state crest and the national anthem, following the inauguration of Yusof bin Ishak as Singapore’s first Head of State. From that point onwards, the crescent moon and the rising stars replaced the Union Jack that had represented Singapore for more than 140 years. 

While we are all familiar with Singapore’s national flag, it is interesting to note that Toh’s committee came up with at least five more other iterations of the flag. Since there are no pictures or illustrations of these designs, we decided to piece them together ourselves using various interviews given by Toh Chin Chye and S. Rajaratnam (Minister of Culture).  

Here’s how they might have looked:

The Red Star

The original draft of the flag has a striking similarity to Vietnam’s current flag. The base red colour represented the noble universal love of human beings, while the star represented sincerity and integrity. Each corner of the star also symbolised a different ideal – democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. 

Since the creation of the national flag was supposed to be a non-partisan affair, the opposition party at the time (UMNO or United Malays National Organisation) was consulted. They strongly objected to the flag, saying that it looked like the flag of the communists.

The Three Stars

If the Golden Star didn’t look communist enough, another draft of the flag featured three rising stars. This was virtually the flag of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army – a guerrilla force that fought the Japanese during the occupation. The army had close ties with the Malayan Communist Party with most leaders said to be communist themselves. Thus, this draft was scrapped for the same reason as the Golden Star one.

The Green Star

Taking into account UMNO’s comments, the colours of the first flag were changed to have a green background and a white star. However, considering that green was closely related to Islam, and considering that the flag had to represent Singapore’s multi-culturalism, the idea was soon dropped. 

The All Red

By this point in the design process, the five stars and the crescent moon emblem as we now know it was finalised. Instead of the five corners of one star representing the five different principles, five literal stars did the same job. According to Toh, the crescent was added to represent a young nation because the stars on their own “did not look balanced.” Red was chosen for its East-Asian associations with prosperity and happiness, much needed for a new nation. It also represented brotherhood and unity. The cabinet was still hesitant with the all-red background, and the potential communist connotations, and as such, the committee continued experimenting.

The All Blue

Presumably due to cabinet’s fears, the flag now became all blue. Even though there is little information about why the colour blue was chosen, in other national flags, blue represents the ocean. As a seafaring nation, this would have made sense for Singapore. After all, it was the ports and maritime trade that made Singapore what it was. For unknown reasons, the committee decided against this flag. Maybe it was because no other Asian flag featured blue predominately, and being the only one might have made Singapore seem distant and different.  

Red and White

Alterations were made to the all-red flag, adding white in for purity and virtue. The crest was also placed in the left-hand corner of the flag. These changes also reduced resemblance to communist symbolism and as such satisfied all members of cabinet.

Thus, after much deliberation, the red and white variant was chosen to be the state flag.

Even after all this work, the flag created confusion. S. Rajaratman observed that the crescent moon was seen to be a “proclamation of [Singapore’s] religious identity” to the outside world. This was because many Islamic states had the symbol in their flag. However, with a lot of explanation and education, the “misunderstanding” was soon corrected and the flag is now a widely recognised symbol of Singapore.

It is easy to wonder how internal and external perceptions of Singapore might have changed if we decided to pick any of the other drafts. Would we have seen ourselves to be more Chinese? More Malay? More Socialist? Less Asian? Nonetheless, the fact that a single piece of cloth can even shape these perceptions shows how important these symbols are in the first place.

All designs are artistic interpretations of the first-hand accounts given by S. Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye. As such, they might slightly differ from the actual drafts created by the committee. Illustrations should not be replicated without the expressed written permission of The Kopi Company.

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