The national flag of Singapore was first adopted in 1959, the year Singapore became self-governing within the British Empire. It became the national flag upon the Republic's full independence on 9 August 1965. The design is a horizontal bicolour of red above white, charged in the canton by a white crescent moon facing, toward the fly, a pentagon of five small white five-pointed stars. The elements of the flag denote a young nation on the ascendant, universal brotherhood and equality, and various national ideals.
The national flag is not used as an ensign by vessels at sea. In its place, one of three derivatives of the national flag is used, depending on a vessel's status: merchant vessels and pleasure craft fly a civil ensign of red charged in white with a variant of the crescent and stars emblem in the center; non-military government vessels such as coast guard ships fly a state ensign of blue with the national flag in the canton, charged with an eight-pointed red and white compass rose in the lower fly; and warships fly a naval ensign similar to the state ensign, but in white with a red compass rose emblem.
The use and display of the national flag is governed by rules defined by the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act. There are also laws prohibiting non-Singaporean national emblems to be displayed in public or in schools.
The flag used from when Singapore was amalgamated into the Straits Settlements (along with Malacca, and Penang) was a British Blue Ensign containing three gold crowns, one crown for each settlement, separated with an red ⅄. Singapore city was granted a "city coat of arms" in 1911 featuring a lion. Soon after World War II Singapore became an independent settlement, at this point only 1 crown appears.
Singapore became self-governing within the British Empire on 3 June 1959. Six months later, upon the installation of the new Yang di-Pertuan Negara (head of state) on 3 December 1959, the national flag was officially adopted, along with the state crest and the national anthem "Majulah Singapura".
The design of the flag was completed in two months. Toh had initially envisaged a completely-red background for the flag, but the Cabinet decided against this as red was then regarded as a rallying point for communism.
On 30 November 1959 the Singapore State Arms and Flag and National Anthem Ordinance 1959 was passed to regulate the use and display of the State Arms and State Flag and the performance of the National Anthem. When presenting the motion to the Legislative Assembly of Singapore on 11 November 1959, S. Rajaratnam, the Minister for Culture, said, "National flags, crest and anthem express symbolically the hopes and ideals of a people... The possession of a national flag and crest is, for a people, symbolic of self-respect. The flag was adopted as the national flag upon Singapore's full independence on 9 August 1965.
Previously, the flag was used exclusively by government departments and educational institutions, and could only be flown by individuals and non-governmental organisations during the month of August to mark National Day (which falls on 9 August). In 2004, these restrictions were relaxed to enable the flag to be flown under certain conditions all year round. A statement from the Ministry of Information and the Arts (now MICA, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts) said that "[t]he national flag, national anthem and Singapore lion head... are our most visible symbols of our sovereignty, pride and honour" and urged Singaporeans to use those "rallying" symbols to "identify with the nation". No reason was given for the changes, but it was noted by BBC News correspondents that the government had recently been trying to rally patriotic sentiments dampened by economic woes. (In 2003, unemployment in Singapore reached a 17-year-high of 5.9%, and the SARS epidemic in East Asia seriously affected the island's tourist trade, causing Singapore Airlines to suffer a financial loss for the first time in its history.)
In 2006, following requests by Singaporeans, guidelines for the use of the flag were further relaxed to give people more ways of expressing their loyalty to Singapore during National Day celebrations. MICA permitted Singaporean residents to display the flag with minimal restrictions from the middle of July to the end of August for a trial period, thus for the first time enabling Singaporeans to carry out acts such as applying decals and stickers bearing the flag to themselves or their belongings. The period when the flag may be displayed with minimal restrictions was extended in 2007 to a three-month period from July to September.
No person must treat the national flag with disrespect, nor must any person in possession of the flag allow or cause the flag to touch the floor or ground, even when lowering the flag from a staff or flagpole. The flag must not be displayed below any other flag, emblem or object; dipped in salute to any person or thing; or displayed or carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
Within Singapore, the national flag should take precedence over all other flags, subject to international practice. This means that when it is displayed or flown with other flags, it must be in a position of honour; that is, it should be positioned, where practicable, either above all other flags or, if displayed side by side with other flags on the same level, to the left of the other flags, as seen by a person facing the flags. In addition, when the flag is raised or carried in a procession with other flags, it must be raised or carried in front of the other flags in a single file, or if the flags are carried side by side, on the right as seen by the standard bearers (that is, on the left from the viewer's point of view). The standard bearer must carry the flag high on his or her right shoulder. When the flag is displayed on a platform or stage, it must be above all decorations and be behind and above any person speaking from the platform or stage. If it is displayed from a staff standing on the platform or stage, it must be on the right side of the person speaking from the platform or stage. Finally, when the flag is hung, it must be hung against a vertical wall or other vertical flat surface, with the crescent and stars on the top left position as seen by any spectator facing the flag and the wall or surface, as the case may be.
When the flag is displayed outside a building, it shall be displayed on or in front of the building only from a flagpole. If the flag is flown at night, it should be properly illuminated. The flag must not be displayed on any motor vehicle except on one in which the President of Singapore or any Government minister is travelling on official business. The flag also may not be displayed on any vessel or aircraft except on a Government vessel or aircraft, on such other vessel or aircraft that is authorised by law to display the flag In either case, exceptions can be made if the use of the national flag is not disrespecting.
According to advice provided by MICA, the flag may be reproduced in reduced size representations and displayed at all times, but it must be in its true form and colours, regardless of size. Nonetheless, no person may use or apply the flag or any image of it for any commercial purpose; as a means, or for the purpose, of any advertisement; or as or as part of any furnishing, decoration, covering or receptacle, except in such circumstances as may be approved in which there is no disrespect for the flag. Further, it is not permitted to use or apply the flag or any image of it as or as part of any trademark, or to produce or display any flag which bears any graphics or word superimposed on the design of the national flag. The flag or any image of it may also not be used or applied as or as part of any costume or attire except in such circumstances as may be approved in which there is no disrespect for the flag.
The national flag must normally be flown at full mast. However, the Government may ask for the flag to be lowered to half-mast in the event of the death of an important personage or mourning affecting the nation. No person is permitted to use or display the flag or any image of it at any private funeral ceremony or rite. No person may display, or cause to be displayed, any flag that is damaged or dirty. Any worn out or damaged flag should be packed into a sealed black trash bag before being disposed and not left visible in dustbins.
On National Day (9 August) 2007 at the Padang, 8,667 volunteers holding up red and white umbrellas formed Singapore's largest flag at an event organised by Young NTUC, a youth movement associated with the National Trades Union Congress.
The national flag is sometimes flown by Singapore-registered vessels, although this is incorrect as such vessels are required to hoist proper national colours either when entering or leaving port. The ensign is red and charged with a circle enclosing a crescent surmounted by five stars in a circle, all in white. The national flag is also not used by non-military government vessels such as coast guard ships, which fly a state ensign of blue with the national flag in the canton, charged with an eight-pointed red and white compass rose in the lower fly; or by warships, which fly a naval ensign similar to the state ensign, but in white with a red compass rose emblem.
The Singapore Government makes announcements regarding the lowering of the flag to half-mast in the event of a death of an important personage or mourning affecting the nation. The flag was flown at half-mast during the funerals of former presidents and senior politicians, and on 9 January 2005 as a mark of respect for those who perished in the 2004 Asian Tsunami disaster.
In January 2003, Singaporean artist Justin Lee Chee Kong was prevented by the Media Development Authority (MDA) from exhibiting a painting entitled Double Happiness A Fantasy in Red, which consisted of an image of the Singapore flag with various red images of the Chinese characters for double happiness. The move was made on the grounds that "the National Flag is a national symbol and no words or graphics should be superimposed on it". Lee said that the work was simply a display of one's love for one's country and an expression of joy at Singapore's success, and in a press statement asked that the piece be "treated as an artistic and complimentary interpretation of a national icon". The Chinese words in his painting, often used at weddings, signified the marriage between Singapore's Asian roots and Western lifestyle, and the boundary between red and white echoed the Singapore skyline. He saw the painting as a contribution to his country from a proud citizen. When interviewed by The New Paper, he said "I know as a citizen that we are not allowed to do it, but this is art and I am an artist." He described the local art scene as "narrow-minded" and asked "how are we going to prove ourselves?". He also complained about double standards as a Chinese artist, Gu Wen Da, had recently exhibited a national flag made of hair at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. Lee felt the use of hair to create the nation's flag meant that the flag was in the wrong colours, and was distasteful. The MDA's reaction to these comments was not available at press time.
In August 2007, a Singaporean pub, Loof, sent an electronic direct mailer to at least 1,500 members on its mailing list featuring a close-up shot of the crotch of a female model wearing a red swimsuit or pair of underpants bearing the crescent and five stars of the national flag. This was done as part of the pub's publicity campaign for its National Day events. According to Loof's marketing manager, "[T]he ad was definitely not meant as an insult to the country or anyone. I hope that the ad will be taken in the spirit of humour and fun." A majority of people polled by The New Paper felt the advertisement was disrespectful and in bad taste. MICA said that the advertisement did not breach the law as it only reproduced some components of the flag it did not, for example, incorporate the flag's red and white background together. However, Dr. K.U. Menon, director of MICA's National Resilience Division, said: "MICA does not encourage such ads which treat the national flag with disrespect. The image of the stars and crescent against a red background is derived from the design of our flag. Symbols should be treated with some measure of dignity and we hope Loof will withdraw the ad on its own initiative.