The Role of the Singapore
Armed Forces in Forging National
Values, Image, and Identity

Col. Fred Wel-Shi Tan, Singapore Armed Forces; Senior Lt. Col. Psalm B. C. Lew, Singapore Armed Forces

Download the PDF


Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defence and membership of the armed forces … the nation building aspect of defence will be more significant if its participation is spread out over all strata of society. This is possible only with some kind of national service.

—Dr. Goh Keng Swee


Singapore as a young country is unique in many ways. Its geo-strategic position at the crossroads of the world’s busiest trade lanes has created a multiethnic and multiracial society, which is still attracting many foreign talents through immigration, bringing with it the challenge of establishing a unique and enduring national identity. The national flag carries a waxing crescent moon to embody the spirit of this young and growing country, and it is widely recognized in Singapore that the work of nationbuilding is never done.


Adding to the challenge of nationbuilding, Singapore’s limited size, small population, and lack of natural resources necessitate a unique approach to its defense. It meets its security requirements through the implementation of national service (NS) in the military. Here, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is both the guardian of the country’s national interests and sovereignty as well as a national institution that brings together people from all walks of life.1 As such, there arises an important role for the SAF, through NS, which is to build a common set of beliefs within young Singaporeans that will define the people of Singapore collectively. This role for the SAF is already widely recognized and is echoed in Singaporean popular culture, with national service being the theme of many dramas and movies such as Ah Boys to Men, which will be filming its fourth sequel in 2017.2

Conscription as a Social Leveler

The practice of conscription in the past five decades has created the “NS citizen soldier”—a unique form of military professionalism where three hundred thousand national servicemen (NSmen) are part of the main fighting force alongside fifty thousand active-duty personnel.3 The SAF has deliberately integrated active-duty personnel and NSmen. For example, a Singapore infantry brigade comprises a mix of active and NSmen units. The brigade headquarters is also staffed by both active-duty personnel and NSmen.4

The SAF has identified the need to sustain Singaporeans’ commitment to defense as a key strategic objective. Toward that end, much effort and many resources have been invested into related initiatives such as values inculcation programs in the curriculum of military schools to help young Singaporeans affirm their national loyalty.

The values being inculcated in these programs are by design and top-down driven. They are not the result of a long common historical experience. The same conscious design applies to development and promotion of Singapore’s code of Shared Values.

Singapore Armed Forces and the Continuous Journey of Nationbuilding

Five shared national values to be promulgated among citizens were proposed by a parliamentary committee and then passed by the Parliament of Singapore on 15 January 1991:

  • Nation before community and society above self
  • Family as the basic unit of society
  • Community support and respect for the individual
  • Consensus, not conflict
  • Racial and religious harmony5

The SAF Core Values and Singapore Shared Values are routinely reviewed to ensure their continued relevance. In August 2012, the Singapore government launched Our Singapore Conversation, an initiative involving over 47,000 Singaporeans in over 660 dialogue sessions. Whilst one of the key perspectives was to build a Singapore anchored on values, there continues to be an open question on which of the Shared Values expressed in 1991 should be retained.6


Evolving Concepts of Values and Ethics in the Singapore Armed Forces

One of the first SAF manifestos to be published was the 1967 SAF Code of Conduct.7 Its release coincided with the development of the first generation SAF. The six-line code prescribes a set of rules, standards, and obligations for all SAF servicemen and servicewomen:

  1. We always honor our nation. We will do everything to uphold it and nothing to disgrace it.
  2. At all times, we must bear in mind that we are the protector of our citizens.
  3. We are loyal to the armed forces and we take pride in our unit, our uniform, our discipline, our work, our training, and ourselves.
  4. We must be exemplary in our conduct. We respect others, and by our conduct win the respect of others. We are courageous but not reckless.
  5. We are devoted to duty but not to ourselves.
  6. We guard our weapons as we guard secrets.

When the SAF Code of Conduct was launched, the following declaration was made by Secretary of Defence Goh Keng Swee to clarify its intent:

Members of the SAF have a unique role; they are not only the ever-vigilant guardian of our nation but are also required to be an example of good citizenship. … Now therefore, I Goh Keng Swee, on the authority of the Army Board of Singapore hereby prescribe the Code of Conduct for members of the SAF. I prescribe that every member of the SAF shall abide by the Code of Conduct and measure up to the standards embodied therein.8

The SAF Code of Conduct was driven by necessity; Singapore was a young nation in 1967 and did not have a professional officer caste. There was an urgent need to use the Code of Conduct to ensure that a sense of dignity and purpose prevailed throughout the SAF as young Singaporeans were conscripted for NS. Yet, at the same time, the declaration also expressed the intent of the country’s founding fathers to imprint upon Singapore’s NS citizen-soldiers a set of ideals that each enlisted male citizen should have.

Singapore Armed Forces Core Values

In the late 1980s, the military began its transformation from a first to a second-generation SAF. The idea emerged to create a new “institute of excellence” that would eventually serve as the home of the SAF officer corps.9 In creating this institute, the idea also included identifying a set of SAF core values in order to create a common set of attributes for SAF officers. After a series of rigorous discussions, the SAF Core Values—Loyalty to Country, Leadership, Discipline, Professionalism, Fighting Spirit, Ethics, and Care for Soldiers—were formalized and subsequently promulgated in 1996.10 In 2013, Safety was added as the newest Core Value. These values were also incorporated into the SAF’s Knowledge-Abilities-Qualities (KAQ) model of leadership under “Qualities,” along with twelve other qualities of leadership.11

With senior leadership’s emphasis and Singapore’s system of mandatory national service, these values were inculcated in the SAF’s officers who passed through the grounds of the SAFTI Military Institute—the home of the SAF officers corps—and then, through the officers, the values eventually were passed on to the soldiers.

In 2016, as SAFTI Military Institute commemorated its fiftieth anniversary, it was recognized by the prime minister as a key institution of the SAF. It continues to play an important role in Singapore’s security, particularly in imbuing the values such as leadership by example and overcoming adversity with courage.12

Definitions of the SAF Core Values

Loyalty to Country is best expressed in the Oath of Allegiance every SAF soldier, sailor, and airman takes upon entering service with the SAF.13 In taking the oath, they become members of the SAF.

Service members demonstrate this Core Value by their duty and their commitment to defend their country and, if need be, sacrifice their lives for their country. This Core Value requires their respect and adherence to the military law and civilian law. It entails their willingness to bear arms in defense of their country until released by lawful authority while putting national interests ahead of personal interests. At its core, these are the fundamental obligations of all members of the SAF.

Leadership in the SAF is neither about the leader as a person, nor is it about the rank and authority that he or she holds. Leadership is the process of influencing people to accomplish the mission, inspire their commitment, and improve their organization. Service members demonstrate this Core Value by influencing people not only through their competence and skills, but also through their personal character of living their values each day. This value entails leading by personal example, presence, and involvement—by embodying the SAF Core Values each day. It involves leading with integrity, taking responsibility, and demonstrating selfless service to the Singaporean people, the SAF, and the country. Finally, it involves developing others to achieve their full potential while inspiring them to give their best to serve their country.

Discipline ensures the readiness to respond to emerging threats. It requires an appreciation of the military system and the role the military plays in the defense of the nation. This appreciation allows for the responsible obedience to orders and the timely and accurate execution of assigned tasks. Discipline is instilled through tough training and through mission command.

Service members demonstrate this Core Value by performing their duties to the best of their abilities, even when it is difficult and demanding. This means having the inner strength, self-control, mental stamina, physical toughness, and perseverance to accomplish assigned missions. Lastly, it means respecting established procedures and systems while being flexible and adapting appropriately to change, keeping the higher command’s intent in mind at all times.

Professionalism is exhibited through job proficiency and being consistently reliable in every action. Service members demonstrate this Core Value by continuously striving to learn, improve, and excel; by rejecting complacency; by setting high standards for everything they do; by training hard; and by always endeavoring to do their best.

Fighting Spirit is the tenacity and determination to succeed in any undertaking. Service members demonstrate this Core Value by showing aggressiveness and perseverance in training and by having the courage to engage decisively in battle and win. Having a fighting spirit means resolutely overcoming all odds with determination to accomplish the mission and having the mental fortitude to withstand fear and uncertainty while remaining vigilant in routine or mundane tasks.

Ethics is exercising principled conduct and having the moral strength to always do what is right rather than taking the easy way out or giving in to temptations. Service members demonstrate this Core Value by choosing to do what is right with convictions, unyielding even at personal cost; by being upright and trustworthy; and by being honest and accurate in reporting. Service members must have integrity when dealing with others, and they must not misuse their positions or power against anyone. They must think of the consequences before acting and accept responsibility and accountability for their actions.

Care for Soldiers is the genuine concern for the well-being of fellow comrades, their families, and those that service members are pledged to protect. Care goes beyond ensuring safety and providing welfare to support the physical, emotional, and mental wellness and health of comrades. It is demonstrated by ensuring they are properly equipped, provided with adequate sustenance, adequately rested, and thoroughly trained to fight and survive in battle. Lastly, care is shown by providing a personal touch and by having respect for one another.

Last, Safety is an integral part of training, operations, and mission success. Service members demonstrate this Core Value by conducting proper risk management and by vigilantly adhering to safety standards when performing all tasks. Safety is an individual, team, and command responsibility. Everyone is expected to be a safety advocate, championing safety in his or her own area of work. As members of a team, service members must always look out for one another and take care of each other.

Three Levels of Values Inculcation

To holistically implement values inculcation in the SAF, the SAF Centre for Leadership Development (CLD) has mapped out a three-level values inculcation process: alignment, adherence, and internalization (see figure 1).


Level 1 (Alignment). Conducted in workshops across all the key SAF route-of-advancement courses, this first level begins with clarification of each individual’s personal values through self-reflection and values prioritization. This is followed by individual mapping, or alignment, of personal values to the SAF Core Values.

Level 2 (Adherence). This level focuses on helping leaders “do the right thing” whilst managing their concerns about punishments and conformity. To support the development of SAF leaders, CLD resources include case studies, SAF Core Values software through online learning platforms, and serious games. CLD also advocates character development through participation in sports in all SAFTI Military Institute courses.

Level 3 (Internalization). In this level, SAF leaders learn to internalize and apply the SAF Core Values in context by considering the tensions between the various Core Values to arrive at the best course of action. Modules like the “Ethics in Command,” “Peace-Keeping Operations Scenario-Based Discussions,” and “Storytelling of Personal Experiences” have been included in the curriculum of senior warrant officer courses, advanced-level officer courses, and the Command and Staff Course. Through these ethics modules, SAF leaders begin to reflect on what the SAF Core Values mean to them personally and how they can uphold these values in their daily lives. In doing so, it also prepares these leaders to sustain a values-based leadership culture in the units and military schools that they will eventually go on to lead, ultimately having a positive impact on the Core Values inculcation in young Singaporean conscripts.

Values as the Foundation of Leadership

As the military profession in Singapore transforms into a third-generation SAF, CLD has created a framework to help servicemen understand the ethics and values Singapore is striving to inculcate in its population. Since 2003, the SAF Leadership Development Framework (see figure 2) has guided commander’s discussions about leadership in the SAF.14


Of the four components of leadership presented in the framework’s triangle, Core Values is placed at the bottom because it is the foundation of effective leadership in the SAF. The framework’s circle describes the context (i.e., SAF’s mission and purpose, the operating environment, and desired outcomes) that shapes how SAF commanders lead and operate.

Whilst there has been no study to examine how many of the twenty thousand enlistees each year have adopted the SAF Core Values as their own, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that the SAF Core Values permeate Singapore’s national character because 50 percent of the national population is fulfilling its NS obligation.

Forging Singapore’s National Values through National Service

As the SAF Core Values evolve over the years, they recognizably shape the national values through the NSmen, who are both citizens and soldiers. With the NS system, the SAF’s values are woven into the country’s social fabric. This was only made possible through the many years of effort to engender strong support for NS. Today, for all Singaporeans, NS is considered a rite of passage to adulthood, and it is an undertaking close to the people’s hearts.

Beyond the two-year, full-time NS, Singaporean males also serve as NSmen until they are fifty years old, with annual in-camp training and physical fitness requirements.

National service (NS) is also one path for permanent residents (foreign nationals) to becoming accepted as Singaporeans.15 It is no longer a surprise to see a young man of European descent or first-generation immigrants from Asian countries training alongside Singaporeans in NS. Regardless of background in terms of race, language, religion, or social status, NS in Singapore is a “melting pot” for all to be trained as soldiers, sailors, and airmen with the common goal of defending the country. The shared NS experience of Singapore citizens and permanent residents greatly enhances the social cohesion of Singaporean society. Additionally, those who are beyond the age of enlistment can join the SAF Volunteer Corps. As auxiliary security trooper Philip Von Meyenburg said, they can “join the brotherhood … of the SAF.”16


Very few countries in the world share the same sense of military-social integration. The SAF epitomizes the values and belief systems held by its citizens, since the profession is formed by its people. A physical manifestation of the integration of the military service into the Singaporean social fabric is evidenced from the local saying that in every neighborhood and apartment block in Singapore, a few sets of military uniforms will always be seen hanging out to dry, especially on weekends when the soldiers return home.17

Therefore, in developing and building every new generation of soldiers, sailors, and airmen with the SAF Core Values, the SAF is building their character and preparing them for life as citizens with a common Singaporean identity. This process is in itself part of the nation-building effort to strengthen and reinforce Singapore’s national values in its population.

Forging Singapore’s National Image

The values shared by the soldiers and citizens shape Singapore’s national image. Here, the SAF’s role in projecting the national image is inherent in its mission, which is “to enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor.”18 Deterrence in this case is contingent on the national image of Singapore from the perspective of the global publics. A positive national image of Singapore as an economically, socially, psychologically, and militarily strong country with civil preparedness along the five pillars of total defense creates deterrence and supports diplomacy.19

Branding the national image of Singapore is no longer just the mission of the Singapore Tourism Board; branding Singapore is arguably an integral part of the SAF mission.

As it stands, SAF has 350,000 active and national servicemen. This provides Singapore with a unique edge over many countries because, through NS, approximately 10 percent of the country’s national population are ambassadors branding the national image regardless of whether they are in or out of their uniforms. Here, there are no elaborate programs or briefings to teach NSmen how to be ambassadors for their country; this is simply achieved through the inculcation of the SAF Core Values that are then overtly put on display in action by active-duty personnel and NSmen during operations that range from local missions such as the protection of key installations to overseas missions such as the support for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Additionally, it is our view that to deter a potential aggressor, the most powerful national image for a small nation is one of a technologically advanced military coupled with committed, confident soldiers and cohesive units, anchored on a set of values shared by the people they defend.

Forging Singapore’s National Identity

Whilst individual values can be inculcated through daily living, and an image built through living out those values, national identity is forged through common experience. Accordingly, the SAF has played an important role in all of Singapore’s key national events in the past fifty years. Whilst the SAF actively participates in celebratory events such as the organization of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee in 2015, it has more importantly come forward during national crises. For example, the SAF conducted the emergency distribution of face masks during the trans-regional haze in 2014 and when Singapore was affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. And, in the face of terrorist threats, the SAF has been mounting operations to protect key installations such as the Jurong Island refinery, which supplies a significant percentage of the world’s refined petroleum products.20

On all these occasions, the SAF has provided generations of conscripts an opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Singaporeans during crises, thereby strengthening their identification with Singapore and also helping a heterogeneous population act and feel as one.


Over the last fifty years, the SAF has provided a strong foundation to support Singapore’s nation-building progress. As the former prime minister of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, told SAF officers at his last official engagement with them, “Without a strong SAF, there is no economic future, there is no security.”21 Through the SAF’s national service system, generations of Singaporean citizens are reminded that “what you cannot defend is not yours.”22 In his preface in the SAF’s fiftieth anniversary book, Our SAF: Giving Strength to Our Nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Indeed, the SAF is the cornerstone of the Singapore Story. It has given us the peace and security to build a home, the strength to forge a cohesive society, and the freedom to pursue our dreams and chart our own destiny.”23


Epigraph. Minister for Defence Dr. Goh Keng Swee, speech to Singapore Parliament on the National Service (Amendment) Bill, 13 March 1967, Parliament Debates 25: 23 February 1966–24 May 1967, col. 1160.


  1. “Speech by the Minister of Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, in Moving the Second Reading of the National Service (Amendment) Bill in the Singapore Parliament on Monday, 13th March, 1967,” Singapore Government Press Statement, accessed 20 December 2016,
  2. Jack Neo, Ah Boys to Men (Singapore: J Team Productions, 2012), DVD.
  3. 3. All Singaporean males who reach the age of eighteen are conscripted to render national service (NS) to the country. NS comprises two years of full-time service and at least ten years of NS liability, during which they render service up to a maximum of forty days per year. Upon completing ten years of NS liability, they will enter the Ministry of Defence Reserve. In essence, every male is a national serviceman. Those serving full-time are known as national servicemen, or NSFs, as opposed to national servicemen (NSmen) who serve annually.
  4. Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore (Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2004), 123–25.
  5. White Paper on Shared Values (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1991), Call number: RSING 306.095957 SIN.
  6. Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information, “Perspectives Arising from Our Singapore Conversation,” Our Singapore Conversation website, accessed 20 December 2016,
  7. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) initially printed the SAF Code of Conduct as little booklets with a red hardcover binding, which the soldiers were supposed to carry in their left breast pocket.
  8. The SAF Code of Conduct was launched at a formal parade at the former Singapore Ministry of Interior and Defence on 14 July 1967. The late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, then minister of defence, signed a declaration that is on display at the Army Museum of Singapore.
  9. The original institute, the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI), was founded in 1966. The Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute Military Institute (SAFTI MI) was officially opened in 1995; the new institute maintains its lineage from the original.
  10. The SAF Core Values: Our Common Identity (Singapore: SAFTI MI, 1996).
  11. Kim-Yin Chan et al., Spirit and Systems: Leadership Development for a Third Generation SAF, Pointer Monograph No. 4 (Singapore: SAFTI MI, 2005), 73, accessed 28 December 2016,
  12. Singapore Ministry of Defence, “SAFTI MI a Key Institution that Produces the SAF Leaders of Today and Tomorrow: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,” news release, 26 June 2016, accessed 20 December 2016,
  13. For more information on the Core Values, see “The SAF Core Values,” SAF Centre for Leadership Development website, accessed 20 December 2016,; for more on the Oath of Allegiance, see “Our Beginnings,” Our Army Customs and Traditions: Understanding Why We Do What We Do (Singapore: Ministry of Defence, April 2006), 13–14, accessed 20 December 2016,
  14. Kim-Yin Chan et al., Spirit and Systems, 17–22.
  15. Male permanent residents in Singapore would generally be offered citizenship if they served national service.
  16. 16. Chan Lou Er, “First Cohort of SAFVC Volunteers Mark End of Basic Training,” Channel NewsAsia, 27 June 2015, accessed 20 December 2016,
  17. Carl Skadian and Psalm B. C. Lew, 40 Years and 40 Stories of National Service (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2007), 242.
  18. “Mission,” Singapore Ministry of Defence website, accessed 20 December 2016,
  19. “Total Defence,” Singapore Ministry of Defence website, accessed 20 December 2016,
  20. Jared Yeo, “10 Years of Vigilance: Steadfast We Stand,” Army News 193 (October 2011), accessed 20 December 2016,
  21. “Mr Lee Kuan Yew Speaks with SAF Officers and Defence Officials at Dinner Dialogue,” Singapore Ministry of Defence Official Release, 18 May 2012, accessed 20 December 2016,
  22. Lt. Gen. Lim Chuan Poh, “Interviews with the Chiefs of Defence Force,” SAF50 website, accessed 20 December 2016,
  23. Lee Hsien Loong, “Message,” Giving Strength to Our Nation: The SAF and Its People, SAF50 website, 13, accessed 20 December 2016,


Col. Fred Wel-Shi Tan, is the head of the Singapore Armed Forces Centre for Leadership Development. He holds a BS from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, and an MS in human resource management and development from New York University. He previously commanded an infantry brigade and was deployed in Timor Leste as part of the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor and in Aceh, Indonesia, as part of the Aceh Monitoring Mission.

Senior Lt. Col. Psalm B. C. Lew, is the head of plans of the Singapore Armed Forces Army Information Centre. He holds an MA in international communications from the University of Leeds and a BSc (1st Class Honors) in psychology from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He previously commanded a national service infantry battalion, and he was also head of schoolhouse leadership development in the Singapore Armed Forces Centre for Leadership Development, responsible for the introduction of the new leadership and values curriculum. Lew is the primary author for this article.

March-April 2017