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Second Reading of National Symbols Bill (Closing Speech)

Speech by Ms Low Yen Ling, Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth & Ministry of Trade and Industry, for the Second Reading of the National Symbols Bill on 13 Sep 2022

1. I would like to thank Members for their speeches and their views on the Bill.

Ownership of the National Symbols 

2. The National Symbols belong to Singapore and all Singaporeans. They represent our State and people. They embody our most cherished ideals, values and aspirations. They are a manifestation of our shared identity. As our founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, believed, the Symbols have “every reason to endure as the emblems of the State” and “will evoke loyalty and unity in our people”.

3. The Bill reflects our intention to uphold and cultivate this unity and patriotic sense of collective ownership of the National Symbols like Mr Leon Perera mentioned earlier. 

a. We have consulted citizens and fellow Singaporeans widely over the last two years for this Bill, which reflects the wishes and suggestions of what we have heard and learned from Singaporeans in the last two years.

b. Singaporeans are proud of the National Symbols and recognise the duty of respect we have towards them. 

4. As we seek to replace the SAFNA Act with the National Symbols Act, Members Mr Louis Ng and Mr Yip Hon Weng raised questions for greater clarity on possible changes to the Symbols.

5. Let me first address the points raised by Mr Ng regarding Clause 13 of the Bill, which seeks to empower the President to amend any aspect or description of a Symbol, by Proclamation in the Gazette.

a. Mr Ng observed that the Bill allows the aspect or description of any Symbol to be “amended by notification in the Gazette without requiring the approval of Parliament” and “appears to be incongruent with the sacrosanct nature of the Symbols.” He wishes to know the circumstances in which such amendments may be made and if the public would be consulted before any such amendments.

6. I would like to state that we do not envisage amending or altering the Symbols in any significant way. 

a. As Mr Ng pointed out, the National Symbols and their official meanings are well-established and widely recognised by Singaporeans.

b. Clause 13 of the Bill will likely only be used to make minor and technical updates from time to time, for example – the enhancement of the digital file quality of the official images of the Symbols. We do not envisage this clause to be used frequently, or in any significant way.

c. Under the SAFNA Act, the description of the National Anthem, State Crest and National Flag are all already set out in subsidiary legislation.

d. In exercising the power of amendment under Clause 13, the President will be acting on the advice of the Cabinet.

7. In the event that any significant amendment to a Symbol is being considered in accordance with the wishes of the people of Singapore, we will take the public’s views into consideration and if significant changes are needed, Parliament will be consulted.

8. Mr Yip raised a related point, namely, whether the legislation would cover the addition and inclusion of newer symbols.

9. I wish to clarify that:

a. Parliament will need to amend the Bill to add a new national symbol.

b. For now, we do not foresee the need or wish to add new national symbols. The Citizens’ Workgroup for National Symbols had studied this matter and had polled Singaporeans for their views in March 2021.

c. Most respondents had “reflected a preference for no new additions to the current set of National Symbols”.

10. I wish to assure Members that any significant changes to the Symbols will not be undertaken lightly.

a. There will be ways, apart from the law, that we can recognise and appreciate significant symbols and images that may evoke in the future as we continue to build our sense of national identity.

Greater Flexibility in Expressing National Pride Through the National Symbols 

11. I want to thank all the six members who spoke passionately, with a lot of conviction with their support to do more to let Singaporeans express their national pride through our National Symbols, such as Mr Perera and Mr Darryl David. Let me now address the questions related to giving Singaporeans greater flexibility to use the National Symbols to express their national pride. 

12. Mr Darryl David asked if we could consider extending or even abolishing the fixed period when the Flag could be flown.  

13. In our public consultations held over 24 months, greater flexibility was very much welcomed. 

a. However, those we engaged also consistently raised the concern that over-liberalisation would diminish the stature of the Symbols, and lead to more incidences of misuse.

14. Some of the members also highlighted that hanging the Flag, when the National Day period comes around each year, is a form of national ritual that affirms our patriotism and love for the country, not unlike the daily pledge-taking or singing of the National Anthem in schools.

15. We have therefore taken a calibrated approach towards liberalising the use of the National Symbols, by trying to lower the barriers to the most common uses, whilst putting in checks and balances safeguard and protect the dignity and stature of the National Symbols. 

16. Mr Ng, Mr Mark Chay, Mr Darryl David, and Mr Yip asked about the guidelines on the use of the National Symbols and the process by which permission for their use can be sought.

a. Mr Ng highlighted the need for the approval process to be “accessible, low-cost, and simple” enough for well-intentioned individuals, such as independent creatives.

b. On a related note, Mr Mark Chay asked about the approval process for National Sports Associations, or NSAs, to use the National Flag or other symbols on their sporting attire, and whether there are guidelines for which national teams can use the Flag or other symbols on their uniforms.

c. Mr Darryl David also asked about the approval process for using the Lion Head symbol on product packaging, and suggested that the guidelines of use must be explicitly communicated to prevent the public and merchants from contravening the use of those Symbols.

d. Similarly, during his speech, Mr Yip asked for more clarity on the usage and design guidelines for the National Symbols, including:

i. their uses in commercial advertisements,

ii. how detailed the proposed regulations will be,

iii. clearer examples on how the image of the National Flag could be used on attire, decoration and products in cases where no official approval is required, and

iv. if a guiding framework will be developed to help  designers navigate this process. 

Approval process

17. I thank the Members for highlighting these important considerations. Because the Symbols belong to our people, we wish for fellow Singaporeans to have more opportunities to display and celebrate their national pride. As we allow for more flexibility in the use of the Symbols, we will also ensure that the guidelines on their usage are easily accessible and easily understood, especially for cases where no prior approvals will be needed.  

18. Presently, we have in place a simple process for anyone who wishes to seek approval for the use of a National Symbol. Depending on the context and nature of use, this process will continue after the Bill comes into effect. This process will also remain free for users.

19. As pointed out by Mr Chay, there are specific administrative processes required to use the National Symbols in some cases, like in the instance of attire for Team Singapore athletes. This is to ensure the accurate and dignified representation of our country outside of Singapore by our sporting ambassadors. 

a. For example, currently approvals for use of the image of the Flag on the team attire for national athletes are channelled through Sport Singapore - the public body providing recognition and support for NSAs. Approvals for other organisations who wish to use the National Flag on their attire, including youth teams that may not belong to an NSA, are granted through MCCY on a case-by-case basis.

b. Under the Bill, we plan to further streamline this process by having a simplified set of guidelines in place to facilitate the respectful and non-commercial use of the image of the Flag on attire, including sporting attire, where users are not required to obtain any prior approval. Sport Singapore will continue to work closely with NSAs to advise them on the respectful use of the image of the Flag in their team attire. 

c. All updates and changes regarding the use of the Symbols will be clearly shown on the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) website when the subsidiary legislation has been enacted.

Guidelines on Respectful Use

20. Let me now turn to the guidelines to ensure respectful use of the National Symbols as we expand their usage. 

21. We agree with both Mr Yip and Mr David that clear and accessible guidelines on the use of the National Symbols are important to give the public and users the assurance that the National Symbols are treated with due respect. 

22. Currently, those who wish to use the National Symbols can find on the NHB website the background, guidelines, frequently asked questions, and requirements for use of each symbol.

a. Individuals or organisations can seek clarification or report a prima facie misuse of a National Symbol by submitting a simple enquiry form via the NHB website. 

23. The question of how we ought to define disrespectful use is indeed a very important one which had come up in our public engagements, including those with the creative industry. 

24. Some clear examples of disrespectful use which we have encountered and dealt with in the past include:

a. Works with the image of the Flag alongside images featuring nudity and violence is considered disrespectful use; 

b. Using the design of the Flag on undergarments is considered disrespectful use; and

c. Displaying images of a damaged or torn Flag in the context of denigrating the nation is considered disrespectful use.

25. Mr Yip’s example about applying an image of the Flag on paraphernalia to be burned as religious offerings would fall into this category.

26. Very often and in many cases, the context, the nature of use, and intent behind the use of the symbols have to be carefully considered to determine if the usage of image was disrespectful or inappropriate. 

27. Mr Darryl David brought up several examples, such as remixing the National Anthem, using the Pledge in a performance, or getting a permanent tattoo of the Lion Head symbol.

28. To reduce ambiguity, I want to assure the Members we intend to develop more specific guidelines based on clearly articulated principles to establish common standards of what might constitute respectful or disrespectful treatment of the National Symbols. 

a. For instance, whether on attire or decoration – any use of the image of the Flag should avoid areas where the attire or the decoration would be easily soiled or stepped upon.

b. For other Symbols like the National Anthem, guidelines would include using the complete official lyrics and music when rearranging the Anthem and ensuring that the Anthem is not incorporated into any other medley or composition. For both the Anthem and the Pledge, the guidelines will address questions on the potential commercial use of the Symbols. 

29. We also intend to make provisions under the Bill for a stop order to be issued against disrespectful use of the National Symbols. 

a. Failure to comply with the stop order will constitute an offence. 

b. The use of stop orders will reduce uncertainty about what constitutes an offence. This will also help clearly to address cases of misuse.

30. Like what Mr Darryl David mentioned, it is really not possible for the guidelines to cover all possible scenarios. We are also very mindful that the guidelines should not be too rigid or prescriptive, as this might inhibit creativity and greater use of the National Symbols. I assure the House that MCCY will carefully consider the points raised by Members in our next steps of development. 

a. We aim to provide as much clarity on the usage and design guidelines for the National Symbols as we can.

b. The updated guidelines will be published once the regulations under the Bill are enacted in 2023.

c. We will also continue to keep open channels for the public to provide feedback or seek clarification on their intended use of the National Symbols, or to report any potential misuse.

31. We aim to strike a good balance between giving Singaporeans the latitude to use the National Symbols creatively and ensuring due respect for them. 

Safeguarding the Symbols against Misuse through Deterrence and Penalties

32. The third group of questions I would like to address pertains to safeguarding the Symbols. Mr Ng, Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Perera and Mr Yip raised questions about penalties for those who knowingly – or unknowingly – misuse the National Symbols under the Bill.  

Guiding Principles

33. These questions are important. Before I address them in detail, I would like to reiterate the principles underpinning the proposed legislative framework. 

a. The objective is to provide greater flexibility for members of the public to use the National Symbols to identify with our nation. 

b. With greater flexibility comes greater responsibility. This means that stronger safeguards are necessary to ensure that individuals and organisations use the National Symbols in a respectful manner. Penalties should be reasonable and commensurate with the severity of the misuse.

34. We envision that the broad categories of offences under the new regulations will include, for example: 

a. Using a National or Presidential Symbol that conveys state sanction or authority without permission;

b. Using a National or Presidential Symbol outside the prescribed manner; and 

c. Failure to cease disrespectful use when ordered to do so.

35. The questions raised by Mr Ng, Ms Pereira, Mr Yip pertain to each of these three categories mentioned above. 

a. In response to Mr Ng’s question if the Government would consider an enhanced punishment for those who misuse the National Symbols to mislead others, I would like to state that egregious offences like the desecration or deliberate burning of the Flag, as well as the intentional use of the State Crest, Flag or Presidential symbols to misrepresent the Government or deceive the public, would attract higher penalties. 

b. On the other hand, as Mr Leon Perera mentioned, minor infractions such as the inadvertent failure to remove the Flag after the designated display period will not incur such penalties. 

c. Mr Yip had asked if an image of the Flag on the uniforms of security guards would be viewed as an offence.

i. In practice, MCCY and NHB do not impose penalties as a first course of action. 

ii. Our approach for these cases would be to educate and inform the public on the guidelines, and request that the Flag be removed.

d. For other similar cases of misuse – such as inadvertently hanging the Flag the wrong way – we find that this approach of raising awareness, through public education, works as well.

e. We agree with Ms Pereira and Mr Leon Perera about the importance of public education to prevent any unintentional misuse of the National Symbols. Individuals who have inadvertently misused the Symbols should be given a chance to explain and not be penalised for an honest mistake. 

36. In addition, we note Ms Pereira’s observation about the lack of a suitable area to display the Flag for certain residents, such as those in public rental housing flats. Ms Pereira will be happy to note that MCCY will take this into consideration and address this in our engagements with other public agencies as part of our plans to promote respectful use of the Flag.

a. We share her view that everyone should have the opportunity to demonstrate their love for the country – through the display of the National Flag from their homes, and with the rest of the community.

37. The precise offences and maximum penalties for these offences are still being deliberated and will be carefully calibrated to ensure that they are proportionate.

38. Depending on the facts, misuse of the symbols could also amount to offences under other legislation.

39. Mr Yip asked about the number of cases prosecuted under the current SAFNA Act and Rules.

a. To our knowledge, there have been police investigations, but not prosecutions or composition of offences, under the SAFNA Act and Rules.

i. For example, in 2018, a social media user posted an image of our National Flag being torn apart to reveal an image of another country’s flag. The user was issued a stern warning for contravention of the SAFNA Rules.

b. While there has not been any prosecutions and composition of offences under the SAFNA Act and Rules, certain misuses of the National Symbols were dealt with under other legislation, such as the Penal Code 1871, where some of the offenders were punished by imprisonment.

c. Singaporeans have generally treated the National Symbols with respect, and we are confident that they will continue to do so.

40. Mr Yip asked about the time given to an offender to cease disrespectful use of a Symbol before enforcement action is taken after a stop order.

a. We will provide a reasonable timeframe that would give the user sufficient time to explain his/her position and use. 

b. Further details, such as the prescribed person and the appeals authority and processes, will be set out in the subsidiary legislation.

41. The National Emblems (Control of Display) Act 1949 governs the display of foreign national emblems in Singapore. Mr Yip raised a question on how this Act would be amended.

a. Under the Bill, that Act will be renamed the Foreign National Emblems (Control of Display) Act 1949 to make the distinction that it deals with foreign national emblems.

Important Role of Public Education 

42. In closing, I would like to underline what Ms Pereira had highlighted earlier – on the importance of public education. 

a. I agree with her that most people do not set out to intentionally misuse the Symbols. More often than not, it is likely due to genuine mistakes.

b. This has generally been our experience.

c. We have also received feedback, through the Citizens’ Workgroup and in-depth consultations with stakeholders, that public education would be key to the success of this Bill. Public education and raising public awareness.

43. As such, while the proposed legislative changes – such as the stop order – aim to address concerns on possible misuse of the Symbols, I assure Members that we will: 

a. Focus on public education to ensure that members of the public are aware of the guidelines and do not inadvertently use the Flag or other Symbols disrespectfully.

b. We will likewise increase public awareness of how to suitably display National Symbols like the Flag at relevant junctures such as the National Day period.

Conclusion

44. Mdm, I thank all six Members for passionate speeches, their questions and input on the Bill that is before us today. 

45. The National Symbols belong to all Singaporeans because it represents the values and ideals that we hold dear.  

a. We hope the Bill will foster greater pride and use of the National Symbols among Singaporeans.

b. As we give expression to the love we have for Singapore, we affirm our identity as a nation, as one united people, as one Singapore. 

c. The Symbols under National Symbols Bill will serve as visual reminders of our aspirations and obligations as Singaporeans and inspire us to greater unity and purpose. 

46. On that note, I thank the Members for their support of the Bill. Mdm, I beg to move.

 
Last updated on 14 September 2022