Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band provides musical support for state and military functions and is the musical ambassador of the SAF. The band traces its beginnings to the Singapore Military Forces (SMF) staff band that was formed in 1958. Since then, the band has undergone several name and structural changes. In January 1994, the bands of the three armed forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – were merged to form the SAF Band consisting of the SAF Central Band and the SAF Ceremonial Band.

Singapore Military Forces (SMF) staff band
In 1958, Captain F. W. Roy, then Director of Music of the SMF, formed the SMF staff band comprising a band of 30 players and a corps of 20 buglers and drummers. He managed to achieve this feat within six months. Out of the 50 bandsmen, only five had prior training in music, resulting in the majority of players having to learn music from scratch.1

Captain Roy used unusual methods to train his students who could not read music. He labelled the holes of clarinets and saxophones with the names of the notes and invented comic rhymes to help the students remember the keys or number of sharps or flats in the pieces they were learning. The bandsmen themselves also put in much practice to improve.

The SMF band made its debut public performance on 2 October 1958 at the farewell of former commandant of the SMF, Colonel P. D. Denman. The band played Auld Lang Syne as the liner carrying Denman left the docks.3 Since then, the band performed at various functions such as National Day celebrations and military parades.4

Military bands for the various services
In November 1962, the SMF staff band was renamed the Singapore Infantry Regiment (SIR) band.5 In October 1963, the band went on a recruitment drive to achieve a full strength of 65 musicians.6 

In August 1965, then Lieutenant Abdullah Ahmad was appointed as Director of Music of the SAF to oversee the SIR band. He is the first Singaporean to hold this position.7 A former trumpeter in a cabaret, Abdullah joined the armed forces as a bandsman in 1958 and was later sent to attend a bandmaster course at the Royal Military School of Music in London, England, in 1962.8 He was appointed music director upon his graduation in 1965.9

By 1966, the SIR band had begun to make public appearances at fairs, shows and community centres.10 The band also performed in public parks such as the Botanic Gardens and during the monthly changing of the guard ceremony at the Istana.11

Around 1969, another band, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) band, was formed. This band was renamed the Singapore Armoured Regiment (SAR) band in 1972.12 

Under the guidance of Abdullah Ahmad, who had been promoted to Captain, and his second in command, Second Lieutenant Ervin Dragon, both the SIR and SAF bands expanded their repertoire beyond military music and adopted innovative approaches to their performances. One innovation involved using rifles to produce music. Bandsmen would remove the bolt of the rifle and blow into the barrel using a blow-piece to produce a sound that was akin to the sound produced by pipes or flutes. The bands also began to play light popular music, especially during informal functions.13 

A strong advocate of music education, the bands strived to achieve musical excellence and aimed to nurture music talents. Staff Sergeant Major Teo Chwee Lye, for example, joined the SIR in 1958 with only the ability to play the piano. He furthered his studies at the Royal Military School of Music in 1970 and emerged the best all-round student bandmaster of 1972. By the time Major Teo graduated, he could play every instrument in the military band.14 

Subsequently, various units in the armed forces formed their own bands. However, these bands were later reorganised into three bands, one for each armed force: the Army, Navy and Air Force. While the SIR band retained its name, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) band was formed in 1977 from the 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade (2 SIB) band.15 In December 1981, the SAR band was dissolved and reorganised into the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) band. The RSAF band made its debut at the Istana on 14 February 1982, performing for the changing of the guard ceremony.16 

The members of these three service bands consisted of both full-time national servicemen (NSF) and regulars. Auditions were held regularly to recruit bandsmen who were expected to complete a three-month basic bandsmen course. The dependence on NSF was a challenge as the services bands had to constantly find replacements for NSF bandsmen who would usually leave after a year or two.17 

Amalgamation and restructuring
In January 1994, the SIR, RSN and RSAF bands were amalgamated and renamed the SAF Band. During the late 1980s, musicians from all three services bands were involved in a series of concert projects that showcased more challenging wind repertoire. The success of these concerts resulted in a restructuring of the bands in order to create an elite band for the SAF.18

Following the restructuring, the SAF Band was reorganised into the premier band known as the SAF Central Band and the SAF Ceremonial Band.19 Aiming to become one of the world’s best military bands, the central band is staffed mainly by professional musicians and supplemented by selected NSF. It performs at major state and SAF functions, parades and ceremonies. The ceremonial band comprises mainly NSF and provides ceremonial music for various parades such as passing out and commissioning parades as well as other SAF events. Musicians from the central band are also members of various ensembles such as the SAF stage band that performs jazz and contemporary music.2

The SAF Central Band serves as a musical ambassador for the SAF and regularly represents Singapore at international military events. In 2012, the central band participated in the International Military Music Festival held in Moscow’s Red Square.21 In 2013, the central band participated in the Swedish International Tattoo and impressed the audience with its strong performance and inclusion of a Swedish song in its repertoire.22 

Besides state and military duties, the SAF Central Band also performs at various community and charity events. In its effort to create greater musical awareness among the general public, the band frequently stages public concerts such as the popular ‘In Harmony’ concert series.23 In addition, the band regularly collaborates with the National Arts Council to promote music in schools and institutions.24

The SAF Band celebrated 50 years of military music services in 2008 with a dinner and the unveiling of a bronze sculpture of a military bugler.25 

Since December 2003, the SAF Band’s headquarters has been a two-storey colonial building in Nee Soon Camp known as the “White House”. The building accommodates 29 practice studios, five sectional studios and two concert band studios with recording equipment. Other facilities include four meeting rooms, a conference room, a lecture hall and a heritage room.26 


Stephanie Ho

1. “Photonews – And the Man Who Makes It,” Straits Times, 21 January 1962, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “And the Man Who Makes It.” 
3. “Farewell to Colonel Is Debut of SMF Band,” Straits Times, 3 October 1958, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Passing Out Parade,” Straits Times, 8 December 1962, 4; “Stage Now Set for Mammoth Celebrations,” Straits Times, 2 June 1960, 4; “The Bands Will Play during Big Parade,” Singapore Free Press, 3 June 1961, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Early Years (1958–1979),” Ministry of Defence, accessed 24 April 2010.
6. “
Wanted: 25 Musicians,” Straits Times, 20 October 1963, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Ministry of Defence, “Early Years.”
8. Gerry De Silva, “Music Mindef Style,” Straits Times, 29 May 1971, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Ministry of Defence, “Early Years.”
9. Ministry of Defence, “Early Years.”
10. “SIR Band Today,” Straits Times, 16 March 1966, 4; Olwen Reed, “Come to the Fair and Win a Car,” Straits Times, 20 March 1966, 8; “Band Show at Padang,”  Straits Times, 7 October 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Band Stand,” Straits Times, 18 February 1970, 4; “Istana Changing of Guard,” Straits Times, 1 February 1969, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “And The Band Played On,” Pioneer: Singapore Armed Forces News, 54 (March–April 1982), 24. (Call no. RSING 355.225 NP)
13. De Silva, “Music Mindef Style.” 
14. “Major Teo’s Love for Music Plays Off,” Straits Times, 19 November 1972, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Y. Ang, “50 Years of Military Music … and Counting,” Pioneer: Singapore Armed Forces News 370 (August 2008), 12. (Call no. RSING 355.225 NP)
16. “Air Force Band Debut at Istana,” Straits Times, 15 February 1982, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “That Big Band Sound: Meeting the SAF Bands,” Pioneer: Singapore Armed Forces News 32 (May 1980), 16. (Call no. RSING 355.225 NP)
18. S. Tay, “The SAF Band,” Army News (Singapore), no. 207 (January 2013), 10. (Call no. RSING q355.0095957 AN)
19. Ang, “50 Years of Military Music,” 12; “Singapore Armed Forces Band,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 24 April 2010; “Singapore Armed Forces Central Band,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 4 May 2010; “SAF Ceremonial Band,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 4 May 2010.
20. Ministry of Defence, “Singapore Armed Forces Band.”
21. Tay, “SAF Band,” 12.
22. H. T. Ong, “SAF Central Band Wows at Swedish Int’l Tattoo,” 29 May 2013.
23. Tay, “SAF Band,” 10–11.
24. Ministry of Defence, “SAF Central Band.”.html
25. Y. Ang, “Celebrating 50 Years of Military Music Services,” 23 July 2008.
26. Tay, “SAF Band,” 13; “Band Complex: The White House,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 24 April 2010.

The information in this article is valid as of 1 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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