Singapore Volunteer Corps

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) was a local militia unit, which began in 1854 as the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps.1 Created in response to the Hokkien-Teochew Riots of 1854, the corps was to assist the local constabulary in maintaining law and order in the colony and initially comprised only Europeans.2 It later expanded its membership to include Straits Chinese, Eurasians and Malays.3

Throughout its history, the SVC underwent several rounds of reorganisation and was known by various names, including the Singapore Volunteer Artillery and the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force.4 Following Singapore’s independence, the SVC was reconstituted as the People’s Defence Force.5 Over time, the role of the volunteer corps diminished, and it ceased in 1984.6 In 2014, volunteer service was reinstated under the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

While the idea for a volunteer corps was first mooted after riots in 1846, the impetus for its creation came only after the Hokkien-Teochew Riots in May 1854.7 The scale and severity of the rioting overwhelmed the local constabulary, who required military support to restore order. Those mobilised included sepoys, marines from berthed warships, convicts and European residents who acted as special constables.8 During the 12-day riots, more than 400 people were killed and 300 houses were razed.9

In view of the escalating violence caused by the Chinese secret societies, as well as the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, it was decided during a public meeting on 8 July 1854 that a volunteer corps would help improve Singapore’s security.10 The meeting was chaired by merchant and magistrate John Purvis, and Governor Colonel W. J. Butterworth supported the formation of the volunteer corps.

The Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps (SVRC) was to assist the police in the preservation of order and to resist foreign invasion.11 Corps membership was exclusive to European residents. The first corps of the SVRC was led by British officers, with 61 members and the governor as its colonel.12

Initially run with private funds, the SVRC ceased to be a private corps after the passing of the Volunteer Ordinance in 1857. In the same year, the SVRC received its colours and established its rules, structure and membership.13 Among the earliest volunteer militias in the British Empire, the SVRC launched its motto Primus in Indus (First in India) in 1860.14 This motto was changed to In Oriente Primus (First in the East) after the Straits Settlements were separated from the government of India’s jurisdiction in 1867.15

By the late 1880s, enthusiasm for volunteer service had waned, possibly because there was no imminent threat of war.16 By then, membership of SVRC was reportedly reduced to six Europeans, and it disbanded on 16 December 1887. After W. G. St. Clair, the editor of The Singapore Free Press, successfully persuaded Governor Cecil Clementi Smith to revive the disbanded SVRC as an artillery corps, the SVRC was revived and succeeded by the Singapore Volunteer Artillery (SVA). Formed on 22 February 1888, the SVA comprised 96 founding members and would augment Singapore’s local garrison.17

Expansion, reorganisation and consolidation
The idea of raising a corps from local Chinese and Eurasians had been suggested as early as 1857 and was mentioned in the Collyer Report written in December that year. In the report, a Captain Best noted that the recruitment of locals would help augment the island’s small garrison and defend against foreign invasion. However, given the perceived internal security threat posed by Chinese insurrection and the trauma of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, colonial administrators dismissed the idea.18 Nevertheless, Eurasians were initially accepted in the early SVRC, and several were corps members in the 1870s.19 Few Eurasians remained in the corps by the 1880s, as the European and Eurasian communities became more segregated within the colonial society.20

Despite being ineligible for volunteer service, the local community made major contributions to the corps in the late 19th century. In 1889, the Chinese, Arab, Chetty and Malay communities contributed funds for the purchase of the SVA’s Maxim guns. The Sultan of Johore and Chinese merchant Cheang Hong Lim made the largest individual contributions, each giving $2,500, which accounted for two out of the four Maxim guns.21

The year 1901 was a milestone in the history of the volunteer corps, with the opening of volunteer service to Eurasians and Straits Chinese. Tan Jiak Kim, former president of the Straits Chinese British Association, had negotiated with the colonial office for the corps to recruit Straits Chinese.22 A Chinese company and a Eurasian company were raised in the Singapore Volunteer Infantry in November that year. The Chinese company’s original members included prominent personalities like Lim Boon Keng, Song Ong Siang and Tan Jiak Kim. On 12 December 1901, the SVA, Singapore Volunteer Rifles, Singapore Volunteer Infantry and Singapore Volunteer Engineers were officially reorganised as the Singapore Volunteer Corps.23 A Malay company was added to the SVC in 1910, proposed by Noor Mohamed Hashim and E. E. Coleman. Both men were members of the Malay Football Association, with Noor serving as honorary secretary-general and Coleman as president.24

During the interwar period, reorganisation and expansion of the corps continued. Under the 1921 Volunteer Ordinance, the SVC was reorganised under the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, to better coordinate command of the other volunteer corps that had emerged in Penang, Province Wellesley and Melaka. On 1 January 1922, with the Volunteer Ordinance in force,25 volunteer corps from the Straits Settlements, including the SVC, were combined into the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force.26 A Scottish company was added in 1922, with their distinctive kilts.27

In 1928, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force received a new badge design featuring a statant lion, and in 1931, an Armoured Car Section consisting of two vehicles was added to the Corps.28 The vehicles featured an armoured frame mounted on a six-wheeled Albion lorry chassis.29

Prior to the completion of the SVC’s drill hall in 1891, the volunteers had used the Town Hall (now Victoria Concert Hall) for drills, as they had no dedicated building of their own. The drill hall was moved from New Harbour (now Keppel Harbour) to Beach Road in 1908,30 because of the redevelopment of the Fullerton area.31 In 1933, a new concrete, Art Deco–style SVC drill hall was built on Beach Road, replacing the old wooden drill hall.32 Designed by architect Frank Dorrington Ward, who also designed the Old Supreme Court and Clifford Pier, the new drill hall served as the SVC’s headquarters.33 The building was gazetted as a national monument in 2002.34

Contributions to security
The SVC played an important role in Singapore’s security. After becoming a government organisation in 1857, it helped quell civil disturbances, notably during the riots of 1857 and 1871.35 In 1922, the SVC was among those mobilised during a police raid against 20 armed robbers in Kallang.36 Singapore volunteers also participated in military expeditions against regional threats – during the Pahang Rebellion in 1892 and a 1915 uprising in Kelantan.37

During World War I, the SVC contributed to the island’s defence by operating electric defence lights, manning examination batteries and guarding prisoners-of-war.38 The force also helped quell the mutiny of 1915, in which 11 volunteers were killed.39

In the Battle of Singapore during World War II, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force was deployed to defend the area from Keppel Harbour to Tanjong Rhu, but most of the volunteers did not participate in active combat before the British surrendered on 15 February 1942.40 Instructed by the British to ditch their uniforms and weapons, many dispersed and blended in with the civilian population.41 However, the force’s 1st Battalion, which consisted of European and Eurasian volunteers, did not receive these orders and were captured along with the rest of the British Commonwealth garrison.42 Many were sent to work under inhumane conditions at the infamous Thai-Burma Railway or to labour camps in Taiwan and Japan.43 Of the volunteers who avoided captivity, some were later rounded up and executed by the Japanese.44

After the end of the Japanese Occupation, the SVC was disbanded in June 1946 but reformed in 1949 under Lieutenant-Colonel Watson Hyatt.45 In April 1950, a Singapore Women’s Auxiliary Corps was added to the SVC,46 and it was absorbed into the Singapore Military Forces in 1953.47 Under the short-lived National Service Ordinance, the SVC became responsible for training recruits from July 1954 until conscription was abandoned in 1956.48 During the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation (or Konfrontasi) in the 1960s, the SVC was mobilised to guard key installations in Singapore and Johor against Indonesian saboteurs.49

With the passing of the People’s Defence Force Act in 1965 after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the SVC was renamed the People’s Defence Force. To build up a local defence force quickly, a recruitment drive was started, and Singaporeans from all walks of life volunteered in the force, including ministers and members of parliament.50 The volunteers continued to play a role in national security, which included the training of part-time conscripts when National Service was introduced in 1967.51 However, the role of the volunteer corps diminished over time, with the introduction of conscription and the growth of the Singapore Armed Forces.52 Volunteer service, under the armed forces, completely ceased by 1984.

In 2014, the Ministry of Defence revived the volunteer corps through the establishment of the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps scheme, which recruited women, permanent residents and new citizens. The first batch of volunteers, numbering 68, was enlisted in March 2015.53

Timeline of the corps’s reorganisation
1854: Formation of Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps.
December 1887: Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps is disbanded when the numbers dwindled to a small half company.
February 1888: Reforms as Singapore Volunteer Artillery Corps.
1901: Singapore Volunteer Corps is formed through the merger of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery with three new units: Singapore Volunteer Rifles, Singapore Volunteer Engineers and Singapore Volunteer Infantry.
1922: Singapore Volunteer Corps is absorbed into the newly formed Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, which included forces from Malacca and Penang.
1954: Straits Settlements Volunteer Force is disbanded. Singapore Volunteer Corps is reformed and absorbed into the Singapore Military Forces.
1965: Renamed as People’s Defence Force.
March 1984: Because of dwindling numbers, 101 Battalion, the last volunteer battalion, is disbanded.
2014: The Ministry of Defence establishes the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps, which enlists its first batch of volunteers in March 2015.

Notable members
Song Ong Siang: Prominent lawyer and the first Chinese Captain of the Chinese Company (SVI).54
Lim Boon Kheng: Prominent philanthropist and original member of the Chinese Company (SVI).55
Elizabeth Choy: War heroine and member of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps in the 1950s. The press referred to her as “gunner Choy”.56
Goh Keng Swee: Singaporean politician who was a member of the SSVF during the Second World War.57
David Marshall: Singapore’s first Chief Minister who joined the SVC before World War II. Became a Prisoner of War for the duration of the Japanese Occupation.58
Henry E. McCallum: First commander of the SVA who later became Governor of Lagos.59

Alec Soong and Goh Lee Kim

1. “Singapore Volunteer Rifle CorpsStraits Times, 11 July 1854, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. T. M. Winsley, A History of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, 1854–1937: Being Also an Historical Outline of Volunteering in Malaya (Singapore: G.P.O., 1938), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 355.23 WIN)
3. “Militant Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 14 November 1901, 10.
4. “Volunteers,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 December 1921, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Ramachandran Menon, ed., One of a Kind: Remembering SAFTI’s First Batch, 2nd ed (Singapore: SAFTI Military Institute, 2015), 350. (Available via PublicationSG)
5. Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence: The 2PDF Story (Singapore: 2 PDF Command Officers' Mess, 2000), 58–60. (Available via PublicationSG; BookSG)
6. “Farewell to Dad's Army,” Singapore Monitor, 27 February 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 2.
8. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 2–3.
9. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore […], with an introduction by C. M. Turnbull (1902; repr., Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 585. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]).
10. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 11 July 1854, 4; Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 3.
11. “Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps,” Straits Times, 11 July 1854, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 3–4.
13. Martin Choo, ed., The Singapore Armed Forces (Singapore: Public Affairs Department, Ministry of Defence, 1981), 34. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 SIN); Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 6, 131–33; Menon, Remembering SAFTI’s First Batch, 349.
14. “The Singapore Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 6 December 1860, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 385. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
16. “The Singapore Volunteers,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 19 December 1887, 12.
17. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 385–86, 392; Singapore Volunteer Corps was first in Empire. (1957, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 9 (From NewspaperSG); Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 22.
18. Malcolm H. Murfett et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International Asia, 2011), 71-73. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET)
19. Mary Anne Jansen, John Geno-Oehlers and Ann Ebert Oehlers, On Parade: Straits Settlements Eurasian men Who Volunteered to Defend the Empire, 1862–1957 (Singapore: Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University, 2018), 73–74. (Call no. RSING 305.80095957 JAN).
20. Jansen, Geno-Oehlers and Oehlers, On Parade, 74.
21. “The Maxim Gun Fund,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 29 May 1889, 11 (From NewspaperSG); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 386; Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 26–27.
22. “Militant Singapore”; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 12 November 1901, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 43–44; “Militant Singapore.”
24. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 56–57.
25. “The Colony's Volunteers,” Straits Times, 3 October 1921, 11; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 17 December 1921, 8; “New Volunteer Ordinance,” Malaya Tribune, 17 December 1921, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 43–44, 82–83; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 387–88, 390–92.
27. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 83, 88; “Straits Volunteers,” Straits Times, 6 January 1922, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence, 3.
29. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 117; Jonathan Moffatt and Paul Riches, In Oriente Primus: A History of the Volunteer Forces in Malaya & Singapore (Coventry: Jonathan Moffatt & Paul Riches, 2010), 8. (Call no. RSING 355.22362095951 MOF)
30. “The New Drill Hall,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 21 July 1891, 5; “The S. V. A. ‘at home’,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 22 December 1891, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 25 October 1902, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 54.
32. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 29, 111; “Volunteers See the New Year In,” Straits Times, 3 January 1933, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Fishers Limited, comp., Who’s Who in Malaya, 1939: A Biographical Record of Prominent Members of Malaya's Community in Official, Professional And Commercial Circles (Singapore: Fishers Ltd., 1939), 138. (Call no. RCLOS 920.9595 WHO-[RFL])
34. Alicia Yeo, “Nsmen’s Memories to Be Preserved,” Straits Times, 5 September 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 13; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore […], vol. 2 (Singapore: Fraser & Neave Limited, 1902), 645. (Call no. RRARE 959.57 BUC; From BookSG); “The Riots,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 25 October 1871, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 90–91.
37. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 35–38, 72.
38. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 143–44.
39. Winsley, Singapore Volunteer Corps, 61–72; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 390–91.
40. Moffatt and Riches, In Oriente Primus,12; Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence, 32; Gerard Farleigh Eustachius Clarke, oral history interview by Mark Wong, 2 February 2010, transcript and MP3 audio, 00:57:31, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 003454).
41. Charlie Hock Hye Gan, oral history interview by Low Lay Leng and Tan Beng Luan, 11 December 1984, transcript and MP3 audio, 00:31:01, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000514); Oh Thiam Hock, oral history interview by Low Lay Leng, 11 September 1983, transcript and MP3 audio, 00:28:00, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000294).
42. Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence, 34; Cleaver Rowell Eber, oral history interview by Low Lay Leng, 24 July 1984, transcript and MP3 audio, 00:27:23, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000186).
43. Moffatt and Riches, In Oriente Primus, 16–19; Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: David Marshall, A Political Biography (Singapore: Times Books International, 2001), 48.
44. Menon, Remembering SAFTI’s First Batch, 357; Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence, 53; “First Collaboration Trial Opens,” Straits Times, 6 February 1946, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Menon, Remembering SAFTI’s First Batch, 358; “The Old Volunteer Corps and the New,” Straits Times, 24 June 1949, 4; “Queueing to Join S.V.C,” Straits Times, 25 June 1949, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Women May Soon Serve in S.V.C.,” Straits Times, 11 March 1950, 1; “General Praises Women Volunteers,” Straits Times, 26 November 1951, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
47. “Our Own Army Now,” Straits Times, 20 November 1953, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Menon, Remembering SAFTI’s First Batch, 359.
49. Mindef Public Affairs, Lions in Defence, 58–60.
50. “S’pore to Have Volunteer Fighting Force,” Straits Times, 31 December 1965, 4; “Corps Revived after the War,” Singapore Monitor, 1 July 1983, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
51. “Corps Revived after the War.”
52. Choo, The Singapore Armed Forces, 38.
53. Xue Jian Yue, “First Batch of SAF Volunteers Enlisted,” Today, 27 March 2015, 1; Jermyn Chow, “Volunteer Arm of SAF to Be Set Up Next Year,” Straits Times, 23 May 2014, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Winsley, 43.
55. Winsley, 43.
56. “So Gunner Choy Learns to Obey,” Straits Times, 11 August 1953, 13.
57. Tan Siok Sun, Goh Keng Swee – A Portrait (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2010), 41–43. (Call no. 959.5704092 TAN-[HIS])
58. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 38–40, 45–46; Kevin Y. L. Tan, Marshall of Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 121–22. (Call no. 959.5705092)
59. “The Late Sir Henry McCallum,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 1 December 1919, 6.

Further resources
Francis Dorai, “Beach Road Camp and the Singapore Volunteer Corps,” BiblioAsia 12, no. 2 (Jul–Sep 2016).

The information in this article is valid as at October 2021 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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