by Izyan Nadzirah
When Mr Kirpa Ram Vij (RI’56) received the Sword of Honour in 1960 for his dedication to the Singapore Volunteer Corps, little did he know that it would set in motion his far-reaching influence in shaping Singapore’s defence.
‘I’m quite clear on where I stand. I have no other country in mind, where I could be. My childhood experience, traumatic as it was, taught me something. We had to leave home. We established ourselves in Singapore, and this is where we went to school. I’m thankful Singapore gave me a chance to contribute,’ shares Mr Kirpa Ram Vij before taking a sip of water.
Minutes before, he had shared how, at a tender age of 12, amidst the 1947 Partition of India, his family was driven out of their village in the Hazara district of what is now Pakistan. His paternal uncle and auntie had already migrated to Singapore early on, and they decided to join them here.
Since then, Mr Vij has contributed to Singapore’s nation building in many ways, from helping to establish Singapore’s military institute to growing Singapore’s shipping industry into a world class industry.
PUTTING ON THE UNIFORM
In the early 1960s, the need to establish an independent military capability was uppermost on the minds of Singapore’s Cabinet, grappling as they were with the tumult of Konfrontasi (a policy of confrontation by Indonesia from 1963 to 1966, in opposition to the formation of Malaysia from the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore) and had learned much from the recent events of separation and disagreements with neighbouring countries. In September 1965, Mr Vij, then an Administrative Service Officer, was informed by his senior, Mr George Bogaars, that he was going to be posted to a new ministry. Little did he know that he would be posted to a military position rather than to a civilian position at the next ministry.
‘I thought I would be posted as a civilian, perhaps as an Administrative Officer at the Ministry of Finance, but Mr Bogaars thought I had the capability to contribute as a uniform at the Ministry of Interior and Defence. When he sent me off to meet the then-Minster of Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, I still assumed it was to learn more about the role. Little did I know that once you were offered a position, it was a done deal!’ shared Mr Vij, laughing at the recollection.
Much of Mr Vij’s preceding experience was to stand him in good stead. While in RI, he had taken the Cadet Corps as an extra-curricular activity, working his way up the ranks to a quartermaster upon graduation. He then signed up as a member of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, where he attended military courses conducted by the British Army. In the same year as his graduation, he received the Sword of Honour, an award given to the best cadet in the whole regiment. In 1961 and 1962, although he had started working, he would take annual leave to train with the British Army in then-Malaya.
In fact, between 1963 to 1965, having been trained in handling civil commotion and a part of a multi-racial force, Mr Vij was mobilised both during the Konfrontasi and the 1964 racial riots. He spent most weekends doing guard duty of vital installations during the sensitive period with Indonesia.
His meeting with Dr Goh took less than seven minutes; there, the latter shared how impressed he was with Mr Vij’s voluntary military commitment and status as a lieutenant in the SVC, then welcomed him to the new ministry. His first assignment? To help set up a military training institute – Singapore Armed Forces Military Institute (SAFTI).
ADOPTING NATIONAL SERVICE
Prior to Singapore’s independence, only a small number of dedicated volunteers and full-time servicemen were on the ground; there was hence an urgent need to build up Singapore’s defence as rapidly as possible. The cabinet decided to take up Israel’s model of National Service (NS) for three reasons: Israel was at the forefront of national defence at the time, their NS model had achieved what Singapore wanted to achieve – a melting pot that binds Singaporeans together and help in nation building, and Israel was trying to get a foothold in Asia and was thus open to collaboration.
One of Mr Vij’s tasks was to go to Israel and witness first-hand the training being conducted with the senior training staff. It was the beginning of a long-term partnership. Under this relationship, both countries shared military knowledge and technology.
He readily admitted that the two months he spent there were eye-opening. At that time, he knew little about the political and religious divides that had torn the Middle East asunder. The two months he spent in Israel taught him a lot.
‘We went to Israel in September and came back in November 1965. We had to do everything in quick form. It was not a question of learning – that takes a lifetime – but it was about understanding the practicality of the training, and its effects on Singapore’s future.
‘Whether you spend six months or two years in the army, when events take place you have to be proactive. You can’t say that you have not trained or learnt yet,’ Mr Vij explained.
WORKING WITH ‘THE MEXICANS’
Back in Singapore, the setup of the military institute was hushed up – the Cabinet wanted neither the neighbouring countries nor the British in Singapore to know about it. They decided to use an old school in Jurong to carry out the programme, referring to it as ‘Jurong School’. On the eve of Christmas that same year, the five Israeli officers arrived at the school in a taxi.
An SAF officer announced the Israelis’ arrival within the school grounds to Mr Vij.
‘I asked him what they looked like, and the lieutenant said that they looked European, Asian, a mixture of this and that. He shared that the leader was wearing a Mexican hat too. So I said, they must be from Mexico then, and when I finally went down to welcome them, I shared the joke with them and they agreed that it was a good cover! From then on, we called them the Mexicans. The nickname even appeared in the papers, as though the name was purely out of design and not coincidental.’
I was beginning to realise through Mr Vij’s accounts that he seemed to think his contribution to Singapore’s nation building was largely based on coincidence, but I was aware that it was purely because of his leadership capabilities and his sense of loyalty to the young country that it was a huge success.
The first thing Mr Vij and his contemporaries did was have a conversion course for the thirty-seven trainees whom Mr Tan Teck Khim and Mr Vij had managed to gather from the Police Force, volunteers and regulars. By March 1966, the first batch had completed the conversion course. The name Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI) was made official, and Mr Vij was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
NS started soon after, and has since become a rite of passage for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents in Singapore. One key reason why NS was particularly important in the early years of Singapore’s independence was the fact that NS not only allowed Singapore to build up her defence, but also produced able men with skills to tackle the increasing job opportunities that the Economic Development Board (EDB) had brought in through foreign investments.
‘The investments catered for the expansion of Jurong Island and the building of various factories. Singapore needed skilled labour and we took advantage of NS to train our men not only in defence but in skills required by factories. Towards the end of the NS stint, we would bring in experts like mechanics to teach the recruits. When they finished NS, they could then easily find jobs when they re-entered civilian life,’ shared Mr Vij.
Mr Vij left SAFTI in 1968 for the Ministry of National Defence (MINDEF) where he was involved in the setting up the Staff College for Senior Officers and a Brigade Headquarters manned mainly by NS men. He became Director General Staff and was eventually promoted to Brigadier (now renamed to Brigadier-General) in 1972.
Finally, in 1974, he was posted as Deputy Secretary to Ministry of National Development (MND), where he held the post of Deputy Secretary for one year. In 1975, he was posted as an Ambassador of Singapore to Egypt (with concurrent accreditation to Yugoslavia, Pakistan and Lebanon) for four years.
THE SUEZ ALLIANCE
Mr Vij was apprehensive about his posting at first. Although the Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Israel had ended recently, he was afraid that the Egyptians would be hostile towards him because of his direct relationship with the Israel military dating to his SAFTI days not too long ago.
Instead, he was warmly welcomed by them and easily carried out his duties to further strengthen Singapore’s economic and political ties with Central Asia.
One of the most important tasks he undertook was to network with key Egyptian officials and secure access for Singapore’s growing shipping industry to the Suez Canal. With the reopening of the Suez, tankers could shorten their travel time to Singapore’s port.
Egypt was also at the epicentre of various alliances and movements at that time and Singapore was closely monitoring the Non-Alliance Movement. As a growing nation with stable politics, it was time to assert Singapore’s presence to the world, and it fell on Mr Vij to build diplomatic ties with some of the upcoming influential countries in the world. Once, he went back to his village in the Hazara District during his ambassadorship, but was saddened that the area was no longer inhabited as the Tarbela Dam was being built there by then.
Four years later, Mr Vij returned to Singapore where he was appointed Head of Training at the Civil Service Institute. In 1981, he decided that a change in career was due and entered the shipping industry as General Manager in Neptune Orient Lines (NOL). After retiring from NOL, he was involved in Gateway Distriparks, a Singapore-India joint venture dealing with container freight in India. Mr Vij continues to be very active in a range of organisations, including Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), willingly sharing his experience and expertise.
THE FUTURE OF SINGAPORE’S MILITARY
He is supportive of SAF’s decision to open its doors to volunteers once again through the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Volunteer Corps, believing that NS builds character and dedication to the country. In fact, he sees a semblance between the current SAF Volunteer Corps and the Singapore Volunteer Corp that he was a part of before he was tasked to set up SAFTI.
‘When you have sensible people around, they should be supported. We are too small to influence the whole region, but we can always be more than a red dot.’
Mr Vij’s far-reaching influence in building up various sectors of then-newly independent Singapore is impressive – from building up Singapore’s defence to establishing diplomatic ties and coming up with solutions to meet the economic demands of young Singapore. While he remains humble and is adamant that he is merely a government servant who carried out the ideas of the cabinet, one can’t help but wonder where Singapore would be now if Mr Vij’s potential had not been tapped back in Singapore’s early independence years.