Singapore’s first Chief of Armed Forces, Brigadier-General Kirpa Ram Vij dies

  • Kirpa Ram Vij, Singapore’s first Chief of Armed Forces and Brigadier-General dies. 
  • TheHomeGround Asia looks back at his work and achievements in the armed forces, foreign service and in shipping.
Mr Kirpa Ram Vij contributed greatly to Singapore's armed forces, the country's relationship with Central Asia and the shipping industry. (Photo source: Rafflesian Times)
Mr Kirpa Ram Vij contributed greatly to Singapore's armed forces, the country's relationship with Central Asia and the shipping industry. (Photo source: Rafflesian Times)

Singapore’s first Chief of Armed Forces and Brigadier-General Kirpa Ram Vij died on 29 Oct. He was 87.

Before becoming the Director of General Staff, Mr Vij served in the civil service. He was head of the SAF between 1970 and 1974, and became a brigadier-general in 1972.

Mr Vij was appointed the Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of National Development (MND) after leaving the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and a year later became Singapore’s Ambassador to Egypt between 1975 and 1979. 

The tough early years

Born in the Hazara District of British India, now Pakistan in 1935, Mr Vij, the oldest of eight children moved to Singapore after 1947.

The early years were tough and his father supported the family by buying items such as singlets and shoes from wholesalers and selling them in a pushcart in the Arab Street area

When he graduated from Raffles Institution in 1956, Mr Vij went on to study at the university and graduated with a geography degree.

A little known fact was Mr Vij used to sport a tattoo of the Hindu sacred symbol Om under his right wrist, and whenever he wanted to recall his childhood, he would look at it. The tattoo was nearly removed when he met with a motorcycle accident during his university days and a bone had to be fixed.

His love for the uniform

Mr Vij joined the administrative service at the Land Office and Ministry of Finance after graduating in 1960. But with the threat of Konfrontasi, a policy of confrontation by Indonesia between 1963 and 1966, there was an immediate need for Singapore to establish an independent military capability.

Mr Vij was told by the late George Bogaars then that he was going to be posted to a military position. His former experience had stood him in good stead – the Cadet Corps was his extracurricular activity at RI, here he worked his way up the ranks to quartermaster.

After graduating, he signed up as a member of the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC), where he attended military courses conducted by the British Army. He even received the Sword of Honour, an award given to the best cadet in the whole regiment. 

Singapore's first Chief of Armed Forces, Brigadier-General Kirpa Ram Vij dies
Mr Kirpa Ram Vij (second from right) at the 2016 SAF Day and celebrations of the 50th year of SAFTI. (Photo source: Lee Hsien Loong/Facebook)

His seven-minute meeting with then-Minister of Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, in 1965 set the motions rolling and Mr Vij was tasked to help set up military training institute Singapore Armed Forces Military Institute (SAFTI).

Instrumental in launching national service

When the Government decided to adopt Israel’s model of National Service, Mr Vij was tasked to go to Israel with other senior staff to witness first-hand the training conducted there and the two months spent in the country taught him a lot.

Due to the political sensitivity of the region, working with the Israeli and the setting up of SAFTI was kept a secret. It was in March 1966 that the military conversion course was completed and SAFTI was made official. Mr Vij was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and national service (NS) started soon after. 

Mr Vij left SAFTI in 1968 for the Ministry of National Defence (MINDEF) where he worked to set up the Staff College for Senior Officers and a Brigade Headquarters. He became Director General Staff and was eventually promoted to Brigadier, now renamed to Brigadier-General, in 1972.

The diplomat

A year after Mr Vij became Deputy Secretary at MND, he was sent as resident ambassador to Egypt in time for the reopening of the Suez Canal. He also had concurrent coverage as non-resident ambassador to Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

Singapore's first Chief of Armed Forces, Brigadier-General Kirpa Ram Vij dies
Mr Kirpa Ram Vij presenting his letter of credence to then President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. He admitted he was apprehensive at first because of his military links with Israel. (Photo source: National Archives Singapore)

In a 2011 interview with Tabla! Mr Vij said, “Covering Pakistan was a special bonus for me because I had come from Pakistan. Initially I thought the Egyptians wouldn’t accept me because I had worked with the Israelis but they were very broadminded.”

He admitted that he was, at first, apprehensive about his posting, afraid that the Egyptians would be hostile towards him because of his direct relationship with the Israel military. Instead, he was warmly welcomed and carried out his duties easily to further strengthen Singapore’s economic and political ties with Central Asia.

An important task was networking and securing access for Singapore’s growing shipping industry to the Suez Canal. This helped Mr Vij to move into the private sector when he became the general manager of the Neptune Orient Line (NOL) after leaving the civil service. 

Mr Vij retired from NOL in 1995 and started his own shipping consultancy firm. He also served as adviser for the Hindu Endowment Board and Executive Committee member of SINDA for several years.

I’m thankful Singapore gave me a chance to contribute,” Mr Vij said in an undated interview with Rafflesian Times.  

Mr Vij left behind wife Nirmal, three children and their spouses, and five grandchildren.

RELATED: Top civil servant Sim Kee Boon sacrificed family for country, book says

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