Fri, Jan 07, 2011
In command of his life

By Patrick Jonas

A LITTLE below his right wrist, Brigadier-General (retd) Kirpa Ram Vij sports a tattoo of the Hindu sacred symbol Om. If ever he wants to recall his childhood, all he has to do is take a look at this tattoo.

His mind would race back to the time of India's partition and the horrors associated with it. Mr Vij was about 12 years old when he and his family were driven out of their village in Hazara district, in what is now Pakistan.

His family was one of the few Hindus living there and as India's independence loomed large in 1947 they had to flee.

That May, they sought refuge in one of the camps on the Indian side of Punjab. By the time India gained independence and Pakistan was created in August, the flood of refugees had increased and his family had to spend nights on a railway platform.

His aged grandfather died while they were there and later, when the young Vij and his father took his ashes to be immersed in the Ganges, a Hindu priest persuaded him to get the tattoo.

The tattoo was nearly removed when he met with a motorcycle accident during his university days and a bone had to be fixed. In some ways, it can be called a lucky charm. Looking back at his later year successes - in the Singapore administrative service, army, foreign service and the national shipping company - he admits that he has been lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

But the early years for the man who went on to become Singapore's first army chief were tough. He and his family found their way to Singapore in October 1947 with the help of his father's older brother who had moved here in 1928. It was only two years later that he started attending school: Rangoon Road Primary. His father earned a living by buying items like singlets and shoes from wholesalers and selling them in a pushcart in the Arab Street area. "But he was thrifty," says Mr Vij, "and he wanted me to continue with my studies even as I helped him during my free time."

An important point in his life came about when he finished his high school at Raffles Institution where he was a prefect and a quarter master in the cadet corps.

He wanted to become a teacher. As the oldest of eight children he felt he could help ease his father's burden. But fate intervened in the form of his teacher.

"Mr Philip Liau told me: 'You have good grades, you are good in extra-curricular activities.

You will get a teaching bursary and you can become a teacher after becoming a graduate.' He turned my attention to university and I took up geography," recalls Mr Vij, sitting in his home that has been tastefully decorated by his wife Nirmal - they met and got married when she came to visit her brother here in 1962.

Serving me a cup of tea, Mr Vij went on to narrate his life journey.

In 1960, after he graduated, he joined the administrative service - the Land Office and Ministry of Finance. But all along he had not given up his love for the uniform.

As a member of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery, he would take leave from his work to attend military courses conducted by the British army and excelled to the extent that he was honoured with a sword of honour. He was mobilised twice - during the confrontation with Indonesia and the racial riots in the 1960s.

When Singapore separated from Malaysia, Dr Goh Keng Swee who was the Minister for the Interior and Defence tasked him with setting up a training centre for the armed forces. He went to Israel to check out their training methods and interact with Israeli officers who eventually came to Singapore as training advisers.

Mr Vij, 75, admits that his proudest moment was when the first batch of officers graduated from the newly-established Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute. His rise in the army since then had been meteoric.

He was appointed Commander of the first National Service Brigade in 1969 and nine months later became the first director of the Command and Staff College. The following year, he became Director General Staff (head of army), a post in which he continued for four years. On his return to the administrative service, he worked as deputy secretary in the Ministry of National Development for a year before being sent as ambassador to Egypt in time for the reopening of the Suez Canal. It was a memorable period. He was also given charge of Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

"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 recalls of the days in Cairo. During those four years his three children picked up French which they had to learn as a second language and this helped the eldest daughter Archana enrol at a Canadian university. She now works for Microsoft in Seattle.

His son Aravind, currently based in Mumbai, is the legal head of JP Morgan for the Philippines and India. Youngest daughter Anjna did her MBA in hospitality and works for Suntec. All are married with children.

His wife Nirmal runs a boutique shop in Holland Village which sells items like cushion covers and table and bed linen, most of it designed by her.

That does not mean Mr Vij hung up his boots and stretched out his feet after his return from Cairo. He moved to Neptune Orient Lines as general manager administration. When the firm prepared to go for an IPO, it engaged consultancy firm Mckinsey to revamp the company and asked Mr Vij to be the liaison officer.

"That was the best thing that could have happened. I learnt shipping. I was working with the Mckinsey people for six months and after that I could talk shipping," he says on how he got into the shipping business.

He retired from NOL in 1995 after serving as country manager for Indonesia and Malaysia and started his own shipping consultancy firm. Soon after, a group which included Parameswara Holdings and Windmill International asked him to head Gateway Distriparks in India - a container freight station business for which he had earlier provided consultancy.

However, working in the private sector in India was an entirely new experience. After "some initial heartaches", the project took off successfully. Mr Vij, who served as adviser for the Hindu Endowment Board and Executive Committee member of SINDA for several years, is still a director on the board of Gateway and keeps himself busy with numerous social activities, one of them being vice-president of the Indian Education Trust.

That is when he does not accompany Nirmal on short holidays to India which they combine with her work - sourcing for material for her business. In fact, holiday is a word that often crops up in their conversations. It was after all her Singapore holiday which brought them together.

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