Apr 11, 2014
INTERVIEW Nearly 30 years on from one of the first of many threats on his life, Karpal Singh still refuses to slip quietly out the back door.
Then, he was urged by police officers to secretly leave a courtroom to avoid the danger posed by a man, claiming to have spiritual powers, who threatened to attack Karpal for suing the sultan.
Karpal refused, saying “if I go through that back door now, I will go through back doors all my life.”
The 74-year-old lawyer-politician maintains the same stoicism today, in the face of yet another attempt by the government to not only kill his political career, but also to put him in jail.
The sentence for his recent sedition conviction, a RM4,000 fine, precludes Karpal from holding political office and imposes a five-year disqualification period on running for Parliament again.
Malaysia has no upper-age limit to enter Parliament, and Karpal said he would be 82 when he would be eligible to return to politics.
“They are not doing it fairly; it is not the right way to do it,” Karpal said of the attempt to remove him from politics.
But he plans to give the government “a run for their money” on appeal.
“I will fight them to the Federal Court, and if at the end of it I have to go, then that’s too bad. I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
He laments the loss of the Privy Council as Malaysia’s final court of appeal, as “you could expect justice” from the English judges, who were objective to the political implications of the verdict.
Antiquated British law
Yet for the enviable justice administered by British courts, it is an antiquated British law that Karpal has been convicted under.
“Sedition was a law brought by the British, way back in 1948. I don’t think any other country has sedition anymore, because what it amounts to is criticism of the government, which is allowed in a democracy. But here, you have no right.”
Malaysia kept the offence of sedition because “they want it as a political weapon against critics of the government, an easy way out,” Karpal said.
It is the second time he has been charged under the same legislation; the first, for a statement he made in court in the defence of Anwar Ibrahim, then facing charges of sodomy.
It was the only known charge of sedition brought against a lawyer for remarks made in court in defence of a client in any country in the Commonwealth. In the face of intense pressure from the international community in Karpal’s defence, the government backed off.
“I think they were waiting for some other chance, which I think they thought they have got now.”
The government has filed a cross-appeal on Karpal’s sentence, seeking to imprison him. The maximum penalty available under the law is a three-year jail term.
“Yes, they want to put me inside. They want a custodial sentence. Can you imagine it?” he asked, laughing.
The threat of incarceration does not worry the veteran politician – “not at all.”
“If they put me inside, they are dead. Internationally, there will be a hue and cry, especially with me in my state,” he said, referring to the wheelchair he has been forced to use since 2005, when a car accident left him with spinal injuries and severely limited mobility.
The jail term sought by the government carries an additional penalty – a five-year suspension on holding political office would, in that case, apply from the date Karpal was released from jail.
Yet Karpal knows both he and Anwar – sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on the latest sodomy charges – would become political martyrs if imprisoned.
“Once you do that injustice, then the ballot box will bring about the justice which you have denied others. But these are challenging things. It makes it more interesting, but also very dangerous at times.”
In the face of seemingly never-ending challenges, few would begrudge Karpal a peaceful retirement away from the persecution he has suffered for decades at the hand of the government, as an ever-present thorn in their side.
But he already has plans for his first act should the opposition win its hard-fought battle to come to power in Malaysia.
“The first thing I will ensure is that all convictions made against us will be set aside, declared invalid.
“We won’t go for a witch-hunt, but we will make sure to nail the buggers who did wrong to us. That will be nice,” he said, with a small smile at the idea of finally being vindicated after so many years.
Asked why he stays in Malaysia in the face of so much adversity, Karpal’s answer is simple.
“They want to make it as difficult as they can for us here so we’ll go away. But we will not go – that would be giving them what they want, and that would be wrong.
“We have to stay and fight.”
AIMEE GULLIVER is a New Zealand journalist interning with Malaysiakini for six weeks, courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.