By Ram Anand | Malaysiakini
Apr 17, 2014
COMMENT Seated in his wheelchair, still wearing his Parliament coat, Karpal Singh rings for his assistant, Michael Cornandez, who comes rushing into the room. “I’m thirsty,” says Karpal apologetically to me, and Michael lifts up the can of a soft drink that was on the table with the straw on it. The then-Bukit Gelugor MP and DAP national chairperson took three sips of the drink. “This is how I depend on him,” Karpal said, referring to Michael.
What was a serious interview up until that point in his office in Jalan Pudu in December 2012 had suddenly taken a lighter tone. It was probably light for Karpal – but it was unsettling for me and my colleague as he narrated his life in a wheelchair and his previous accident that had left him partially paralysed. I felt sorry for the man, but as he was telling his story, he wore a smile on his face, that effervescent, ever-present smile.
“Some people say the accident (in 2004) was orchestrated by my enemies. I had met Umno Youth folks at the airport before I flew to Penang, and it happened to be that the fellow whose car got into an accident with my taxi was an MCA guy. But I always say, if they wanted to kill me, they would have done so a long time. There are a million ways to kill me.”
As fate would have it, Karpal did not die in the courthouse or in the Parliament, when he once famously told his rivals that “Singh is King!” He died in a road accident, and even in his final moments, he was still preparing for a court case.
But the past decade has been far from easy for Karpal.
“It hurts, quite a lot,” he opens up about the state of his health. “When I lie down on the bed to sleep, I have to sleep straight, you know, one position. And then sometimes, middle of the night, you feel like turning on the bed to the side, but you can’t. So I have ring the house helpers to help me shift to my left or to my right,” he said.
Karpal depended quite a lot on his assistants and helpers to get through the day – as he was unable to do most of the things by himself- be it eating or drinking. In his state, he was only able to lift his fingers and most importantly, use his brains, his legal know-how, and his ferocious outspoken nature never died.
And using those elements left of him, Karpal served Malaysia for one more decade after his accident, admitting that working is what had kept him going till the end beckoned.
“If I think about it, then it gets worse. What is there to be done? I have what I have. My mind is still working, you know. So I have to keep doing what I do. That’s the only way to live. You mustn’t give up. You just do what you do best, and you live on,” he said, clearing his throat.
The interview was conducted well into the night in his office, and he had just returned from Parliament duty and sandwiched speaking to us in between seeing clients. After entertaining us, he was due to attend to another client at that late hour. That was Karpal’s dedication to both the legal profession and his parliamentary duty.
Never compromising for political expediency
“If I don’t talk, who will?” asks Karpal, when queried about his consistent criticisms of Pakatan Rakyat and PAS at that time, which many thought was being detrimental to the coalition.
“Someone’s got to do the talking, right? We are a party that was built on principles. And you can’t let go of the principles once you are in power, once you are stronger. You stick by it, come what may. You need to uphold what you believe in,” he said. That was the man – principled to a fault. He didn’t do it any other way.
If I had bothered to ask him if he would ever compromise on his principles for political expediency – he would probably have stared me in the face and said, “Over my dead body.”
Now, the question the entire nation has to face is – who will replace Karpal, or even come close?
Who will dare question Pakatan Rakyat’s complacency after winning a mandate from the people?
Who will constantly remind DAP of the principles it was built on?
Who will continue reminding all the parties in Pakatan to adhere to common agendas?
Who will dare question Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim himself, from his own coalition?
Who will be brave enough to take up the monarchy to a legal challenge?
Who will be dedicated enough to spend the wee hours of the night looking through legal files, always looking for a new case?
The government, which had imprisoned him under the Internal Security Act (ISA), had attempted to jail him for sedition despite his condition. But as Karpal said before – he had even survived the ISA. And they will not get their wish to imprison the man a second time. Fate took him, before politics could.
“Ooh… Mahathir used to hate me,” Karpal said with a sense of pride. “I must have that letter somewhere. He wrote me a letter once.”
He asks Michael to dig into the sea of files on his desk, and at his book collection. He did not locate the letter and I did not read it. But there was no doubting that Karpal Singh was the only one who matched former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad when it came to being a political enigma.
Political enemies they might be, and they thrived in their being adversariesr – and Karpal’s brimming pride for having gone against Mahathir is well etched on his face.
“He hated me so much, that they took me out from prison and then put me back inside,” Karpal laughed.
An inspiration for an ‘insipid generation’
Goodbye, sir. Malaysia will miss you, but I will miss you just as much. For you were an inspiration for this insipid generation of mine – when we look for leaders who stood for principles and not position – we found you in the realms of Malaysia.
No one needs to praise you as our own Mandela or Gandhi. Karpal would have hated such comparisons. Karpal Singh is Karpal Singh, the Tiger of Jelutong, the “Singh is King”. You have left behind a profound legacy that will be very difficult to emulate in today’s political climate.
Karpal smiled when I introduced myself and told me my name. “Ah, my son’s name is Ram, too. I have a Ram in my family,” he said, smiling gracefully. That one moment, though it will be nothing more than a tiny speck of memory for him, will remain in my memories forever. We will remember you, sir. Or at least we will try to remind the country every now and then, of your struggles. Be in peace, and have a good sleep in the beds sewn for you in heaven.
As for Michael, the loyal servant who never once frowned despite having to be by Karpal’s side almost 24 hours a day, may God grace you with all the goodwill for so humble a task as taking care of the man for us, so that he could serve us for almost one more decade after his accident in 2005.
And if you have been the washroom of Karpal’s office in Jalan Pudu, a message will greet you inside the toilet.
“Please don’t leave your submarine sinking after you are done. Do flush,” the message read. That was the energy of Karpal Singh’s office, inspired by him nonetheless. Even in those late hours, nothing breaks his spirit. There was a life to live, and he lived it. You taught us much about life as you did about politics, law and principles.
The tiger finally sleeps.