By Pauline Fan | MMO
April 18, 2014
The death of Karpal Singh marks the passing of a people’s hero.
A larger-than-life figure on the troubled terrain of Malaysia’s political landscape, Karpal hailed from a generation who were unafraid to fight for what they believe in and who summoned unflinching tenacity to see their principles through to the bitter end.
A fiercely uncompromising warrior for social justice and human freedom, Karpal embodied what is most brave and noble in the Malaysian spirit. He showed us time and again that we are made of sterner stuff than the communalism and factionalism that has come to dominate our national politics in recent decades.
There was much about Karpal that was iconic — his bristly white beard; his keen eyes aflame with wit and idealism; his warm, fatherly smile; his arm outstretched in defiance; his trademark phrase, ‘Jangan main-main’.
In a political career with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) that spanned eight terms in Parliament and four terms as state assemblyman in Kedah and Penang, as well as a year-and-a-half of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Karpal was the consummate opposition leader.
The immense outpouring of grief across the country since news broke about Karpal’s passing is testimony to his great spirit, and to the countless lives he touched through his life and work, transcending race, class, age, gender, and ideological divides.
Malaysians of all walks of life are experiencing Karpal’s death as a deeply personal loss. He was a man who made us truly proud to be Malaysian, a freedom fighter who loved, and was truly loved by, his people.
Karpal was one of those rare human beings who inspired admiration and respect in friends and foe alike. He gave us a sense that the wounded scales of justice in Malaysia — chronically misaligned after decades of abuse and tampering — could still bend towards the good and just if guarded with the force of moral courage. His ‘roar’ was the voice of our country’s buried conscience.
My late father, Fan Yew Teng, was among the early generation of DAP leaders — together with his comrades Lim Kit Siang, Chen Man Hin and Karpal Singh — who were willing to dedicate their lives to their principles and vision of building a Malaysia for all Malaysians.
When my father was charged and convicted under the Sedition Act for publishing a speech by Dr Ooi Kee Sek in 1970, Karpal stood by his side. It was Karpal who served as my father’s counsel during this time and brought the case, Fan Yew Teng v. Setiausaha Dewan Rakyat (1975), all the way to the Privy Council. Although they eventually lost the case, and my father was convicted of sedition and disqualified from Parliament, the fight for freedom and democracy was what mattered.
My father had always considered Karpal a true brother in arms, a fellow fighter, and one of the most principled men he had ever encountered. Even during the decades when my father maintained his distance from the DAP, his respect and fondest regards for Karpal never waned.
Karpal emanated great dignity, humanity and humour in everything he did, in politics as well as in private. When my father passed away in 2010, Uncle Karpal’s warmth and friendship brought my family solace during a very difficult time of loss.
One of my dearest memories of Uncle Karpal is when he spoke so movingly at the memorial for my father. He related how my father, then DAP National Organising Secretary, had ‘persuaded’ him to stand for the Alor Setar State Assemblyman seat in the 1974 General Election. Lim Kit Siang had initially convinced Karpal to contest a seat in Penang, but Karpal withdrew after his father’s death. Papa then set upon the task to make Karpal change his mind.
Papa called Karpal late one night, and told him they were contesting the state seat in Alor Setar because it was important to field candidates in Malay areas. Karpal replied that he would help in any way he could and asked who the candidate was. Papa went on and on about the importance of fielding a candidate before revealing that the candidate was Karpal himself.
Karpal tried to object but my father kept talking and talking until Karpal grew sleepy and when he finally consented in a spontaneous moment, Papa immediately put down the phone. Karpal tried to call back but Papa did not pick up the telephone. And that was that.
Karpal’s untimely passing has shaken Malaysians to the core of our being. Through the shock, the tears, and the profound sense of loss I feel now in his absence, I call to mind these words by Rabindranath Tagore:
Say not in grief that he is no more
but say in thankfulness that he was;
A death is not the extinguishing of a light,
but the putting out of a lamp
because the dawn has come.
Rest in Peace, Uncle Karpal. Your fearless roar will resound always through the corridors of justice and in the hearts of all Malaysians.