by Terence Fernandez | 7:01am, Apr 24, 2014
AS the tributes poured in for Karpal Singh I detached myself from the out-pouring of grief to become an observer, not a mourner hoping that this will enable me to be more objective when I pen my thoughts.
I also took my time as I did not want to be influenced by the emotions of the moment so I could present an unadulterated perspective of this man’s life and work.
However, I will tell you right now that I am going to fail miserably.
This is because I too as many Malaysians do, feel that we have lost our moral compass. Karpal after all was the only politician who called a spade a spade, unafraid of what it may do to his political career.
Who is going to roar his disapproval when we go down the wrong path? Who is going to rap our knuckles when we step out of line?
He was our conscience. Yes he was a politician but for Karpal politics was merely a tool for the cause.
He does not belong to the DAP. He belongs to all of us who subscribe to his ideals of justice and fairness.
“If you have no principles, you have nothing,” the Tiger growled when I last interviewed him at his practice in Jalan Pudu Ulu in August.
“You have to make a stand and stick by it even if it makes you unpopular,” he said, in between sips of tea from a cup held by Michael Cornelius – Karpal’s loyal aide who died in the same accident that robbed us of his Boss.
While many politicians had to eat their words, Karpal always put his money where his mouth is, always sticking by his principles even if it meant going after his senior DAP colleagues when they crossed the line.
Asked about his public reprimand of his senior party colleagues and if it was prudent politics to do so, he said what was important was to assure the people that the party sticks to its principles.
Hence when the DAP endorsed party hoppers from Barisan Nasional when the party had made a stand against such practices, he took his comrades to task.
“It is a betrayal of the electorate,” said Karpal who had championed a law to penalise party-hopping.
“This is not the way we want to win elections.”
Much has been written about his prowess as a lawyer, his crusade against the death penalty, his battles in Parliament, the hostility between him and his arch “nemesis” Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who at the end also conceded that Karpal had contributed to the nation.
However those privileged enough to know him outside the courtroom or the Dewan Rakyat will attest that he reserves his roar only for those who deserve it.
Otherwise, Karpal was a gentle soul who was kind to the Press and ever obliging to his numerous “fans” who would walk up to him for a handshake or selfie.
He generally spoke softly yet convincingly about his concerns for the country we are leaving behind for the next generation.
He was worried about the dearth of younger leaders.
While talking about future leaders, he suddenly stopped mid-way and told this interviewer: “Even you! You should think about it.”
I laughed it off as a joke only to have the glare of the Tiger upon me: “I’m serious.”
I turned him down, saying meekly that I’d make a lousy politician.
“No one is asking you to be a politician! Just stick to your principles!”
Principled to the end
My sessions at his office were few but each time I met him there he would give more than the one hour I’d request. Hence we would end up talking for hours, where I’d end up helping Michael to close up the office and wheel his boss to a waiting car – usually driven by his son Ramkarpal, who had survived the accident that killed his father.
During our meeting Karpal would pull out his books, letters he wrote to the likes of Mahathir and the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong for clemency for a client on death row.
We would speak regretfully of being unable to save some of his clients – notably Australian Kevin Barlow who was hanged for drug trafficking in 1986.
“He was caught in a bad situation and got fixed. They should have commuted his sentence,” said the crusader against the mandatory death penalty who had dedicate his autobiography “Karpal Singh: The Tiger of Jelutong” which was launched last October to “The Executed”.
One of his favourite topics was the judiciary, where he named Supreme Court Judge Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman Pawan The, a victim of the 1988 judicial crisis as “one of the best judges we ever had”.
Ironically Karpal’s last court battle was just two weeks ago when he lost against a move to cite him for sedition and fined RM4,000 which would have seen him lose his Bukit Gelugor seat.
“I did not challenge the Sultan, I was just giving a legal opinion,” he would say of the sedition charge he was convicted of for saying the Sultan of Perak’s decision to accept that the Pakatan Rakyat Government did not command the confidence of the State Legislative Assembly, could be challenged.
It may be a crafty way for the wily Karpal to get around a sticky situation, but the powers that be were not convinced, swayed perhaps by his numerous confrontations with royalty – suing the Sultan of Selangor for his refusal to pardon condemned persons; the Yan Di-Pertua Negeri of Negri Sembilan for a contractual matter and the Sultan of Johor in 1987 for assault.
Umno had demanded Karpal apologise to the Johor Sultan. In true form he refused. Six years later it was the BN who moved for legislation to clip the powers of the constitutional monarch.
His opposition to Hudud was consistent – but he was not anti-Islam. A fact that PAS spiritual advisor Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat acknowledged.
“Don’t play with the constitution” was Karpal’s last words in Parliament – a testament of how sacrosanct he believed the constitution to be.
“He opposed BN and Umno when it was unglamorous to do so,” PKR strategic director Rafizi Ramli opined.
Indeed Karpal took the lead and stepped up when others did not have the guts to do so.
“It was the right thing to do” was the only motivation he needed.
In his 45 years in politics, the only accusations Karpal ever had to fend off were that of being “anti-Islam” and “anti-Monarchy”.
He had been locked up on what some may say are “trumped up” charges. But the longer he spent in jail, the more popular he became.
No one has ever accused Karpal of corruption or conflict of interests. He is one of the few politicians untainted by scandal, also managing to answer to claims that he had backtracked from his 1997 statements on allegations of sexual impropriety against then deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – who had since become a close friend.
“I have been consistent. I said these are serious allegations against a man who may become the next prime minister hence he needs to clear his name. What’s wrong with that?”
Fate was unkind to Karpal. For someone who had survived an accident that put him in a wheelchair in the last nine years of his life, and then to die in yet another crash is unfathomable.
His reward should have been a peaceful end surrounded by those he loved, after seeing some of his dreams realised.
The unprecedented scenes at his funeral in Penang are a testament to his service and the huge sense of loss. Everyone aspires to be Karpal Singh but few can live up to him. How many of us are willing to sacrifice family and freedom for a greater good?
His reputation as a person who stuck to his guns and the hero who stood up for the little man made him the icon he was in life and now, immortalised as a legend, where generations to come will speak his name.
It is incumbent upon us who subscribe to Karpal’s ideals to impart to our children the lessons the Tiger of Jelutong had taught us – to keep doing the right thing, even if it is the most difficult thing to do.