Karpal Singh left his mark on Malaysian law, say legal experts

APRIL 18, 2014

In a legal career spanning almost half a century, the late Karpal Singh contributed immensely to the development of Malaysian criminal and civil law with nearly 600 citations in the Malaysian Law Journal, say fellow legal minds.

They told The Malaysian Insider that the prominent legal eagle, who died in a road accident yesterday, could do this as he was a versatile lawyer who argued and tested cases in court.

They also said that Karpal had the advantage of pointing out why certain laws were inapplicable and needed further amendment as he could also lobby for change in Parliament.

Karpal was also a perfect role model for any aspiring law student because he possessed qualities required of a fearless advocate, they added.

Penang-based lawyer Datuk K. Kumaraendran, who started practice at the same time as Karpal, said the lawyer-cum-politician took up cases that involved the burden of proof.

“In the interest of justice, he developed the law because there was uncertainty over the issue of innocent until proven guilty,” said Kumaraendan, who appeared together with Karpal in many criminal cases in the late 70s and early 80s.

Karpal was also a pioneer in taking up drug trafficking and habeas corpus cases, added Kumaraendan, who started his legal career in Alor Star together with the late lawyer.

“He is the lawyer responsible for the Malaysian apex court clarifying the issue of double presumption in drug trafficking cases,” he said, adding that subsequent judgment of the court spared many of the gallows.

(In double presumption, the court had to decide whether the crime committed was either possession or trafficking, not both.)

Lawyer Datuk V. Sithambaram, who entered practice in 1978, described Karpal’s courage as a lawyer as unparalleled, and his passion for the law was hard to emulate.

“His legacy will remain deeply entrenched in the legal and political arena,” he said.

As a junior lawyer in many criminal cases, he said Karpal taught him to be absolutely forthright before the courts.

“Brevity in his submission in court is his hallmark,” Sithambaram added.

He said Karpal was very effective in promoting the cause of justice and pursued it in Parliament if he saw any weakness in the application of law in the courts. He also described Karpal as “Jack of all trades and good in all.”

Senior lawyer and former Federal Court judge Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram said his first impression of Karpal was that Karpal was a master of criminal procedure and the law of evidence.

“In one criminal case he was able to convince the trial judge to review the confession his client had made. After submission, the judge directed the jury to acquit the accused,” said Sri Ram, referring to a murder charge case in 1973.

Sri Ram started out as a lawyer in 1970 and was appointed Court of Appeal judge in 1994.

He said as a judge, it was a pleasure to watch Karpal submit as he made his points quickly and the issues raised were easily understood.

He said in the celebrated case of Teh Cheng Poh, Karpal failed before the Federal Court but was successful at the Privy Council in London.

“The executive had to table amendments in Parliament as a result of Karpal’s court action,” he said.

[In 1979, the government unveiled its Emergency (Essential Powers) Bill to validate all the regulations earlier declared void by the council and this dashed the hopes of condemned security prisoners like

The question before the court was whether a law passed during an Emergency was valid after Parliament resumed sitting. The Privy Council held that the Essential (Security Cases) Regulations (ESCAR) was unconstitutional, and Teh who was charged with possession of a firearm and ammunitions escaped the gallows.]

Police inspecting the Toyota Alphard of the late Karpal Singh at the Gopeng police station today. Bukit Gelugor MP and veteran DAP leader Karpal Singh was killed when the car he was travelling in collided with a five-ton lorry near Gua Tempurung on the North-South Expressway early yesterday morning. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, April 18, 2014.

Sri Ram also said it was Karpal who raised the doctrine of separation of powers among the three arms of the government and the Court of Appeal agreed with his submission.

“However, the Federal Court disagreed but the general view among lawyers was that Karpal was right,” he said.

Sri Ram, who retired as a Federal Court judge in 2010 added that “every time the history of the Malaysian common law is written, Karpal’s name will appear in gold letters for his great contribution to that area of law”.

To Salim Bashir, who became a lawyer in 1995, Karpal was a mentor for being fearless and yet humble in advancing his client’s cause.

“He had the skills of using all legal arsenal to obtain justice for his clients,” said Salim adding that he enjoyed seeing Karpal in action during proceedings.

Salim said law undergraduates could also pick up advocacy skills which they would not obtain in lecture halls if they had seen him in the courts.

He said Karpal had pushed for courts to make ground-breaking decisions because he was innovative and tested the laws, especially the Federal Constitution.

Karpal, 73, died in the road accident when his car was involved in a collision with a five-ton lorry near Gua Tempurung on the North-South Expressway in the wee hours of Thursday.

Karpal was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to attend a court hearing.

The impact of the crash which took place at about 1am killed the prominent lawyer and his personal assistant, Michael Cornelious, on the spot.

Karpal’s son, Ramkarpal, and car driver, C. Selvam, were injured. Karpal’s Indonesian domestic helper was also injured and is in critical condition at the Ipoh Hospital. – April 18, 2014.

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