One of modern Malaysia’s great men

By P Gunasegaram | Malaysiakini
Apr 18, 2014

Taking an overview of his own tempestuous life, Karpal Singh believes he has been able to achieve more via the law than he has as the perennial hardball opposition DAP politician. – author Tim Donoghue in his book, ‘Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong.

QUESTION TIME It seems like he has been in politics forever but it was in law where he made his mark first. History will likely remember him more for his achievements in that arena and the truly tireless efforts he made towards the cause of human rights and equality, the last nine years in a wheelchair.

The cruel hands of fate may have dealt Karpal Singh a double blow, making him a tetraplegic in a car accident in 2005 and then, after he courageously made a life for himself following that tragedy, the accident early yesterday morning where he lost his life.

But it can’t ever take away the many achievements he made in his full and varied life, overcoming great obstacles and odds to make a significant positive difference to this country, making him one of modern Malaysia’s greatest men and a patriot.

It was in 1978 that Karpal stepped firmly into the national political arena, winning the Parliamentary seat of Jelutong in Penang. He held it for 21 years, lost in 1999 but was returned as MP for Bukit Gelugor in 2004, retaining the seat in the two subsequent elections of 2008 and 2013.

Last year, for my birthday, a friend of mine gave me a copy of the book, ‘Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong’, a biography by New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue who first met Karpal in 1987. Karpal was representing New Zealand mother and son Lorraine and Aaron Cohen in a drug trafficking case but was himself in detention under the infamous Internal Security Act at the time used by Dr Mahathir Mohamad to detain over 100 people under his Operation Lallang.

I put the book away then for another day but last night I pulled it out and stayed up to read it, coming up with a new and fresh appreciation of the man who I already admired tremendously for his guts, gumption and zeal in battling an increasingly corrupt, arrogant and authoritarian Barisan Nasional government at great cost to himself and his family.

Karpal is in the ranks of the great bygone opposition leaders of the country such as Dr Tan Chee Khoon of the Labour Party and Gerakan Rakyat, DR Seenivasagam of the People’s Progressive Party and the latter day ones such as Lim Kit Siang, Anwar Ibrahim, Syed Husin Ali and Abdul Hadi Awang.

Of those in the past probably Seenivasagam was closest to his own style. Like Karpal, Seenivasagam was a brilliant lawyer and courageous politician who never stepped away from a fight and did all he could for the underdog and downtrodden.

Opposition politics was usually his public face and as important as that was in the overall scheme of things, Karpal’s role was much more important than that and much more basic – it was about the rule of law, the right to representation, the right to dissent, equality and plain justice at the end of the day.

Sidetracked into student politics

Karpal was born in born in 1940 as World War 11 began to throw its long shadow into this region, eventually enveloping it. His father was a watchman. Eschewing medicine as a career his family was pushing him into, he opted for law instead.

Despite being the among the top two students at St Xavier’s Institution in Penang, Karpal was sidetracked into student politics at the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) and took eight years before graduating in 1968. A pep talk by one of his lecturers, Tommy Koh, subsequently Singapore’s representative to the UN, was said to have helped, according to Donoghue’s book.

Three years later in 1971 he set up his own office in Penang. The same year, his first son, Jagdeep was born. Many of his early cases involved the controversial ISA and the Essential (Security Cases) Regulations 1975 or ESCAR. The laws provided a mandatory death sentence for anyone found in a possession of firearms in a security area.

Among Karpal’s clients were communists who at the time were engaged in insurgency action against the state. Karpal did not believe in the death sentence and mandatory sentencing and looked for loopholes in the law and pardons to stop his clients from going to the gallows.

This later extended to drug cases where laws mandated a death sentence for those who had more than a prescribed amount of some drugs. In his time he defended a number of foreigners including Australians Barlow and Chambers.

Donoghue says that over 50 of Karpal’s own clients went to the gallows for various offences but Karpal’s actions directly or indirectly saved hundreds of others from the gallows because of legal precedents and rulings following from his cases.

A landmark case involving Karpal was that of Penang carpenter Teh Cheng Poh who was charged under the ISA and ESCAR with possession of a revolver and ammunition. Teh was convicted and this was upheld by the Federal Court in 1977.

Karpal made an appeal to the Privy Council that the ESCAR was invalid and unconstitutional and succeeded in 1978. Hussein Onn’s government scrambled to close off the loophole and tabled the Emergency (Essential Powers) Bill in 1979 which validated the earlier regulations which were declared void. Teh went to the gallows in 1982.

While many of those Karpal defended were Chinese, he also defended others, including Malays. He took up the case – unsuccessfully – of the first man in Malaysia to be convicted for waging war against the King – Mohamed Amin Mohamed Razali, the leader of the Al-Maunah. For him, it was not about race but justice and the right to representation under the law.

Karpal’s legal saga is too long to mention in detail here. One of them includes a case against the government taken by Lim Kit Siang for awarding the North-South Expressway to an Umno-linked company. Karpal, as Lim’s lawyer, was transported to the court for these hearings from detention in 1987-89 under the ISA and Operation Lallang. He lost the case by a 3-2 decision of the Supreme Court.

Taking Mahathir to court

He later took Mahathir, then also home minister in addition to being prime minister, to court for wrongful detention under the ISA and won a settlement in February 2002, the terms of which were kept confidential, getting some amount of vindication for his arrest. He is said to be the only one to have taken and won a case against Mahathir.

The other thing that is notable about Karpal is his courage in speaking against the excesses of royalty and actually taking cases against them. Karpal was suspended from Parliament for two years in 1984 when he brought up the issue of the late Johor sultan in Parliament over a case involving the Pahang royalty as well.

The late Johor sultan was also the Agong at that time and his questions related to the behaviour of the Agong in that case. According to Donoghue’s book, Karpal sued the Agong in his own name in 1986 on behalf of businessman Daeng Baha Ismail Daeng Ahmad who alleged that he was brutally attacked and whipped by the Agong. The case was thrown out.

But he had an unlikely ally on the royalty issue in Mahathir who moved a constitutional change in 1993 making all persons, including sultans, accountable before the law, helping to deliver to Mahathir the 20 DAP MP votes for that.

But there was no love lost between the two men. Karpal fought tooth and nail much that Mahathir represented and especially the erosion of judicial independence where Mahathir moved against key judges, appointing others in their place during the 1988 judicial crisis.

In Mar 2007, four years after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister, Karpal wrote to Mahathir saying the judiciary has not recovered and urged him to make an unqualified and unconditional personal apology to three judges involved and their families.

Mahathir replied scathingly that Karpal was moved by pure hatred. “I have done what was my duty and I owe nobody any apology… I think you (Karpal) are the most contemptible of politicians and individuals.”

Apart from the detention under the ISA for 15 months in 1987-89, attempts to get Karpal under the law have been unsuccessful. He survived a sedition charge earlier, was acquitted under a second one only to lose a prosecution appeal recently. If he loses an appeal to the apex court, he could go to jail. But the accident intervened.

His death also deprives Anwar Ibrahim of his main lawyer in his forthcoming appeal to the Federal Court of his Sodomy II conviction by the Court of Appeal after the High Court had acquitted him earlier. Karpal was also Anwar’s main lawyer in Sodomy 1.

Karpal fought against one other thing loudly and strongly – the introduction of Hudud law, a sore point because Pakatan Rakyat coalition partner PAS is the one introducing these. Karpal points out that Huhud law is there and waiting to be implemented in Terengganu. Meantime legislation is being introduced in Kelantan and at the Federal level by PAS.

Grotesque twist

This caused the extremist Zulkifli Nordin to declare that Allah killed him, in a grotesque twist at a time of great mourning for a courageous Malaysian who did more for the country than all the likes of Zulkifli put together, the likes of whom Karpal spent his life fighting against, in fact.

For him and other bigoted people like him who don’t have the grace to acknowledge the passing of a true Malaysian who never differentiated people on the basis of race, religion, language or creed and who never purported to know what God wants, this letter to online portal The Malaysian Insider reproduced in full below says all.

A promise to insensitive politicians.

At some point in the future, you will depart from this world, as I will. It would be a time of intense grief and mourning for your loved ones. During that particular period, I promise not to gloat over your death.

I further give you my word, that I will not claim that my Maker, unique to my faith, had a hand in it. Although you may not realise it, to do so is cruel and unbecoming of any human being. Only a beast or an imbecile would behave in such a manner.

I also promise not to splash your morbid or gory photos in death over the Internet, to boost my Twitter and Facebook ratings. You may not be aware that such a move does not bring fame, only infamy.

In addition, I give you my word that if I can’t find a decent word or two to express my condolences, I shall keep mum. This is because to condemn you in death would only bring shame to me.

I sincerely believe that I am above such behaviour, as most Malaysians are, save for a lunatic fringe of the society.

I will also endeavour not to attribute your passing to divine retribution, after all, who am I to pass judgment? I am not the Almighty.

In the event you have difficulty understanding or appreciating the promises that I have agreed to undertake, I have little else to offer you, but my condolences. For it is truly a tragedy to be cursed with so little insight and compassion.

– Sheela R.

May Karpal’s soul rest in peace and may his family and friends take comfort that his life was so full of meaning.

  1. #1 by Just_True on Friday, 18 April 2014 - 11:22 pm

    The memory & legacy of this towering statesman will live forever in our hearts. I will tell my children & my children’s children of such a man that walked this earth & left his mark. My dear brother, rest in peace.

You must be logged in to post a comment.