Karpal Singh: Will for justice


The funeral rites for Karpal Singh ended with family members scattering his ashes in the sea off Green Hall, Penang, but the national soul-searching to understand his legacy and to commemorate it has just begun.

The massive outpouring of grief, especially at the funeral on April 20, 2014, for a statesman who had actually never held executive power was indeed unprecedented. Karpal’s legacies as a human rights lawyer and a staunch defender of constitutional democracy, and his leadership in DAP will be remembered, studied and perhaps critiqued.

The cruel attempt that was ongoing when Karpal died, to disqualify him as MP and even to jail him, will continue to haunt the ruling party with his image as victim and martyr “sealed” with his demise. Karpal’s perseverance against physical disability will also continue to inspire many, and hopefully his tragic accident on the highway will help the push for better transportation.

Karpal's funeral cortege passing the High Court on Lebuh Light.

Some 25,000 people turned up to send a hero off.

Shocking death

It was one of those end-of-era deaths the news of which imprints itself so strongly into our memory that we will forever remember how and when we first heard it.

At 2.33am on April 17, 2014, an MP asked a private messaging group of DAP federal elected representatives whether it was true that Karpal had met with an accident, to which Gobind Singh Deo, Karpal’s second son and MP for Puchong, replied at 2.48am: “With regret I inform you that it is true.”

In a separate message minutes later, Gobind wrote: “Just been informed Mr Karpal and Michael (Karpal's aide) passed away.”

No words can describe the acute pain we all felt on receiving that sad confirmation.

This giant of a man was always expected to fight tirelessly and endlessly, and news of his demise could only come in one way – as an emotional shock. Having just been convicted and fined RM4,000 (which would disqualify him as an MP) for sedition on March 11, 2014, he was expected to battle it out and appeal to the higher courts – and all the while, the government appealed for heftier penalties. Curiously, of his own volition, he resigned on March 29, 2014 as DAP chairman citing provisions in the Societies Act which disallowed a convicted person from holding public office.

Outpouring of grief

The outpouring of grief by Malaysians at the wake and the funeral was massive and caught many off guard. The funeral organisers had expected a couple of thousand at the funeral but were faced instead with a crowd multiple times bigger. At Karpal’s wake, Kerk Kim Hock, former DAP secretary-general who retired from politics in 2004, told me that it was unimaginable just a decade ago that the passing of a DAP figure could generate such an immense show of public emotions.

There were many dignitaries at the wake, no doubt, but the number of ordinary Malaysians who thronged the family house at Jalan Utama from April 17 to 19 was overwhelming and was testimony to how many hearts Karpal touched.

On April 20, Penang witnessed what was probably its largest funeral ever. True to Karpal’s folk hero image, the send-off was akin to a street parade, complete with placards, big bikes and cyclists. The day was notable also for being exactly a year since nomination day for the 2013 General Election. Tens of thousands of mourners from all over Malaysia lined the streets of Penang to have a last glimpse of Karpal’s casket, shouting “Karpal Singh! Karpal Singh!” as if it was a nomination procession. Many were frustrated at not being able to enter Dewan Sri Pinang to pay their last respects.

After leaving the state hall where the state-honour funeral ceremonies were held, Karpal’s body stopped at places important to his life – Penang State Assembly, Penang High Court and St Xavier’s Institution – before heading to the Batu Gantung crematorium.

The original plan included a stop at Green Hall, where Karpal’s legal office is, but that was not carried out due to the crowd size and lack of time. Most news reports missed the significance of Green Hall. It was not just where his office is located. According to Tim Donoghue’s Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong, after being born at the Penang Maternity Hospital on Jalan Macalister on June 28, 1940, Karpal was first brought up at 23 Green Hall, a house that was soon damaged in the bombings of World War II.

Karpal through the years.

His life story

Karpal’s story is fascinating and dramatic indeed. Born to a Penang City Council guard, he went on to become one of Penang’s and Malaysia’s most famous and respected lawyers and statesmen.

One day in December 2010 at Parliament, Karpal asked me to meet him at his Pudu office. We met at his library, and were joined by the New Zealand journalist, Tim Donoghue. Karpal and Donoghue asked me for publishing advice as my team had published a photo book on Karpal in three languages for his 70th birthday in June 2010 (Karpal Singh: True Malaysian by Malaissa Loovi; Malay: Karpal Singh – Pantang Undur; Chinese:卡巴星-真正的马来 西亚人).

I had previously heard of a mysterious unpublished memoir of Karpal and had in fact been given a draft by Karpal in mid-2010. But it was a pleasant surprise to meet the author and be told that the project already started in 1988, that someone then had deemed it worthy to make Karpal’s life story a lifelong pursuit.

A young Karpal and Kit Siang.

Donoghue met Karpal in 1987 when Karpal acted for New Zealanders Loraine Cohen and Aaron Cohen in a drugrelated death penalty case and saved them from the hangman’s noose. Karpal was already a well-known international name after the failed attempt to save Australians Kevin Barlow and Geoffrey Chambers, who were hanged in 1986.

Donoghue’s book was finally published by Marshall Cavendish and launched in KL in September 2013, 25 years after it was first commissioned. The intervening years saw many ups and downs in Karpal’s life.

He was detained under the Internal Security Act in 1987-1989. In the 1995 General Election, he was reelected in Jelutong, scrapping through with the slimmest of margins. Then in 1999, both Karpal and Lim Kit Siang were not returned to Parliament for the first time in their political careers.

Karpal took public office for the first time in the Kedah State Assembly in 1974 and in Parliament and the Penang State Assembly in 1978. Kit Siang was first voted into Parliament in 1969. Both Karpal and Kit Siang were re-elected back into Parliament in the March 2004 General Election.

In January 2005, Karpal was involved in a car accident and was paralysed from the waist down. Indeed, his father Ram was killed in 1974 in a road accident in Amritsar, India.

Perhaps it was only after the 2008 General Election that swept DAP and its allies into power in five states, in the process breaking the two-thirds majority stranglehold that BN had had in Parliament, that the memoir of the “Tiger of Jelutong” was befittingly published, as it was only then that Karpal felt he had politically recovered.


Karpal’s international reputation comes from his championing of human rights and his struggle against the death penalty and other cruel punishments such as judicial canning. Domestically, it was his steadfast belief in a constitutional democracy that earned him the respect of friends – and of foes.

In November 2013, Rasah MP Teo Kok Seong and I visited Karpal to discuss some political matters. Those matters were concluded within five minutes, and he gave us another hour of his precious time – at least 10 clients were waiting outside his room – to discuss the efforts to save people from the hangman. Many of these stories are recorded in Donoghue’s book. I remember asking Karpal whether he knew how many lives he had saved. He said “a couple of dozens”. I vaguely remember that there was talk of a “Karpal’s list of survivors” listed somewhere.

Karpal and his wife, Gurmit Kaur.

If there is none, one should be compiled. In an “Ubah” truck ceramah in Perlis in November 2012, while Karpal was speaking, I remember a man walking up to me and asking for an opportunity to thank Karpal for having saved his life.

Indeed, the inherent – and inspiring – humanism of this great man is most clearly seen in how he so willingly used his considerable wits to represent death row inmates – people with no one left to turn to.

In June 2011, with the help of Nazri Aziz, who was the Law Minister then, Gobind and I managed to organise a parliamentary roundtable that resolved to call for a moratorium on executions, pending a thorough review of the death penalty. Our hope is that, in the short term at least, with the removal of the mandatory death sentence, the discretion to pass judgment would be returned to the judges. In the long run, we still hope that the death penalty will be abolished.

I have reason to believe that the parliamentary roundtable we held in June 2011 had some bearing on the Singapore government’s decision to amend its equally tough drug laws to allow for drug mules or couriers to escape the death penalty. Sabahan Yong Vui Kong was spared the death sentence as a result. Unfortunately, the Malaysian government did not move an inch from its original position over the past three years.

Nevertheless, it is for us to continue the human rights legacy of Karpal and to be guided by his deep humanism.

Karpal with Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of PAS and former Menteri Besar of Kelantan.

Constitutional democracy

Much had been said about Karpal’s opposition to the hudud laws. But those who highlight his concern should note that he was opposed to hudud from the point of his steadfast belief in Malaysia as a constitutional democracy.

I had several fairly long private discussions with Karpal about hudud and political Islam. I am of the view that the most viable route to defeat BN at the polls is for both DAP and PAS to move to the political middle ground and bring their supporters to vote for each other.

The hudud issue does not allow for any middle ground and in fact threatens most seriously to divide the Opposition. From my conversations with Karpal, it was evident that he was fully aware that while his statements on hudud was often misconstrued as anti-Islam, he was seeing it from a constitutional point of view – that hudud was simply not constitutional.

By extension, his comments on the role of monarchs should be read in the same light. The Court of Appeal overturned the judgment of the High Court and fined Karpal RM4,000 on March 11, 2014 for his remarks during the Perak constitutional crisis in February 2009, which saw the removal of the Pakatan state government. Karpal’s various run-ins with royalty throughout the past three decades should not be misconstrued as anti-Malay but as the work of one who attempted to ensure that everyone – royalty included – followed the laws of a constitutional democracy.

In the last decade and a half, Karpal also represented Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at the latter’s various cases on a pro bono basis, including the Sodomy II trials. Now, Karpal was probably not one of Anwar’s biggest fans especially during Anwar’s 16 years on the government bench. It was based on this same wish to effectuate genuine constitutional democracy that Karpal tirelessly fought for Anwar in court.

Karpal with Guan Eng. The two had been close since the latter entered politics in the mid-1980s.

Leading the DAP

For Malaysians, Karpal was best known for decades as a top DAP leader. Karpal became national party chairman in September 2004, following Kit Siang’s stint in that position (1999-2004). Lim Guan Eng was elected the secretarygeneral at the same time. While the chairmanship may not have been the number one position in DAP, Karpal nevertheless brought much stature with him.

In Kit Siang’s tribute to his old brotherin- arms, he said that with Karpal’s passing, a light had gone out in Malaysia. The two of them had been a political pair since the 1980s, and at the three-day wake for Karpal, one could see how the press attempted to capture every expression they could on Kit Siang’s face.

For DAP secretary-general and Chief Minister of Penang Guan Eng, Karpal’s demise left a huge void. In private, Guan Eng considers himself the political son of Karpal. They had been close since the much younger man entered politics in the mid-1980s.

In the period following the 2008 General Election when DAP first got to taste some power, Karpal was keen to ensure that the party lived up to public expectations. He was against serving DAP representatives receiving honorific titles, a view shared by many Malaysians who had been complaining about the proliferation of such titles. He was also against representatives holding both parliamentary and state seats at once. Fielding leaders for seats at both levels before the 2008 election had been done out of necessity as the pool of electable candidates back then was very small.

Karpal's faithful aide, Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, also perished in the accident.

He was justified in pushing to minimise such arrangements after 2008 because DAP’s talent pool had significantly expanded since then.

Karpal was not shy of controversies within his own party. His “Godfather versus Warlord” spat with Dr P. Ramasamy, Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang, as well as his public call to Jeff Ooi, MP for Jelutong, to withdraw the latter’s alleged derogatory remark of “kucing kurap” against MPPP officials are among the most remembered during his decade-long chairmanship.

I must confess that as a DAP leader, Karpal's choice of words and sometimes his choice of moments occasionally left me feeling uneasy, especially when it came to party matters as well as issues relating to coalition building. But his mission to uphold the integrity of the party was always crystal clear and well understood.

Karpal was a courageous soul who feared no one and stood up for the downtrodden, the dispossessed and the destitute. This legend lives on beyond his death. In his lifetime, he has inspired and given hope to at least two generations of Malaysians. His story – and his will to see justice done – will continue to inspire many more.

Liew Chin Tong is the MP for Kluang. He was formerly the executive director of Penang Institute.

Karpal Singh’s influence runs deep

The sudden demise of opposition leader Karpal Singh in the early hours of April 17 in a traffic accident on the North-South Highway outside Kampar, Perak has left many Malaysians saddened.

The sadness is deepened by the thought that he had, only a month ago, been convicted of sedition. It also reminds many of the endless harassment that one of the most vocal advocates for the centrality of the rule of law in Malaysia had had to endure over the last four decades. The struggle to secure the rule of law as the backbone of Malaysian governance will no doubt continue after his death – just as surely as harassment of Malaysians in opposition to the government will also continue for some time yet.

Where Karpal is concerned, this champion of human rights and the rule of law was respected for his bravery and for the consistency of his views. He was, in many ways, from a time when few doubted that good governance depended on deep respect for the law and on due process.

He should therefore be remembered as much for his belief in the law as for his bravery as an opposition leader. Playing both these roles so boldly gave him a bigger-than-life stature on the Malaysian stage, be that in court or in parliament. His knowledge and love of the law helped to limit the undermining of the integrity of the judiciary and the legal profession in Malaysia that has been going on since the 1980s.

Before 1981, all the prime ministers of Malaysia were lawyers, and this was for good reason. Being a leader of a modern country required that one understood the importance of the integrity of its key institutions, especially the judicial process.

In that way, we can discern a clear line between a time when the Rule of Law was considered the backbone of the country’s governance and a time after that, when political expediencies of the powerful corrupted not only the judiciary but all the once-respected central institutions of the state.

Karpal, as a long-time parliamentarian, certainly helped to anchor opposition rhetoric over the years and to express the concerns of a large segment of the Malaysian population. This was important in the days when opposition parties had no hope of ever coming to power and therefore strategised and functioned as an eternal resistance; but it is ever more important now when power is actually within their grasp.

No one can really take his place, but then Malaysia has changed greatly over the last decade. His place need not be filled. The new political scene is now a very different one, and is populated by many young leaders of all races, most of whom prefer to discuss issues of governance instead of race and religion.

Karpal certainly contributed greatly towards bringing such a situation into being. That will be his strongest legacy, and that is how history will no doubt remember him. As one of the most respected lawyers in the country, he was a champion of human rights, often taking on clients who were too poor to pay his fees.

In today’s context, his conviction that the Malaysian Constitution is and should always be secular is greatly appreciated. He, more than most others, stood steadfast against any attempt to put religious law before civil law. It is therefore not surprising that at the news of his death, a despicable show of schadenfreude came out of the right wing of the ruling party.

He was among the boldest of opposition leaders. As a politician, he may have compromised on matters of strategy, but on matters of law and where challenges to the secular state were concerned, he stood his ground. This was what made him a natural target of harassment for different sections of the establishment and for various Islamists.

One should also remember his important role as a father of five children. Two of them are following in his footsteps. Gobind Singh Deo is already a noted figure in the opposition camp and is the MP for Puchong, while Jagdeep Singh is the state representative for Datuk Keramat, Penang. That is a strong legacy for any father to leave.

When I was a young court reporter in the mid-1970s, I watched him defend young and obviously impoverished people against charges of drug possession, day in and day out, in the Magistrate’s Court in Penang. He was a formidable man already back then, respected for his eloquence, his bravery and his charisma.

Since then, his impact on Malaysian politics and Malaysian consciousness about the need to defend the judiciary against its various enemies has been tremendous. He will be sorely missed, but his struggle will not abate. His influence has gone deep enough to spread into the next generation.

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). His works can be accessed at www.wikibeng.com.

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