Thursday, May 23, 2024

An Uncommon Man : Yg Berhormat Mr. Karpal Singh

There are men and women who have given up the trappings of power and comfort in order to stay true to their principles. Sometimes, most of the times, they are pilloried as foolish for not compromising their beliefs in return for material gains and honours. Yet, when the plaster feet of those who were all too willing to give up principles for profit crumble under the weight of historical judgement, those steadfast warriors will remain standing tall.

One such man is Yang Berhomat Mr. Karpal Singh -renowned criminal and constitutional lawyer, defender of human rights, crusader for social justice, one time political detainee, former one-term State Assemblyman from Kedah and three-term State Assemblyman for Penang, five-term Member of Parliament for Jelutong and current Member of Parliament for Bukit Gelugor. It is almost impossible for any Malaysian not to have heard of Karpal Singh. His quick wit and strong convictions have made him the bane of the government bench in Parliament and has reduced many a hostile witness to tears in cross-examinations during trials.

But what is it that drives men like Y.B Mr. Karpal? Here is a man with the capabilities and personality to have been accorded with the highest honours if he were willing to compromise. Perhaps that is why after more than 30 years of public service, he can still hold his head up high. He can sleep soundly at night because he has never once compromised on the fundamentals of what he believes in – a belief of a just and equal society for all Malaysians.

The Young Lion

When PASSIONS met with Mr. Karpal, it was one year and four months since a car accident sent the redoubtable parliamentarian into a wheelchair. Physically, the change has been quite stark and he has become, physically at least, considerably weaker than before. But, external appearances are often deceiving and even though he may not be as physically strong as before, his mind and heart are still as sharp and stout as ever and those are probably the greatest weapons in his arsenal.

The boy who was to become the Tiger of Jelutong was born in Penang in 1940 and his most vivid memory of his early years was seeing bodies being cleared up from the streets during the Japanese Occupation. His formative years were spent in Penang along with his primary and secondary education, which were in St. Xavier’s Institution.

In 1961, he left for Singapore to read law at the then University of Malaya in Singapore. Naturally, we couldn’t resist asking him why he took up law and not another profession. Incidentally, his parents wanted him to pursue a more conventional path of becoming a doctor. However, to him law was an innate choice and he was also partly influenced by the books he read on law and lawyers.

Of course during those days, television was almost unheard of and there were none of the TV shows about law or lawyers as there are today. But then again, who needs television lawyers when you had the likes of KaramSingh, V. Veerappen, P.G Lim and David Marshall (the last of whom was Mr. Karpal’s inspiration) who ploughed the legal profession in Malaya and Singapore during those years?

It was in Singapore that Mr. Karpal embarked on his first act of civil disobedience against unfairness. The issue at hand were the Suitability Certificates all potential undergraduates had to obtain in order to be cleared for entry into university. The certificates were to prevent people with “undesirable” political convictions from studying in the universities. To people like Karpal Singh though, they smacked of bias which favoured one political opinion over another and so he helped lead a student protest against them. At that time, he was the President of his hostel and as a punishment, the authorities expelled him from his hostel.

The most worrying part of the incident as he recalled was not that he was expelled from the hostel but that the authorities had sent a letter to his father expressing their displeasure over his (Karpal’s)conduct. Fortunately for him, his younger brother managed to intercept the letter and thus spare the young law student from paternal wrath.

Kedah and a political awakening

After his graduation, Mr. Karpal went back to Penang before the lack of opportunities in the state caused him to move to Kedah. Although his parents were not keen on him moving to Kedah, owing to (as he explained) a belief that Kedah was a jungle, it was probably one of the best moves he made in his professional career.

In Kedah, he could immerse himself into law. As he stated, “it was a good state to start with. You could, sort of, get cases challenging the law on grounds of constitutionality and get the materials to apply to what you have picked up in university.”

During his time in Kedah, two momentous incidents occurred. One was of a more personal note, which was his marriage, which brought forth five children (four sons and one daughter).The other was the 1969 General Elections, which led to the May 13 riots in Kuala Lumpur.

It was while he was reading about the riots that Mr. Karpal came to his belief that only a truly multi-racial Malaysia is the best choice for the nation. Thus in 1970, he joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and thus began his political involvement.

Elections and victory in Kedah

When the 1974 elections came about, the DAP proposed to run Mr. Karpal as a candidate in Penang, which was his home state. However, during this time, his father passed away after a car accident while on a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amristrar. Thus while in a state of mourning, he felt it was inappropriate for him to campaign in an election.

But fate decided otherwise… It so happened that the DAP was attempting to test the ground in Kedah and he received a phone call from Fan Yew Teng, who was then a DAP leader. Mr. Karpal recollects Fan telling him that the party was thinking of running a candidate in the Alor Star State Assembly seat and Alor Star Parliamentary seat. Mr. Karpal thus offered his support, which led to Fan telling him, “No, we want you to run.”

Although he said that it would be inappropriate for him to run due to his father having passed away recently, Fan used all his persuasive powers on him, including the line that the party felt strongly that he should run, which led to him giving a tentative agreement. And just before he could change his mind, Fan putdown the phone and the next thing he knew, he was the DAP candidate for both the Alor Star State Assembly Seat and the Alor Star Parliamentary seat.

Drive and determination

One aspect of Karpal Singh that deserves the utmost respect is his determination. It is the same determination, which has led him to stand up time and time again against injustice.

This same determination would also come to be of great value after he was elected to the Kedah State Assembly. Incidentally, Mr. Karpal remains the first DAP candidate to have stood for and won a seat in Kedah, which is already a great achievement in itself.

Mr. Karpal’s handicap though was that being born and brought up in Penang, Malay was not a language he was entirely familiar with and as a State Assemblyman, he would now have to speak Malay in the Assembly. He told us that during campaigning, his helpers will take him to the kampongs where they would introduce him as someone who had spent his entire life in Britain thus excusing his lack of proficiency in Malay.

But such things could not work while in the State Assembly and so he started learning Malay by listening to Malay radio stations as well as reading the Berita Harian, which was back then a direct translation of the New Straits Times. Ironically, the Kedah State Assembly only had two opposition members, him and an Independent who could not speak a word of English. And so he and Mr. Karpal, two men on the same side of the fence, were communicating like chickens and ducks.

The Tiger of Jelutong is born

In 1978, Mr. Karpal was co-opted into the Penang DAP state committee and slated to run in Penang during the elections. For reasons unknown, the then state chairman, Yeap Ghim Guan was opposed to Mr. Karpal’s entry even though he was a native son of the state.

However, the party’s national leadership wanted Mr. Karpal in and so secretary-general Lim Kit Siang went up to Penang to deliver an ultimatum to Yeap. Nevertheless, Yeap stood his ground and left the party with some of his supporters to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Yeap then boasted that wherever Karpal Singh stood for elections, he would stand.

And so when the 1978 elections came about, Mr. Karpal stood as the DAP candidate in his home constituency of Jelutong for the Parliamentary seat and the State seat of Bukit Gelugor in a three-cornered fight between the DAP, Barisan Nasional and the SDP(represented by Yeap Ghim Guan).

Mr. Karpal related to us an amusing anecdote about how Yeap apparently went round Jelutong telling the voters that they should not vote for Mr. Karpal because he could not speak Chinese, which was not entirely true. To their credit, the Chinese voters in Jelutong countered Yeap’s arguments with the retort, “Well, can you speak Bengali?”

Polling day came and when the results came back, he had won both the Jelutong and Bukit Gelugor seats and thus was born the Tiger of Jelutong.

Standing up for what is right

The famous moniker by which Mr. Karpal is now known was ironically given to him by one of his political opponents, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, the cabinet minister and President of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). As Mr. Karpal recalls, it was during a Parliamentary debate when Datuk Seri Samy stood up and, indicating Mr. Karpal who was on the opposition bench, said “I am a lion and you are a tiger.”

Mr. Karpal replied, ”You have taken away my birthright. I am a Singh and Singh means lion. But it’s ok. I shall be the tiger because in this country, there are no lions.

”This is just an example of the legendary Karpal Singh wit. But there is more to him than just mere bluster. Anyone can have bluster but he backs it up with courage and his determination to stand his ground against injustice.

One such example of this courage and wit happened during a sitting of the Penang State Assembly. During his time in the Assembly, he was a formidable opponent for then Chief Minister Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, a man who was a formidable opponent for others. It so happened that during one seating, the ruling party’s assemblymen in Penang passed a resolution to suspend Mr. Karpal from the Assembly, which led to the Speaker of theAssembly ruling that Mr. Karpal had to leave the House. But he refused to leave on the grounds that the order was invalid and even though the police came (in contravention of procedure) to remove him, he stood his ground.

The legal eagle

With his colourful political career, it might almost be easy to forget that Karpal Singh is also an extremely accomplished litigation lawyer. I say almost because he is usually at the epicentre of many great legal and courtroom dramas.

His office in Jalan Pudu contains mementoes of some of his more famous cases including glowing testimonials written by some of his clients. A hodge podge of society have passed through the doors to seek his legal help ranging from the richest to the poorest. For many, Mr. Karpal is their last hope as he is a man who is not afraid of touching any case and a man who loves a challenge.

People outside Malaysia, especially in the Western world will recognise Mr. Karpal as the defence lawyer for many foreigners who have been arrested on charges of drug trafficking. Among the more famous cases he has been involved in were the Cohen case where a New Zealand mother and son were caught with more than 170 grammes of heroin. The mother, Lorraine, aged 47,received the death sentence while son, Aaron, aged 18, was found guilty of possession and received a life sentence. Mr. Karpal was their advocate and under appeal to the Supreme Court he managed to get Lorraine Cohen’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds that the amount of heroin she was carrying would only be of use to her as she was a heroin addict.

But for every case like the Cohens where he managed to save two people from the gallows, there are also cases like Kevin Barlow. This case, probably one of the most high profile cases involving foreigners and the drug laws in Malaysia, saw Australians Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers convicted and hanged for trafficking heroin. Mr. Karpal was the defence counsel for Barlow and the case drew widespread international interest including appeals from then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, then US President Ronald Reagan, The Queen and the Pope for clemency.

Despite Mr. Karpal’s best efforts, Barlow along with Chambers became the first Westerners to be hanged in Malaysia under the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking. When Mr. Karpal talked about the case, we could see the absolute conviction in his eyes that Barlow could have been spared the death penalty. The Barlow and Chambers case was eventually made into a mini-series “A Long Way From Home” starring Julie Christie, (a young)Sarah Jessica Parker and Victor Bannerjee (of “A Passage to India” fame) as Karpal Singh, himself.

A guest of His Majesty’s Government

In Malaysia, those detained under the Internal Security Act are not called prisoners but are given the, rather more ironic term, “Guests of His Majesty’s Government”. There have been many dissenters who have been “invited” to spend time in Kamunting, Perak as “guests” and in 1987, Mr. Karpal became one of the them.

It was Operasi Lalang (Operation Weed), probably one of the largest mass use of the ISA in Malaysia history when over 106people were detained without trial, amongst them Opposition Members of Parliament, civil rights campaigners and church workers.

Mr. Karpal was amongst the first to be arrested under the Internal Security Act during the crackdown. As he recalls, it was during one Parliamentary seating when he and some other DAP MPs went to a police station to inquire about the whereabouts of then DAP MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng who had gone to the police station earlier to lodge a report. Not long after they had entered, some of them including Mr. Karpal and Parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang were arrested under the Internal Security Act.

It would not be untrue to say that we listened in horror at Mr. Karpal’s accounts of the treatment meted out to him. There was the attempts to strip him of his dignity by forcing him to strip and change in front of the police officers, the 60 day period of detention in a small, claustrophobic holding cell and of course the countless hours of interrogation.

Throughout his professional life, Mr. Karpal has always depended on the courts and the rule of law. And so he applied the same principle to his predicament. He applied for a writ of habeus corpus on the grounds that the detention order was voided by a mistake in the charges. And he won… For what might have been the first time in history, someone had managed to obtain his release from ISA detention via the courts. It was a triumph for the rule of law.

Well it was.. almost. Not long after his release and while he was on the way to Penang with his family, Mr. Karpal was re-arrested under the ISA. It would not remiss to mention this part of his life without mentioning his wife, Madam Gurmit Kaur, who stood bravely by him during this turbulent time.

Though, the term “behind every great man is a great woman” might be cliché, in Mr. Karpal’s case, it is entirely true. Make that two great women. The first was his mother from whom Mr. Karpal claims to have inherited her personality and tenacity. The second is of course his wife. Although a less public figure than Mr.Karpal, Madam Gurmit is, no doubt, Mr. Karpal’s rock and support.

During the period of Operasi Lalang, she could be seen visiting Mr. Karpal in Kamunting and demonstrating for the release of thedetainees. A particularly memorable incident was after Mr. Karpal’s second arrest when Mrs. Karpal attempted to enter the police station where he was taken only for the police to close the gates on her, and there she was pushing on one side of the gate with the police pushing on the other side.

If there was any positive outcome from Mr. Karpal’s detention, it was that, as Mrs. Karpal said, “our boys became men overnight”. The two elder sons, Jagdeep Singh Deo and Gobind Singh Deo, wrote letters calling for their father’s release and the family unit grew closer during this trying period.

A true Malaysian patriot

Mr. Karpal has encountered much in his life and career. He has faced trials and tribulations but still has remained strong and steadfast in his beliefs. But what is it that drives a man like Mr.Karpal on? The answer, as he told PASSIONS is just “my belief in social justice and my love for the country.” Today Karpal Singh is back in Parliament after winning the Bukit Gelugor seat in 2004,and despite his current disability, he is still able to best his opponent in a duel of wits. In the courtrooms and the hallowed halls of Parliament, the Tiger still roars.

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