* The figure of 100000 is a guesstimate of those who swarmed the family home over three days, turned up inside and outside the Dewan (over 50000), lined the streets to accompany or watch the cortege along the way and thronged the crematorium. (Make sure you watch the video further below of the scene at the Batu Gantung crematorium.)
Penang has never seen anything quite like it. You would have to go far back in Malaysian history to witness this kind of outpouring of sorrow over the loss of a people’s champion. Perhaps as far back as the passing of D R Seenivasagam of Ipoh (1925-1969) or Sybil Karthigasu of Papan (1899-1948), the funeral processions of both drawing about a hundred thousand to the streets.
More than the number, it is the sense of loss that is overwhelming. Perhaps it is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, the passing of a living legend, who in death would be larger than life.
Penangites and other Malaysians seemed to sense this as they turned out at various points in town to pay their respects. Over the last three days, they had made a beeline in their thousands to Karpal Singh’s family home in Western Road until the cortege left the house this Easter morning.
About a thousand bikers, their machines some purring, others growling, combining into a collective roar, escorted the Tiger to the Dewan Sri Pinang where he received a funeral with state honours.
Quieter, greener cyclists from the Occupy Beach Street car-free Sunday pedalled in, providing a silent, almost admonitory, contrast. The road along Beach Street may have been blissfully free of traffic on Occupy Beach Street’s car-free Sunday, but over at the Dewan, the human traffic had ground to a standstill.
Ordinary folk milled around in resignation outside the Dewan; others literally pressed on, persistently wading their way through the sea of humanity as they tried to enter the building. I took two hours to find a way in. And my tweets couldn’t go through as mobile phone networks choked. Not that it mattered a whole lot.
When I finally weaved my way in at 10.45am, we were quickly herded around Karpal’s coffin, barely catching a last glimpse of the people’s champion, now freed of the huge national burdens with which he had been lumbered. No wonder he was said to have suffered a bad back condition.
Once outside in the baking sunshine, I clambered onto a little ledge near the entrance gate, hoping it would provide a vantage point to view the hearse as it left the Dewan. I looked behind to make sure I was not blocking anyone’s view. Behind me, a grizzled man from Bukit Gelugor, peering through the vertical rails of a metal fence, assured me it was fine.
When I enquired what brought him here, he proudly said he was from Karpal’s Bukit Gelugor constituency. For a living, he worked as a hawker selling kuih. He said in awe that there were more people at the Dewan Sri than those who had voted for Karpal in Bukit Gelugor. “No other Penang leader before this has had this kind of rousing farewell from the people,” he said in Malay with quiet wonder.
I made some small talk about the blazing weather; by then the sun was beating down mercilessly on the gathered crowd.
He replied almost disdainfully, “This hot weather is nothing compared to what Karpal had endured.” And then he picked up a couple of bottles of water that were being distributed nearby and handed one to me through the railing as if to pacify me.
It was finally time for the hearse to leave the Dewan. The bikers in black on their big machines revved their engines as they readied themselves to lead the hearse. As the limousine slowly, almost reluctantly, pulled away, the chants from the people rose in the air: “Karpal Singh! Karpal Singh!” – not loudly but more like a painful yet defiant cry from the heart.
Another legal champion of the underdog, James Logan (1819-1869), may have looked on from his almost forgotten memorial opposite the High Court, just outside the Dewan Sri Pinang, perhaps bemusedly recalling his own rousing send-off by the common folk almost a century and a half ago.
Thousands more lined the streets outside the High Court and the State Assembly buildings, repeating the same chant, as if vowing to ensure Karpal’s fighting spirit would live on in them.
Memories came flooding back as the haunting notes from the bagpipes of the corp of pipes and drums of St Xavier’s Institution, Karpal’s alma mater, floated in the air.
Over at the Batu Gantung crematorium, emotions overflowed as a large throng roared in triumphant anguish a final warrior’s farewell just before the legend of the Tiger of Jelutong was burnished in fire. The Spirit of justice and freedom – which inspired the man – lives on in the people for whom he fought so valiantly.
I will be covering the nation’s final farewell to Karpal Singh this morning and hope to give you some live updates of the scene around George Town, Penang.
Blog regular Pak Tim reports from the wake late last night:
Well, I finally made it. The queue was longer than at 8.00pm but my persistence this time saw me through. The wake was to end at 11.00pm but streams of people were still waiting to get in. I sympathise with his family for having to put up with that but I guess it comes with being a public figure. I am sorry to see him in that state and regretted not being able to shake his hand when he was alive. But the handshakes with his next of kin makes up for that. There were only two charities: one Michael Cornelius and one for the Gurdwara. The public gave generously. May he rest in peace.
Today appropriately happens to be Easter Sunday, which is the holiest and most important day in the Christian calendar. Easter celebrates New Life.
At the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit last night, Bishop Sebastian Francis stressed key Easter messages from the scriptures: “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you”.
In recent days, many people have expressed the hope, perhaps wishfully, that a hundred more Karpals will emerge in Malaysia. Let me share this with you:
The late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, spoke out vocally against right wing dead squads who were targeting peasant leaders and activists in El Salvador, then governed by a US-backed military regime.
Unfortunately, Romero himself was assassinated by a marksman while celebrating Mass in 1980. The readings for the day (which is often associated with the Easter message) included John Chapter 12 in which Jesus said,
24 In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.
25 Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Romero in his homily explained how the harvest comes about: “… one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”
We await the rich harvest.