‘Karpal Singh!’ they chanted as 100000* turned out in Penang to give the Tiger of Jelutong a roaring send-off

* 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.

(more…)

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