The word legend is often lightly bandied about. But Karpal Singh will go down in the annals of Malaysian history as one of the rare legends – a fighter of a politician and brilliant lawyer who championed the democratic rights of Malaysians and took up a string of lost causes in the criminal justice system.
Karpal and his personal assistant, Michael Cornelius Jayakrishnan, were killed in a road accident near Tapah this morning. An Indonesian domestic worker in the car was seriously injured. Son Ramkarpal was also in the car driven by C Selvam when it collided with a lorry.
Phone calls and text messages have been flying around all morning since the early hours of dawn; for many, the loss is personal, even if they had not known the man personally. It is a measure of the impact the Tiger of Jelutong – an icon of Penang – had on the nation that a deep and gnawing sense of loss, even among those who have little time for politics, has spread like wildfire across the nation.
The son of a watchman, Karpal played a vigilant sentinel’s role in watching over the constitutional rights of Malaysians.
His clients in court ranged from his one-time adversary, Anwar Ibrahim, to a 14-year-old boy sentenced to death for possession of firearms in a politically explosive case.
The old Xaverian’s contribution to the cause of democracy in Malaysia defies description and could fill a book thicker than a voluminous law tome. A descendant of a family of wheat farmers in the Punjab, the Penang-born Karpal has left behind a rich harvest to inspire future generations of Malaysians.
The sedition conviction he was slapped with – one of the many obstacles strewn in his path – is now moot. In death, he has won his eternal freedom. Once again, he has defied the odds – this time, through his passing, his last hurrah.
In the forefront of the struggle, Karpal never found it plain sailing as the nation’s turbulent post-independence journey threw up one challenge after another. As student union president at the University of Singapore, he was banned from the hostel for his activities. He took seven years to finish his law degree and, after failing his final year, the dean, Tommy Koh, forced him to sit at the front of the class with him. “So I couldn’t play the fool any more and I passed my exams accordingly!” he recalled.
Joining the DAP in the aftermath of the May 13 politically inspired violence, he took obstacles in his stride, gliding through events with dogged courage as his own life-story mirrored the nation’s travails. In his prime, he was detained under the draconian ISA from October 1987 to January 1989, as darkness fell on the nation. Briefly released in March 1988 following a habeas corpus application, he found himself promptly rearrested and detained again hours later. This sordid saga took place under the administration of the authoritarian Mahathir, to whom Karpal would remain a prickly thorn in the side, a combative opponent who just refused to yield, where others were brusquely brushed aside.
Karpal emerged from incarceration with his spirit intact, refusing to succumb. A tragic car accident that later left him confined to a wheelchair failed to diminish his indomitable spirit.
His untimely death has reopened and magnified the wounds of sorrow across the nation so recently felt after the demise of Irene Fernandez and Bernard Khoo.
For far too long, we have left it to the likes of Karpal and Irene to speak up for the rights of the oppressed. Now it is time for us to step up to the plate and do our own bit to carry on their legacy. We owe it to them to continue the struggle.