I’m so glad that the Federal Court has acquitted the late Karpal Singh of a sedition charge that had been hanging over him for about 10 years. History will now acknowledge the clean record of the lawyer-politician who was born on June 28, 1940 in Penang.
A seven-member bench chaired by Chief Judge of Malaya Zaharah Ibrahim ruled, in an unanimous decision, that there was “a serious misdirection” which “occasioned a substantial miscarriage of justice” by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal which had earlier found Karpal guilty.
His family would naturally be overjoyed. So would his friends and those who, like me, had known him. The vociferous lawyer was a patriot, a true son of the soil; a man who stood by his principles; a man who was guided by the Federal Constitution and the rule of law.
Members of the media liked the DAP chairman because he was helpful. Court reporters would often call him to seek clarity about points of law and he would oblige, even if it was not his case. He was friendly with all journalists, even those who worked for newspapers controlled by the Barisan Nasional or its agents and which often excoriated him. He did not quarrel with journalists, unlike some other leaders in his party.
When I was based in Penang in the 1980s and 1990s, I often covered his court cases and his political activities. The vociferous lawyer was courageous both in the courtroom and on the political stage, which won him the epithet “Tiger of Jelutong”.
For years he was the MP for Jelutong, winning the seat in 1978 and retaining it for eight terms. He also won the then Bukit Gelugor state seat thrice.
Penang in the 1980s was politically electrifying, with the late lamented Dr Lim Chong Eu, another patriot, at the helm. I enjoyed covering the constant political fights between Karpal and Dr Lim, especially in the Penang Legislative Assembly.
Karpal took delight in sparring with his opponents. I once asked him about the accuracy of his contention after he had cowed a state executive councillor and caused him to quietly sink into his chair. “I really don’t know Kathi. I just hentam. It just came like that… I have to check. My advantage is that these fellows think I know everything. The trick is to make them belief I’m certain of what I’m saying.”
Once, during a heated exchange, Karpal was gesticulating and arguing with Abdul Rahman Abbas (now the Penang Yang di-Pertua Negeri), who was then a state executive councillor, when a pencil he was holding went flying towards the government bench.
Thinking Karpal had done it on purpose, several assemblymen from the government side started throwing pencils and erasers towards the opposition. And the opposition replied. In those days, the press was seated behind the opposition bench and one eraser almost struck a reporter.
For Karpal, getting evicted from Parliament and the state assembly was normal. Once he walked into the assembly and took his seat while under suspension and refused to leave, even when the sergeant-at-arms went to escort him. The speaker called the police but it was in vain, with Karpal roaring at them: “This is the state assembly and you have no place here. Touch me and I will sue.” Finally, then chief police office Zaman Khan himself came with several policemen.
Zaman grabbed Karpal’s briefcase and walked out. Karpal followed him. At the lobby, Zaman threw the briefcase onto a table but the force made it slide and fall onto the ground. Grabbing the opportunity to save face, the tiger pounced on its prey, telling Zaman: “Pick it up. Pick it now! Pick. It. Up.” Zaman sheepishly picked up the briefcase, placed it on the table and walked away.
Karpal and Dr Lim, despite their fiery political exchanges in and out of the assembly, had high regard for each other. Karpal once told me: “The old man is a nice fellow; he knows this is politics. He has principles.” When I asked Dr Lim, who had once publicly described Karpal as being full of hubris, what he really thought of Karpal, he gave me his inscrutable grin before gently saying: “He’s okay.”
I enjoyed following Karpal during election campaign trails. Invariably he would be mobbed, with many of his constituents rushing to shake his hands. He was popular, no doubt, but I couldn’t help thinking at times that they wanted to shake his hand because this was about the only time they’d get to see him face-to-face.
Karpal was simply too busy with his legal work and fighting injustice to visit his constituents.
He told me on one of the campaign walkabouts that problems such as traffic congestion and flooding should be the domain of the local councillor, not the MP. He said his constituents understood that he was fighting “the bigger fight”.
Some of his opponents said he did not go to the ground because he was “tight with money”, noting that some constituents had the habit of asking elected representatives for financial help. I had spoken to some of his constituents and while most were happy with him, some criticised him vehemently for not showing his face after winning.
By and large, however, the majority of those I had spoken to said they continued to vote for him even though he did not attend weddings or funerals or help out during floods because he voiced their larger frustrations as citizens and because he was not afraid of anyone.
That’s true. Karpal had butted heads with royalty, prime ministers, inspectors-general of police, chief justices, opposition leaders and even DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng. There were occasions when his stand differed from that of the two Lims and other DAP leaders.
I respected him for that, for he did not differentiate between party leaders and political opponents or others when it came to issues of right and wrong or the law. Just as I respected him for praising certain government initiatives, and even coming to the defence of government leaders, if he thought it was good for the nation or if they were right.
I saw him in action again when he went down to Puchong to campaign for his son Gobind Singh Deo during the 2013 general election. I had gone there just to see him and when he arrived, a thunderous roar rent the night air. Several DAP members carried the wheelchair-bound Karpal onto a lorry which served as a stage.
He was loud, as usual; his words rang with bravado, as usual; but his ending was different this time: “As a father, I now ask all of you to please give my son another term as MP”. And they did.
As Karpal was being carried to the car, I walked up to him. A smile shot through his face and he held my hand warmly, asking how I was. Although we both wanted to chat a little, we couldn’t as there were too many people surging forward to shake his hand, to wish him well, and he had to rush to another ceramah.
That was to be our last meeting, as he died in an accident along the North-South Expressway near Gua Tempurong, Ipoh, on April 17, 2014.
I wonder if he would have accepted a ministership if he were to be alive? He would likely have been made de facto law minister. Would he have worked under Dr Mahathir Mohamad?
One thing I’m sure of: he’d be whacking Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan leadership for going back on some of their election manifesto promises. And he’d be fighting tooth and nail to repeal laws that curb freedom, and to institute reforms in the legal and justice systems.
For his sense of justice would not have allowed him to remain silent. It was this very same attitude, this very same principled stand that caused him to be charged with sedition.
I’d like to believe that wherever he is, the Tiger of Jelutong is roaring with delight over being exonerated by the Federal Court.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed by the write do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.