By Mariam Mokhtar
Karpal Singh, who died with his aide, in an horrific car crash near Gua Tempurung in the early hours of Thursday April 17, will always be remembered for his pursuit of justice, his principles, his values and his strong work ethic.
He was tireless in his capacity for work, and in defending the poor and those who had no one to turn to in their hour of need. During the wake held at his home, it was revealed that he worked pro bono when defending several people.
He has been commended for his “defence of the little man” and is also known as a “friend to the oppressed and the marginalised”. On the wall of his office hangs a plaque, given to him by a grateful client, with the words, “Noble and able defender of the defenceless”. During an interview with CNN Talk Asia, in 2002, Karpal said the words were a source of inspiration to him and a comfort, when he entered his office.
The 74-year-old MP and lawyer, who insisted that he was more a lawyer than a politician, was not afraid of speaking his mind or expressing his values. It did not matter if people agreed with him, as long as they knew his opinion. This is a trait which few Malaysian politicians possess. This forthright attitude showed that Karpal was a man of conviction and also that he lived by his principles.
In one interview, he said, “I am religious, but I’m not one to go to the temple every week. I believe that the principles by which you live is a measure of your faith.”
Known for his dislike of greedy people and those who sought public honorifics, he said that DAP leaders should not accept state awards whilst they were serving the public and he stressed that the DAP should practise the one-man-one-seat policy in the selection of candidates for the general elections.
Karpal would censure anyone, even those in his own party. In December 2011, he admonished the Perak DAP secretary then, Nga Kor Ming, for making racial slurs against the Perak Mentri Besar Zambry Abdul Kadir. Karpal said that Nga was “ill-advised” and that “the statement ought not to have crossed Nga’s mind, let alone been voiced”.
He said, “Any derogatory remark directed at any community or race has serious implications and consequences” and he said that the DAP was a multi-racial party and reminded its leaders that remarks which slighted any person or race, should not be made.
Karpal proved that education could improve one’s lot in life. Despite becoming a well-respected and famous lawyer, Karpal never forgot his roots or his desire to help the poor. The son of a watchman and part-time herdsman Ram Singh, Karpal attended St Xavier’s Institution in Penang before reading law at the University of Malaya, in Singapore. He names Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy as having most influence over him and he praises Tunku Abdul Rahman for his tireless efforts to promote racial unity.
Like the Tunku, who took several years to finish his law degree at Cambridge, Karpal took seven years to graduate, because by his own admission, he was “playful” and did not attend lectures. When his professor finally forced him to take his studies seriously, Karpal said, “I couldn’t play the fool anymore and I passed my exams accordingly!”
Again, like the Tunku, Karpal yearned for a multiracial Malaysia in which everyone had equal opportunities and his vision was to forge a better place for every Malaysian, regardless of race, religion and social standing.
He once said, “It is important for every citizen in the country to know, that no one is above the law…” These words make up part of the rich legacy which he left Malaysians.
Paralysed from the waist down in an accident outside his house in 2005, Karpal refused to give up, but continued with his work.
He said, “The accident was a terrible blow. You are like a prisoner within yourself. Even when I was detained in Kamunting under the ISA, I could still walk about. With nerve damage one is in pain all the time and I don’t want to take painkillers because I would become dependent on them.”
“You cannot keep looking back and thinking, what if this had not happened, as you will then sink deeper into depression. You have to look forward, and that I will do.”
Karpal was once asked when he would retire. He said, “A good lawyer dies in the saddle. A lawyer has to keep going. I have to go on, physically and mentally.”
Prophetically, Karpal died on his way to Penang, to defend a client.