The Tiger of Jelutong – Honouring a True Malaysian Icon
By Geetha K
Long before it became safe to be the voice of dissent in this nation, there was a cowherd turned tiger who paved the way for generations to come. Karpal Singh is no more, but his long, illustrious shadow remains as a legacy of his immense contributions to the politics and legal practice of Malaysia.
On August 18, 2018, Veritas University College, a subsidiary of BAC Education Group, conferred a posthumous Doctorate in Humanities to Karpal Singh, lawyer, member of parliament and humanitarian. The award was received by his son and member of parliament, Ramkarpal Singh.
Fiery speech and towering presence aside, Karpal Singh was a man of the people; genial, humble and inspiring, he not only stood for free speech and justice but also fought fiercely to ensure justice was also seen to be done. It is no surprise that he protested against the decision of the National University of Singapore (where he graduated with a Bachelor of laws) to mandate “certificates of political suitability for incoming students” or that after years of being a leading opponent of the death penalty in Malaysia he went back on his principle when in July 2010 he called for convicted child rapists to receive the death sentence.
It could not have been easy to stand on stage and deliver a speech on such an iconic father but Ramkarpal managed to do just fine, perhaps knowing that his father’s history and legend speak volumes that do not need to be trumpeted by his own well-accomplished kin. After all, Karpal was a man who, when called a third class lawyer in parliament, responded with a first class response, “I might be third class but you have no class.”
“Law journals are replete with his cases. Mr Karpal’s contributions to the law in Malaysia are many. Suffice it to say he redefined various areas of law, particularly in the fields of dangerous drugs and constitutional law. His big cases are textbook reading in many legal syllabuses in Malaysia and throughout the Commonwealth. Throughout his legal career Mr Karpal emphasised the importance of respect for the bench and always remained courteous,” Ramkarpal said during the ceremony.
Arguably Malaysia’s best-known lawyer till date, Karpal Singh also possessed a special knack for handling controversies and scandals, as a result of which his family has had to endure painful separations and anxious periods as he served detentions and suspensions. He has the distinction of being called a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty International.
Never one to be messed with his law, Karpal was known to become an explosive rocket, like the two occasions when the Penang State Assembly speaker called in police officers to have Karpal removed from the chamber, only to have them ordered out by Karpal, telling them that they had no right to be there. On both occasions, he chose to walk out on his own.
Ramkarpal too shared some of his experiences with the audience. “No doubt he did have his fair share of run-ins with judges, but always only when it was really necessary as he was a firm believer in standing true to his principles and was one not to cow to any party regardless of rank. This trait of his soon became his trademark and his political battles with many leaders in the past are well-known and documented. It was also well-known that he was not an outstanding student, taking a bit longer than the usual time required to complete his degree. Nonetheless, that never deterred his work ethic in the real world.”
As a pathbreaker and true rebel with a cause, the son of Penang won hearts and respect wherever he went and in whichever role he played. There was life, colour and a lot of spirit during his heydays as politician and lawyer and there are legions of Karpal’s peers, colleagues, constituents, family, friends, staff, and even political opponents who continue to hold him in high esteem.
“Karpal Singh stood for bravery, honesty and above all integrity. Till his very last day in this world, he was still practicing and he used to say a true lawyer lies in his saddle and that’s exactly what he chose. We will always miss Mr Karpal Singh. We all remember his work over the past four decades. It is that work that I hope will motivate and inspire you in your future. Karpal Singh’s spirit was second to none.
“Despite the many challenges he faced, he never gave up. He always found ways to be positive. I remember one occasion with him. He looked out at a tree on which a nail had been punched and observed that the tree would not die as a result. Rather the tree would grow around that nail and become stronger eventually. I am certain that he would be very proud of this honour bestowed upon him. It is my honour to receive this award on his behalf,” ended Ramkarpal eloquently.
Karpal Singh’s death might have been untimely but in his trailblazing lifetime, he had accomplished enough to go down in the annals of Malaysia’s history, and perhaps someday, in its history books, so that young Malaysians have a correct understanding of one of the nation’s endearingly true heroes.