HIS enemies often tremble in fear — or at least in grudging respect— at the deep guttural roar of the man revered as the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’.

Whether it was in Parliament or in court, it seemed that whenever he cleared his throat and begins his often hard hitting speech— an entire room would fall silent.

But it was also very much the gentle and kind nature of this man who made him the 'heroic' icon and household name that was Karpal Singh.

Karpal – respected lawyer, politician, and an indefatigable fighter of justice and democracy — died early yesterday morning in a road accident while he was heading back to Penang from Kuala Lumpur to attend a court case.

Karpal would have turned 74 on June 28.

“In court and Dewan Rakyat, nobody dared to risk his tantrum, they hold back for fear of being targeted. But at home with his grandchildren, we see his loving, soft side. When those little children jump, punch, and scream, he would try to stop them but he would just smile and say ‘nobody listens to me here’,” said a senior court reporter who regarded Karpal as a friend.

Karpal Singh (1940- 2014)

With his death, Karpal leaves behind his wife, Gurmit Kaur; His five children, daughter Sangeet, sons Jagdeep, Gobind, Ramkarpal and Mankarpal; and their children— his grandchildren.

It is also a tragic coincidence that the accident today, was not the family’s first. Karpal was paralysed and wheel-chair bound from a crash in 2005. His father, Ram, also met his demise in a road accident in Amritsar, Punjab in 1974, some 40 years ago.

In the accident at about 1am yesterday, His son, Ramkarpal, was injured in while the 27-year-old driver was unhurt; his Indonesian maid was reportedly still in serious condition.

The accident today also took the life of his long-time assistant Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39.

Karpal's accident

Michael was a faithful aide for Karpal for a decade. He was always seen with his boss, pushing the Bukit Gelugor MP’s wheelchair and also helped in his daily activities, even answering Karpal’s phone calls.

Whenever Karpal is late for court proceedings, it was said to be because Michael was attending to the man's physiotherapy sessions in the morning. For that reason, Karpal also recently moved into a house that was much nearer to Parliament and the Duta court as well as his office.

“Karpal met Michael in Vellore, Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Perhaps God is great, and in heaven he wants to bring help for Karpal,” said the reporter friend of Karpal’s.

Michael leaves behind a wife, son and a daughter, all of whom are in India.


A legacy in the legal, political system

Karpal’s legacy extended beyond that of the run-of-the-mill politician-lawyer in his four decades of work. He was often described as a “patriot” who had not only impacted the legal world, but also managed to change laws, arguably, for the better.

K Kabilan, Chief Editor at FreeMalaysiaToday, said Karpal’s greatest legacy was the many legal precedents that he had set through the cases he had argued.

"Our legal system has benefited immensely from the legal principles his cases had brought about - in some instances to the extend of changing the law,” said Kabilan, who read about Karpal since his school days and got close when he was a rookie reporter covering courts.

Karpal, a "controversial man", was very clear about what he wanted as a lawyer: justice for anyone who he represents.

“I have seen him give his best to all his clients, even when from the outset one would assume that particular case was a no-hoper. There have been many ISA detention cases where he had won on technical issues....he was always on top of the government on this one,” said Kabilan.

Karpal Singh

Karpal had been part of many legal cases, some political and many for the ‘small’ people, including “men who were wrongfully arrested, those who had been dismissed from civil service on flimsy grounds, even an air force person accused of being a spy”.

Lawyer and lecturer Datuk Baljit Singh said that Karpal’s achievements and contributions to the country cannot be described, calling him “an icon at the Criminal Law practice” with “almost 1000 reported cases from him in the law journals.”

"If you open up any chapter in criminal law books, you will find his mark: on the issue of citizen arrest, statement leading to discovery, chain of evidence, seizable and non seizable offence etc. He has left a very big shoes. Honestly, I don’t think anybody can match his charismatic, dedication and commitment."

Aside from the Anwar Ibrahim sodomy cases, many of Karpal’s cases became precedents.

One was his handling of the 1996 landmark case of S Arulpragasam settled the law on burden of proof, where the prosecution has to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt before defence can be called.

A decision in 1979 for the Teh Cheng Poh case, which was brought all the way to the UK’s Privy Council, also established that a Proclamation of Emergency and Cabinet decisions announced by the Yang diPertuan Agong are reviewable by the Courts.

Being uncommon for the common man

Baljit, who was from Karpal’s hometown of Penang as well, recounted in the late 70 's he was schooling with Karpal’s children.

“The school bus had a break down, Mr Karpal personally drove his car together with the children picked me up. This is the simple and humble act of Tiger of Jelutong that I remember till now,” he said.

Karpal— who was his "uncle", friend and mentor he looked up too — was the best example of the words “dedication,hardwork, upright and fearless” and a legend, he said.

Karpal Singh

Another close family friend, Ranjit Singh said: “He was one who stood up for the common man, and he spoke the common man’s language, even in court and with the big guns in parliament.

Ranjit said his father use to give a younger Karpal car rides to court in Penang, and he always wanted to be like Karpal for his principled stands.

“He is the best constitutional and criminal lawyer in the country. But at the same time, for those without money, I knew he was very kind to them,” he said.

‘Always good to journalists’

In various accounts, Karpal has always been kind to journalists, always taking the time to explain cases, and even entertain ‘stupid’ questions.

“I have never seen him become angry with the journalists, although he had shown his anger while arguing his cases - directed at the court, or the witness, or even the prosecutor or lawyer.

“And if he is angry, he is really angry - he thunders his words! People just cringe away when he is in foul mood,” said Kabilan, who said that throughout his friendship with the veteran lawyer, he enjoyed Karpal’s sense of humour the most.

Karpal’s patience has struck young and old reporters alike and long-time friend from The Malaysian Insider, V Anbalagan, said that he is still surprised after so many years that Karpal would not brush off the most simple questions.

Karpal Singh

“He knew that his job as a lawyer was also to help reporters get their facts right. It was important,” said the assistant news editor, who last met the man for a chit chat the night before the fatal accident.

“I am going to miss him very much. He was so positive and as an opposition politician, sometimes what he did caused laws to be amended, and he managed to single handedly come to court to say that what the Parliament did was wrong.”

“He was a real lawmaker in the truest sense. He knew what to expect out of MPs and he knows what he is doing when he debates the bills,” he said.

Karpal’s first elected post after joining politics because of the 1969 racial riots was as a Kedah state assemblyman in 1974.

He later became MP for Jelutong in 1978, a seat he held for until he lost in 1999. He returned to parliament in the 2004 general election as the Bukit Gelugor MP.

“He told me once, no matter what kind of journalist you are, be a responsible journalist,” said a senior entertainment journalist.

Another senior journalist said Karpal, despite his hardworking and disciplined lifestyle, would sometimes indulge in some food that was slightly sweet or even oily. “Eventhough he was careful with his diet, he used to tell me: you cannot be too rigid, once in a while, you must indulge.”

Unbiased fighter till the end

Although Karpal was merciless when he believed he was in the right, he was however, known to be fair to his opponents.

When he was about to be convicted and sentenced recently over a Sedition charge over his comments on the Perak constitutional crisis in 2009, Karpal had kind words for his prosecutors.

“His lawyers and his supporters were riled up, hurling abusive words, in the last moments when the DPP was pushing for Karpal to be jailed. I was seated very near to him and he turned to Gobind and said: ‘Why you fellas...let her do her job. Don’t go pestering her’,” said a court reporter.

When the sentencing of RM4,000 was handed down, Karpal was “calm and composed”, saying that he has faced worst things and saying “we must be bold as a politician”.

The first time he was also charged with Sedition was in 2002 and he was jailed two years under Internal Security Act in 1987 during Operation Lalang for inciting racial tension.

Karpal Singh

Karpal was also vocal, even if it meant possibly angering his political partners in DAP or Pakatan Rakyat.

He was against PAS’s agenda to implement hudud, criticised PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim for his Sept 16 promise, and Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng allegedly trying to recruit Barisan Nasional politicians soon after coming to power in Penang. He also once slammed Penang Deputy Chief Minister P Ramasamy not to act like a “war lord.”

At his office in Pudu, his tragic loss was treated by loyal staff who continued working.

“He was one who worked without limits, he just works and works into the night. A workaholic,” said a staff of two years.

“He takes cases without choosing his clients, rich or poor, he takes them,” he added. The Karpal Singh office, which is adorned with press clippings and accolades for the man, who has a poster which said “Singh is King” has now been left with a large emptiness.

Karpal Singh

In several interviews, Karpal, who stepped down as DAP chairman because of the Sedition charge recently, has always stressed that he would never retire.

The parliamentarian who went back to Bukit Gelugor every week, expressed that it would be “the saddest moment in my life, when I want to service my constituency, but cannot provide to the public”.

“Once I asked if he would ever retire, he gave this funny smile and started laughing. He said there would be no such thing, retiring would be tantamount to end of me, he told me," said a friend and reporter.

Karpal Singh