(I was privileged to have been invited to speak at the memorial event held in honour of the late Karpal Singh on 24th April 2014)
Allow me to begin by expressing my heartfelt condolences to the family of the late Mr Karpal Singh.
Mr Karpal was a close friend of the family.
I grew up with his children, became their schoolmates in secondary school. First Jagdeep, a year below me, then Gobind, Ram, and Sangeet. Mankarpal was a little too far behind. We treated each other’s houses as our own. We were close enough for our respective mothers to scold us all. There was no discrimination. I describe this to you not as a mark of distinction, or a source of pride, but rather as a means to say that the man I came to know, and love dearly, was always simply Uncle Karpal.
As a young boy, he was a towering presence. Larger than life. That man on the posters, on the back of the jeeps, vans and lorries that carried him on his election campaigns. The walls of the boys’ rooms were filled with cut outs of his exploits, the Lat cartoons that he was quite regularly featured in. His was that comforting presence that, often absent, was nonetheless cherished, even if it involved some of the strangest pranks. In him, we had an ally, not just someone who would protect us from the wrath of our mothers when we created trouble, but someone who would quite happily get involved in the mischief we were brewing if he had the chance.
Curiously, it seemed the like the most normal thing in the world. This world-class advocate, fearless defender of human rights, parliamentarian, to be getting wholly involved in the childishness his sons and I were more than happy to engage in every chance we got. He was just the coolest person in my view.
Maybe it was because we, I, didn’t quite understand the true nature of events that were unfolding. Those became apparent in 1987. I was in Singapore for my A Levels when he was detained.
I knew by then that I would become a lawyer. I knew too that I wanted as much as possible to be able to fight the causes that I believed in. It’s only with his passing that I have come to realise how much he had influenced that choice. How much of a role model he had been.
I would like to focus on Karpal the lawyer.
I spent some time today meandering through the list of reported cases that Karpal handled. There were almost a 1000 according to the Current Law Journal database. His achievements, and it did not matter whether he won or lost the case, that was decided on the facts, he more usually than not, won the point of law, were like a road map to the evolution of criminal and constitutional law in the country. The right of accused persons to counsel, to the principles underlying the granting of habeas corpus, the standard of proof in criminal cases, the powers of the monarchs in the constitutional framework that governs us, the democratic underpinnings of our electoral system, the fundamental liberties of citizens, these and many other principles he helped clarify through the courts, signpost our nation’s journey through the four plus decades that he was a member of the Bar.
It did not matter that he was constantly beseiged, in one way or the other. It did not matter that the disappointments were many. He held an unshakeable belief in the validity of the system, its value. He had faith in our constitutional system, and measured his value by how he could contribute to that system as a lawyer. In all the tributes from lawyers and judges that have poured in since his untimely passing, the narrative has been one of a ethical, gentlemanly advocate who was skilled and appreciated the nature of the adversarial process.
As I read through his cases this afternoon, I was humbled. The practise of law in this country has become more of a challenge with each passing year. More increasingly, those of us who appear in the courts ask what value we bring to the process, to our clients. But challenging as it is for us, was it less challenging for those who preceded us? Karpal had to face operasi Lalang, the constitutional crisis of 1988 and its terrible impact on the judiciary and the legal system, the 1998 trials of Anwar Ibrahim, the scandals that the V K Lingam RCI brought into focus. He was unfaltering, unwavering in his commitment to his duties as lawyer, citizen and statesman.
It does not mean that he was not frustrated. In the last few years, I began to spend much more time in the appellate courts. There, lawyers spend many hours waiting to be called up. It gave me a chance to talk to him, lawyer to lawyer, though in all honesty, it was difficult not to revert to that fidgety child he probably remembered, and thought of, me as. But the one thing that came through consistently was that we could not give up. We had to soldier on for the betterment of the profession, the nation.
It reminded me of what Raja Aziz Addruse, another towering Malaysian, used to say. We have to keep on knocking our heads against that door. One day, it will open, and some light will shine through.
That is the legacy that Karpal left us. That is the sacred trust that we carry in his memory. He asked for nothing and gave of himself wholly.
Let me end with an image painted in words by William Blake.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Farewell, Tiger of Jelutong.