Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh (28 June 1940 – 17 April 2014) (Punjabi: ਕਰਪਾਲ ਸਿੰਘ ) is a Malaysian lawyer and politician, who was the Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Bukit Gelugor in the state of Penang from 2004 until 2014. He was the former National Chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a position that he assumed for 10 years, from 2004 to 2014.
Born in Penang to an Indian Punjabi immigrant father, Karpal read law at the National University of Singapore. He was one of Malaysia's most prominent lawyers, and took up numerous high-profile cases, including drug trafficking charges against foreign nationals, and sodomy accusations against former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Karpal was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, especially in relation to drug trafficking offences.
In both courtrooms and parliament, he was known as a controversial figure. He was suspended from parliament numerous times, charged for sedition, and had been detained under Malaysia's internal security laws. His reputation as a lawyer and opposition politician earned him the nickname "the Tiger of Jelutong".
Karpal's political career began in 1970 when he joined the DAP. He won a seat in the Kedah State Legislative Assembly in 1974. He was first elected to parliament in 1978 as the representative for Jelutong, Penang, and held the seat for more than 20 years until losing it in 1999. He returned to parliament in the next general election, and led the DAP to its strongest ever performance in the 2008 general election.
A motor vehicle accident in 2005 left Karpal using a wheelchair and with neuromotor problems in his right arm. Despite this, he continued his legal and political careers.
Karpal Singh died on 17 April 2014 after being involved in another motor vehicle accident. It was believed that the 73-year-old Bukit Gelugor MP was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to attend a court hearing later in the morning when the accident occurred.
Early life and education
Born in Georgetown, Penang, Karpal Singh was the son of watchman and herdsman Ram Singh Deo. His mother is Kartar Kaur.
Karpal studied at St. Xavier's Institution. He met his wife, Gurmit Kaur.
He obtained his Bachelor of Laws from the National University of Singapore. During his time there, he also served as president of the student's union. He was barred from the hostel for protesting against the university's decision to mandate the "certificate of political suitability" for enrolling students. Karpal said he took seven years to graduate, admitting that he was "playful" and "didn't attend lectures." After failing his final year courses, the dean, made him sit at the front of the class, and according to Karpal, "I couldn't play the fool any more and I passed my exams accordingly!"
Karpal Singh was called to the Penang bar in 1969 and joined a firm in Alor Setar, Kedah. He started his legal firm in 1970. Karpal is known for his expertise in the field of litigation. He was a pioneer in undertaking drug trafficking and habeas corpus cases, and a staunch opponent of the death penalty. He has been praised for "defending the little man" and called "a friend to the oppressed and marginalised." Professor of Law at Universiti Teknologi MARA, Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi has praised Karpal's legal team for their innovative interpretations which have helped people with difficult cases.
He has been described as a leading opponent of the death penalty in Malaysia, and has successfully defended at least ten foreigners on serious drug charges which carry a mandatory death sentence. Nonetheless, in July 2010, he called for convicted child rapists to be sentenced to death.
Among his most high-profile cases include defending Australian drug trafficker Kevin Barlow who was executed in Malaysia in 1986. Barlow and fellow Australian Brian Chambers were convicted of trafficking heroin by the High Court in Penang in July 1985. He continued to fight to clear Barlow's name even after the execution. He also defended New Zealanders Lorraine Cohen and her son, Aaron, against heroin trafficking charges in 1987. They were both convicted, with Mrs Cohen sentenced to death and Aaron sentenced to life in prison. However, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1989 and they were subsequently pardoned and freed in 1996.
In 1977, he managed to persuade the king to pardon a 14-year-old Chinese boy who was sentenced to death for possession of a firearm under the Internal Security Act, apparently by suggesting that to let the boy hang would be "politically explosive."
Karpal also represented former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during the latter's sodomy trial of 1998. During the first trial in September 1999, he produced a pathological report confirming high levels of arsenic had been detected in Anwar's body, and accused the authorities of poisoning Anwar, charging:
"It could well be that someone out there wants to get rid of him ... even to the extent of murder...I suspect people in high places are responsible for this situation."
This accusation in court led to Karpal being charged under the Sedition Act in January 2000.
Karpal acted as the defence's lead counsel in Anwar's second sodomy trial, following fresh allegations in 2008. After a two-year trial, Anwar was acquitted on 10 January 2012.
Entry into politics
Karpal Singh joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 1970, citing the party's multiracial political platform following the race riots in 1969. He was due to contest the 1974 general election in Penang, but withdrew after his father's death. However, following the persuasion of DAP national organising secretary Fan Yew Teng, Karpal ran for the Alor Setar parliamentary seat and Alor Setar Bandar state seat. He won the state seat and became the first DAP candidate to stand for and win a seat in Kedah.
In the 1978 general elections, Karpal won the Jelutong parliamentary seat and the Bukit Gelugor state seat. He held the Bukit Gelugor state seat until 1990, moving on to contest (but lose) the Sungai Pinang and Padang Kota seats in subsequent elections.
In 1989, Karpal accused Deputy Speaker D. P. Vijandran of acting in pornographic videotapes. The allegations were dismissed due to lack of evidence, but Vijandran resigned as deputy speaker in 1990. However, in 1992, Karpal produced the alleged videotape in parliament, and handed it over the Deputy Speaker Ong Tee Keat. Vijandran was convicted in May 1994 for fabricating evidence in an affidavit which sought a court order to stop his nephew from allegedly and distributing pornographic video tapes featuring him, but was acquitted in 1998 after appeal. In 2000, Karpal was ordered to pay Vijandran RM500,000 (later reduced to RM100,000 on appeal) in damages for defamation after accusing the latter of deliberately issuing a cheque to him from a closed account.
In the 1999 election, Karpal, along with opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, lost his Jelutong parliamentary seat, which he had held for 21 years. The DAP had joined Barisan Alternatif, an opposition alliance with Parti Keadilan and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a move strongly advocated by Karpal and Lim. Despite the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffering significant losses in the election, it was Keadilan and PAS that absorbed the gains, while the DAP's support eroded due to its supporters' suspicions of PAS and its hardline Islamic stance. Although the DAP actually gained seats, the party performed well below expectations, with Lim admitting that result was a "catastrophic defeat". Despite the setback, Karpal was retained as party deputy chairman, while Lim was elevated to chairman after the resignation of long-serving chairman Chen Man Hin.
He was one of the strongest opponents of PAS's plan to introduce hudud (Islamic codes of behaviour) into the Terengganu state legal system in 1999, even threatening to take the state government to court.
Return to parliament
In the 2004 general election, Karpal returned to parliament with a 1,261-majority win in the new Bukit Gelugor seat. The DAP regained its position as the largest opposition party in parliament. Karpal took over as DAP National chairman on 4 September 2004.
On 7 September 2004, Karpal was sanctioned for "misleading parliament" after claiming that MPs had to raise their right hand while taking the oath of office on 17 May. A report by the Parliamentary Rights and Privileges Committee gave him three days to apologise or face a six-month suspension. He refused to apologise and served the suspension.
Karpal retained his seat in the 2008 election with a near 20-fold increased majority. The election saw historic gains for the opposition, who managed to deny the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The three main opposition parties subsequently formed a formal coalition—Pakatan Rakyat.
Karpal was listed as the DAP's representative on Pakatan Rakyat's Shadow Ministry of Home Affairs Committee in July 2009.
In April 2010, he was suspended from parliament for ten days after calling the speaker a "dictator". In December that year, he was suspended again for six months along with opposition MPs Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali and Sivarasa Rasiah. Anwar was suspended for stirring up controversy over the government's links with APCO Worldwide, while the rest were punished for making public the report by the Rights and Privileges Committee which found Anwar guilty before the report was presented to parliament.
In December 2011, Karpal and Penang second deputy chief minister P. Ramasamy feuded over the latter's purported accusation that dissidents within the DAP were plotting against him for not handing them projects and favours. Karpal labelled Ramasamy a "warlord" and asked for him to resign as deputy chief minister. Ramasamy retorted by asking the party to remove its "godfathers", in apparent reference to Karpal. The feud was resolved internally, while Ramasamy later denied ever making the plot accusation. At the DAP national conference in January 2012, Karpal closed ranks with Ramasamy and asked the party's "warlords and godfathers [to] stand together against Barisan Nasional."
Karpal Singh has cited David Saul Marshall, Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy as influences. The May 13 incident convinced him that Malaysia needed to take a multiracial course, hence he joined the DAP. Karpal has also commended the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman for promoting racial unity.
He strongly criticised the legal immunity granted to the hereditary Malay rulers in the original constitution, which was subsequently removed by the government in 1993.
He is a firm critic of Mahathir Mohamad's term as prime minister. "Political life is not what it used to be in Malaysia," he commented in 1993, specifically criticising the restriction on media coverage of the opposition. He has called for Mahathir to apologise for the latter's role in the 1988 constitutional crisis.
Karpal is also staunchly opposed to the notion of Malaysia as an Islamic state, arguing that the Constitution provides for a secular nation, with Islam as the official religion. He has been at loggerheads with Mahathir as well as fellow opposition party PAS over the issue. Karpal even once said "an Islamic state over my dead body" regarding the debate during a political speech which made him as an enemy of Islam. He claims to have apologised for the matter.
Karpal was a controversial figure, and was labelled along with fellow DAP politician Lim Kit Siang as a racial provocateur. He was dubbed the "Tiger of Jelutong" by admirers having served as Jelutong MP for five terms. Karpal attributed the nickname to a confrontation with former Malaysian Indian Congress President Samy Vellu, when he told Samy, "he could be the lion, and I could be the tiger, because there are no lions in Malaysia!"
Karpal clashed with government parliamentarians and assemblymen during debates. On two occasions in the Penang State Assembly, the speaker called in the police to have Karpal removed from the chamber. On both occasions, he ordered the policemen out, saying they had no right to be there, and then walked out on his own.
He once criticised the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) in the Dewan Rakyat for allegedly assaulting two men taken to the royal palace by the police, a move which drew heavy criticism from government members of parliament, who demanded that he apologise. He refused. Karpal even filed a lawsuit against the King, Sultan Iskandar, in 1986 on behalf of one of the allegedly assaulted men. He lost and the sultan allegedly named one of his dogs after him.
Karpal served two six-month suspensions from parliament: in September 2004, for "misleading" parliament; and in December 2010, for contempt.
During a May 2008 parliamentary sitting, Karpal found himself at the centre of controversy again by calling fellow parliamentarian Bung Mokhtar Radin the "bigfoot from Kinabatangan". Moments later, he was mocked by Ibrahim Ali for not being able to stand up while speaking, which provoked a furore among opposition MPs. The following month, he received a death threat in the form of a bullet delivered to his law firm. In October, he received a two-day suspension from parliament for calling Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia "not serious" and "playful".
Karpal, along with many other opposition politicians, was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act during Operation Lalang in October 1987 for inciting "racial tension" in the country. He was released briefly (a few hours) in March 1988 in response to a habeas corpus application, but was rearrested and remained in prison until January 1989. Amnesty International deemed him a prisoner of conscience.
He was arrested in January 2000 under the Sedition Act along with four other opposition politicians and the editor of the Harakah Daily, the newspaper published by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). He was charged for making seditious remarks in court during Anwar's first corruption trial. This was the only known charge of sedition in any country in the Commonwealth of nations brought against a lawyer for remarks made in court in defence of a client. The charges were dropped in 2002.
In March 2009, Karpal was charged under the Sedition Act again for allegedly threatening to sue the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah in the wake of the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis. He had contended that the Sultan had acted beyond his constitutional powers while appointing Zambry Abdul Kadir as Menteri Besar. The charges were dismissed in June 2010 after the High Court determined that the prosecution had failed to prove a prima facie case. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the acquittal in January 2012 and ordered Karpal to enter his defence.
Karpal Singh married Gurmit Kaur, eight years his junior, in July 1970. Gurmit's family was from Narathiwat, Thailand but moved to Penang when she was seven. They have five children and eleven grandchildren. His eldest son, Jagdeep is the Penang State Assemblyman for Datuk Keramat and second son, Gobind is the Member of Parliament for Puchong, Selangor. Another son, Ramkarpal and daughter Sangeet Kaur work in his law firm, while youngest son Man Karpal studied actuarial science.
His wife Gurmit described his detention from 1987 to 1989 as a "very big experience" and took a toll on her life, as she had to "be strong" for their young children. The initial stage of his disability also deeply upset her.
He and his wife lived in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur from 1994 until his death.
Accident and disability
On 28 January 2005, Karpal was involved in an accident which left him using a wheelchair. A car rammed into a taxi which he was sitting in from behind, causing severe contusion to his thoracic vertebrae. As a result, he suffered from sensory impairment and reduced motor strength, was unable to walk, or raise his right arm a few centimetres.
To suit his mobility needs, his seat in the Parliament chamber was moved to the back row to accommodate his wheelchair.
In the early hours of 17 April 2014, MP Karpal Singh died in a car crash at km 306.1, North-South Expressway E1 near Gua Tempurung, Perak. His personal assistant, Michael Cornelius, was also killed in the accident. Ramkarpal, son of MP Karpal Singh, also one of the five occupants in the car, suffered injuries. An Indonesian maid, believed to have been employed by MP Karpal Singh, also in the car, suffered heavy injuries.
The accident happened when Karpal's vehicle, a Toyota Alphard MPV, rear ended the right side of a slow moving 5 tonne Mitsubishi Canter lorry carrying a load of cement, steel and tiles. The lorry driver, identified as Abu Mansor Mohd, later tested positive for cannabis use. However, it is unsure whether the lorry driver was driving under influence at the time of the accident.
Bukit Aman traffic police chief SAC Mohd Fuad Abdul Latiff was reported saying that road conditions and the weather were good at the time of the accident.
Karpal Singh's funeral took place on 20 April 2014 with full state honours in Penang with his Family and attended by others including Najib Razak and his cabinet along with more than Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral.
Karpal Singh's body reached Batu Gantong's crematorium, George Town, Penang at 1:35 pm, 20 April 2014 and was honourably cremated under thousands of mourners' prayers, chanting his name in the process.
Popular media portrayal
Karpal Singh was portrayed by Victor Banerjee in a 1988 Australian film called Dadah is Death.
Karpal Singh Drive
The IJM Promenade in Lebuh Sungai Pinang was renamed as Persiaran Karpal Singh or Karpal Singh Drive, in honour of the late DAP leader.
"The Full Biography: Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong" a biography book of Karpal Singh was written by the veteran journalist, Tim Donoghue and it was published in 2014 by Marshal Cavendish International (Asia) Private Limited, completing his prior biography book "Karpal Singh: Tiger of Jelutong".
Awards and accolades
Karpal was awarded with the Glory of India Award of Excellence in 2011. He was also named as one of the top 10 NRI Newsmakers of 2008.
Karpalism, the spirit of courage to speak and fight for the underdogs and "victims". This term is coined to honour the late YB Karpal Singh also known as the Tiger of Jelutong who fought fearlessly to uphold justice in both his legal and political careers. He was a fearless man. He practised Karpalism in fighting for justice.