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On The Beat

Published: Sunday April 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday April 20, 2014 MYT 7:33:32 AM

A matter of principle

No one could stop Karpal Singh from speaking up on what he believed in. He did not care if he was taking on the prime minister or even a sultan. He had taken on all of them.

SOME time in the middle of last year, I received a phone call from Karpal Singh. He offered to appear as a witness in support of me and this newspaper against a suit filed by a senior DAP official.

The veteran politician and lawyer, who saw my career grow from a rookie reporter to the group chief editor, told me not to worry.

The call was most surprising as it was unsolicited, and I had no intention of even fighting the case in court.

It’s an occupational hazard for the chief editor of any media group – he gets to be named as a defendant in many legal suits even though he has no direct hand in the offending story, which would have been written by a reporter and edited by the news editor or other editors.

While the chief editor is expected to take responsibility, it is near impossible for him to be aware of the hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories that appear daily in the newspapers and online portals. In most media groups, the other platforms include radio and television channels.

Karpal felt that the suit was unnecessary and unjustified. But I also didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire involving party rivalry either. If the case had gone to an open court, it would have been most unusual to have two party leaders slugging it out on opposite sides.

Common sense finally prevailed. The suit was withdrawn and the case closed after discussions between the lawyers. But that’s Karpal for you.

He had consistently spoken up against PAS and its objective of setting up an Islamic state and introducing hudud laws.

Not many of his party comrades were prepared to do that, especially before the 2013 general election, as they saw the possibility of Pakatan Rakyat forming the federal government. No one was prepared to put a dampener on Pakatan’s march to Putrajaya.

Both DAP and PKR would not want to make PAS look bad, which was already the line taken by the Barisan Nasional, especially the Chinese-based parties within the coalition.

But no one was going to stop Karpal from speaking up on what he believed in. It was a matter of principle, while others were more interested in political expediency.

Karpal’s concerns may have been right all along. Until last week, he was worried about what PAS was planning to do by wanting to push through a Private Member’s Bill to implement hudud in Kelantan. He had told the media that PAS appeared serious this time.

Those who have criticised Karpal for his non-compromise stand against hudud may have forgotten that in 1991 he had defended Halimatussaadiah Kamaruddin, a general clerk in the Perak State Legal Department, who was sacked for wearing the purdah to work.

She had been wearing the purdah since 1983 but a circular prohibiting women in the civil service from covering their face was issued in 1985.

Karpal had argued that it is the fundamental right of every citizen to profess and practise one’s religion, even in the workplace. The case went all the way to the then Supreme Court, but she lost.

Those who know Karpal would tell you that his principle was simple – he argued for the purdah, but he would also insist that no one has the right to tell others what to wear or not to wear as far as Malaysians are concerned.

In 2002, Karpal was asked to defend four Singaporean Muslims who were banned from wearing the tudung in a Singaporean school. Karpal was prepared to take up the case but the Singaporean government denied him a work visa, and banned him from practising on the island nation.

Karpal was always consistent when it came to fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. He would have stood up against any attempt by any group who uses any form of religious argument to deny others their rights. He wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Beyond his legal work, which included many landmark cases, I have had the privilege of seeing Karpal in action at the Penang State Assembly and Dewan Rakyat, posing problems to his opponents on the government bench.

I saw him being removed from the Penang State Assembly when the debates became intense. In interviews in recent years, he said he considered only two persons worthy of being his opponents – the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, who was Chief Minister of Penang from 1969 to 1990, and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister.

While Karpal frustrated Dr Lim, calling him all sorts of names from “scum” to “liar” to “old fox” at the assembly, which often resulted in the state opposition leader being thrown out, the Gerakan founder was equally good at dealing with him.

As Karpal played to the gallery with his rhetoric, Dr Lim would just close his eyes and smile, seemingly unperturbed by the uproar.

Once, when Karpal pointed out to the Speaker that Dr Lim was sleeping during the debate, Dr Lim opened his eyes, grinned, and closed his eyes again.

As Karpal recalled in the book, Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong, written by Tim Donoghue, when he called Dr Lim “an old fox”, the latter corrected him by retorting “I am not an old fox. I am a very, very, very old fox.”

I remember Dr Lim telling me once, in jest, that Karpal Singh should be remembered as “Kepala Pusing” (Bahasa Malaysia for a big headache, in a play on his name Karpal Singh) for his political antics in the assembly.

The Penang Yang di-Pertua Negeri, Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas, was then the state assemblyman for Bertam and he sat next to Dr Lim by virtue of his then position as the most senior state executive councillor.

Always impeccably dressed, the former headmaster would join Dr Lim in the debate, but there was much class and finesse then. There was no animosity, and even as they jeered Karpal, they did so with smiles on their faces.

But Karpal, like everyone else, was also a mortal. For all the accolades that have been mentioned, Karpal was never known for his constituency work and in 1999, Barisan successfully used it against him and he lost in the elections.

His opponents in the Dewan Rakyat have also accused him of deliberately getting himself suspended so he could attend to his busy court schedule, but that has never been proven.

Veteran journalists have often asked Karpal privately to explain why he had chosen to defend Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges although he himself had purportedly spoken out strongly about the allegations in 1998 at a DAP ceramah.

My interaction with Karpal became less over the years as I took on senior management roles, leading to my appointment as group chief editor and then as managing director and chief executive officer of The Star media group.

But when I bumped into him occasionally at functions or at the airport, he never failed to ask me about my family, especially my daughter who is now sitting for her Bar exams. Family always remained important in his life.

Like many Malaysians, we will miss Karpal. The people saw him as someone they could count on to speak up against any form of injustice.

Karpal did not care if he was taking on the PM or even a Sultan. He had taken on all of them. He was also someone the media could count on to give his party upstarts “a piece of my mind” when he felt they had let power go into their heads.

I have had the privilege of knowing Karpal as a reporter, seeing him up close and personal. It has also been an honour to have Karpal and his family members as fellow Xaverians, a fact that I am mighty proud of.

Farewell, Karpal Singh.

Tags / Keywords: Politics, on the beat, karpal singh

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