He’s reached an age when most people would have happily retired and gone to pasture. But not Karpal Singh, aka the Tiger of Jelutong. StarMag catches up with one of the country’s most colourful, controversial – and much admired – politicians.
ALMOST unnoticed, a Malaysian institution turned 70 recently. It wasn’t a building or an organisation, but an individual.
For better or worse, Democratic Action Party (DAP) national chairman Karpal Singh has been a part of public consciousness for nearly four decades now. Despite being seriously injured in a car accident in 2005 that left him with nerve damage and wheelchair-bound, he has continued with his life-long struggle for justice and equality in Malaysia. Now, in his twilight years, he shows no signs of slowing down.
When we met at his law office off Jalan Pudu in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Karpal had just been discharged from hospital after suffering from pneumonia. He is weak and a little frail but manages to answer questions and dispense anecdotes with great gusto.
The family lawman
We first discuss family and his children’s decision to follow him into law and politics. In the March 8, 2008, general election, his sons Jagdeep and Gobind were elected state assemblyman for Datuk Keramat in Penang and MP for Puchong, Selangor, respectively.
Another son, Ramkarpal, and daughter Sangeet Kaur work with him in his law firm.
Karpal insists that they followed his path out of their own volition.
“I left it to them. Probably because they saw my exploits and wanted to follow.”
Of the five children, the first four are lawyers, with two of them going into politics as well.
“Only my youngest boy, Man Karpal, has declined to enter the profession, studying actuarial science instead.”
Man Karpal was originally named after his father but fate stepped in.
“He was born on June 28, 1987, which was actually my 47th birthday! Since it was my birthday, I named him Karpal Singh, Jr. A few months later, I got arrested during Operasi Lalang (a round of detentions under the Internal Security Act carried out in October, 1987).
“There was a lot of gossiping at the Sikh temple. People were saying you cannot have two tigers because one will eat the other. When I came out, I found out that his name had been changed to Man Karpal!”
Karpal’s wife, Gurmit Kaur, is eight years his junior and the couple is celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this month.
Karpal, who was born in Penang, recalls his first encounter with the woman who has supported him through thick and thin.
“I met her when she was very young. My father was a watchman and to supplement his income, we had a few cows. The first time I saw her, I was a teenager tending the herd and she was a small girl. Her family was actually from Narathiwat in Thailand but she had been sent here (Penang) for schooling. Much later, after I finished my studies, I met her at the temple and at the library, and the little girl was all grown up!
“Back then, there was a bit of opposition. Her family was okay, but my family was stubborn. Of course, once the first son came along, order was quickly restored!” he says.
(Editor’s note: Gurmit’s wonderful account of her love story and marriage to Karpal, His pillar of strength, together with an interview with Karpal on becoming disabled, A slow road to recovery, were published in StarMag on Sept 10, 2006.)
Despite his reputation as one of Malaysia’s foremost legal minds, Karpal admits that he wasn’t always the most diligent of students.
“I studied law for quite some time in Singapore, where, in fact, I took seven years to complete my course. The more you beat the steel the stronger it becomes ... that’s my excuse for taking so long! Actually I was playful, didn’t attend lectures and so on.
“During my final year, I was the only one to fail and the dean, Tommy Koh, who later became Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, took me aside and said ‘From now on, you’re going to sit at the front of the class with me!’ So I couldn’t play the fool any more and I passed my exams accordingly!”
Karpal is a Sikh and the maintenance of one’s hair is one of the tenets of Sikhism. Karpal’s decision to trim his locks was therefore not taken lightly.
“Right up until 1970 I kept my turban. In fact, in 1969 in Penang, I was all ready to cut my hair and I was actually sitting in the barber’s chair waiting my turn when I looked out the window and saw my father cycling by! I bolted.
“The next year, I was in Alor Star and it was very hot during the harvest season. I was just getting started in my law practice and washing my hair and tying the turban took up a lot of time. I decided something must be done.
“It is not easy, you know, to take such an action. I was alone in my room, going back and forth on my decision. Finally, I tied my hair, took my scissors and cut off the tail. Then I went to a barber and got it done properly!”
The deed done, next was the issue of facing his parents.
“I put the turban back on but my mother noticed it looked different from the back and started weeping and wailing. ‘You have disgraced us!’ she shouted.
“Luckily my father took me aside and said, ‘Relax, women just like to make a fuss. Just carry on wearing the turban for a little while more until they get used to the idea.’ And I did for one year before finally taking it off. But on special occasions, like my children’s weddings, I wear the turban.”
I ask Karpal why his children bear the name Deo, while he is known as just Karpal Singh.
“Deo is a clan name,” he explains. “In the 1940s and 50s it suddenly came into vogue again to use the clan name. Deo is very rare. Surprisingly, I have only met one other Deo family in Peninsular Malaysia.”
Karpal traces his family roots to a village called Samna Pind in India.
“It’s just a few kilometres from Amritsar in Punjab; my family were wheat farmers. I visited the village in 1963 during my university days and again in 1974 when my father passed away there.
“He had gone back for a while. One morning he disappeared ... apparently he was on his way to the Golden Temple when he was struck from behind in an accident. He died instantly.
“At the time I had a jury trial in the High Court here. When I applied for an adjournment, the judge, (Tan Sri) Syed Agil Barakbah, asked me why. I told him and he said ‘Go, your first duty is to your father’. So I went to India and when I came back, we started the trial all over again.”
The political dynamo
That year, 1974, was an eventful one for Karpal as it also marked his first triumph in electoral politics.
“It had been suggested that I run for both the Alor Star state seat and the parliamentary seat. I had been contemplating it but after the death of my father I put it off. Two days before nomination day, the then DAP national organising secretary, Fan Yew Teng, called me and asked if I would support the candidate he proposed. I said, of course, and he said he was proposing me.
“We argued back and forth and the moment I gave in, he quickly hung up and didn’t answer my calls. The next day he announced to everyone that I was running!”
Despite winning in Kedah, Karpal soon moved back to Penang.
“That was always part of my plan. I am from Penang and I only went to Kedah because I couldn’t get a job in Penang! Even now I travel back and forth between Parliament, my practice in KL and my constituency in Jelutong, Penang. If the constituents don’t see me enough, they will throw me out at the next election!”
Karpal says he was moved to enter politics by the events of May 1969, which led him to realise that Malaysia’s future was in real danger.
“I was initially inspired by people like Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy. The 1960s were inspiring, heated times, but after May 13, I felt something had to be done to keep this country on a multi-racial course and the DAP was the party I chose.”
From there, he forged strong friendships with the likes of Lim Kit Siang and Dr Chen Man Hin, his predecessors as DAP chairman.
“They were all dedicated fighters and I had heard of them before I joined. I was determined to play my part.”
Karpal also expresses great admiration for Malaysia’s first Prime Minister.
“For me, it is still Tunku Abdul Rahman who was above it all. He was the one man who was determined to be leader for all Malaysians, regardless of race. I know people were detained under his rule, but he was not really in charge of things like security, that was more the work of others.”
Over the years Karpal has had numerous public confrontations, both within and beyond the courts. His legal skills were called upon for many of the controversial court cases of the 1980s and 1990s (for example, his attempt to sue the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 1986!) which made the headlines.
What he did in Parliament and the state assembly also earned him notoriety, like his refusal to leave the Penang assembly upon his suspension in 1981.
Another memorable confrontation with MIC President Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu led to his nickname, the Tiger of Jelutong.
“I told Samy he could be the lion, and I could be the tiger, because there are no lions in Malaysia!”
So how does he react to his old foes when they cross paths nowadays?
Karpal laughs, “We have no ill will. We each had a job to do. I went beyond certain limits sometimes but I had to do it. It was a different era and part of the game. You either hit or get hit. I used to be stout, and sometimes after a few stouts, things happen!”
Does it ever get too much to be both lawyer and politician?
“They complement each other. Actually I am more of a lawyer than a politician.
“Law is more demanding. You are on your feet and your brain is working all the time. You face the judge and opponents in court in the morning, prepare and study cases through late at night.
“To do all this in the public glare is not easy. If you don’t have the aptitude for it, you’re dead. My parents wanted me to be a doctor but I would have been a lousy doctor!”
Despite his non-traditional outlook, Karpal describes himself as a religious man. “I am religious, but I’m not one to go to the temple every week. I believe that the principles by which you live is a measure of your faith.”
A bright future
As a life-long oppositionist in a country that has only known one ruling coalition, Karpal has clearly played an invaluable role in shaping its democracy. He feels that the current climate is the healthiest he has known.
“In the past, the DAP had a big problem of reaching the Malay community. The Government has always tried to portray us as Chinese chauvinistic and anti-Malay. For example, at one ceramah, I was arguing that Malaysia is clearly a secular nation and I said, ‘An Islamic state over my dead body’ and suddenly it was taken out of context and I was portrayed as an enemy of Islam.
“Working with Parti Keadilan Rakyat has helped us quite a bit. When you compare the 1999 and 2008 elections, you see things had changed. Chinese supporters, for example, could accept us working with PAS in a coalition.
“So I think the future is very bright. This is the first time in my experience that the Opposition has been so multi-racial. You must put aside the defections by those miserable creatures who are minor, inconsequential characters. (Those defections) have left us stronger.
“But we must be given time. Remember that we only have four states and that it is at federal level where the leverage and clout are. Furthermore, on the village and council levels you still have many who are trying to maintain the status quo of the old regime. You cannot expect change overnight.”
It is perhaps this sense of hope for the future that keeps Karpal motivated after almost four decades in the political arena.
He is certainly as busy – and controversial – as ever. Just last month he was acquitted of a charge of sedition against the Sultan of Perak!
“It’s been a very interesting, sometimes volatile, journey. I’ve enjoyed it. I still do. I will keep going as long as I can.
“I know I’ve been portrayed in the media as a fiery and fierce man ... sometimes it helps. When I stand up in court, witnesses are shivering before I even open my mouth,” he reveals with great amusement.
He is also kept busy by his grandchildren – nine boys and a girl – and he tries to take pleasure in small things.
“I have a little orchard in Balik Pulau, with durians and other fruit trees. I like listening to old Hindi songs....”
But of all the setbacks he has faced, Karpal admits that being wheelchair-bound has been the most difficult.
“The accident was a terrible blow. You are like a prisoner within yourself. Even when I was detained in Kamunting under the ISA, I could still walk about. With nerve damage you are in pain all the time and I don’t want to take painkillers because I will become dependent on them.
“But you cannot keep looking back and thinking what if this had not happened because then you will sink deeper into depression. You have to look forward. And that I will do.”
And so, despite the pain, the disability and advancing age, the Tiger of Jelutong continues to burn brightly.
Happy belated 70th birthday, Karpal!
Durable and obdurate