Karpal Singh was as fierce as a tiger when taking on his opponents in the legal and political arena but the private person in him was soft-spoken, courteous and a true gentleman.
ON Wednesday afternoon, Karpal Singh had called to say he was leaving for Penang that night and that he would only be coming back on Tuesday.
“You can come by this evening, if you like,” he said.
I phoned Mr Karpal, as all of us call him, a few days ago to say I would like to interview him about the Kelantan government’s plan to introduce hudud law, an issue which the DAP leader had been uncompromising about throughout his political career.
We decided to do the interview over the phone. It was not a long interview, just 20 minutes or so.
He knew the Kelantan government’s hudud plan was for real this time and when I asked what a long-time critic like him could possibly do, he did not have a ready answer.
“We cannot stop them from tabling the Bill but we can vote against it,” said Karpal, the Bukit Gelugor MP.
As we said goodbye, I had teased him: “All that thing about ‘over my dead body’ – you hang on in there. We need you around.”
His reply was a deep-throated chuckle. Of all the things I could have said, why did I have to say that to him on the last day of his life?
Some of my friends had asked whether there had been any hint from Karpal about the tragedy ahead. Of course not. Karpal was not a superstitious man, as reporters who covered him as lawyer or politician would know.
Tributes mixed with shock and sadness have poured in. I have always felt that obituaries tend to be rather too kind and flattering to the dead.
But I have been reading the pieces written by fellow journalists and people who knew Karpal and there has been this genuinely heartfelt sentiment for the man who had led quite an exceptional life as a lawyer, a politician and a Malaysian.
He was a stand-out lawyer, he challenged the law and achieved landmark decisions in the legal world.
His political career spanned some 40 years. His track record as a politician was no less controversial and it says a lot that he remained politically relevant till his dying day.
He had more than his share of fans in The Star because many senior journalists in the paper had begun as rookies in Penang where Karpal’s legal and political career took off.
They had covered him, seen him in action and love or hate him, you have to admire the man’s tenacity.
And he gave the media good stories and punchy quotes.
He was as fierce as a tiger when taking on his opponents but outside of the political arena, he was soft-spoken, courteous and polite and always a gentleman.
You could not catch him using rude words especially in front of ladies and he treated all reporters with respect.
He was such an important lawyer, yet he would patiently explain basic legal points to reporters.
I remember covering a court case as a rookie. A chap with a huge tattoo on his arm that was definitely not a fashion statement had been charged with illegal possession of firearms.
His case was delayed because Karpal was serving time in Kamunting under the ISA but he told the court he wanted to wait for Karpal instead of getting another lawyer.
About a month after Karpal was released, he won the case for the chap. That is the sort of faith his clients had in him.
Sometime in 1999, a politician had sued me for a report on a court case that involved Karpal.
Karpal was unwell but he had hauled himself to court to testify in my favour.
I wrote him a thank you note and he had replied in the old world gentleman style of his, writing in an elegant cursive: “Dear Joceline, Thank you for your letter. It was indeed my pleasure and duty to harken to the assistance of a pretty lady in distress. With kind and warm regards from me and my family.”
Karpal’s public persona was quite different from his more private side. He was probably very well-off but was never big-headed about it, he was not a show-off and he remained a simple person at heart.
Those who have been to his office are often surprised at how small and ordinary it is.
During one visit, I had wanted to use the toilet downstairs but Karpal had told me to use his personal toilet across from his office.
I thought it would be quite special but the toilet was inside a small room that had a makeshift bed.
I thought it was the caretaker’s space until I saw his white shirt and jacket hanging from a shelf and the boxy lawyer briefcase on the floor. The toilet was even more basic – the sink was listing and the toilet seat was almost falling off.
Come to think of it, Karpal never once complained about the disabilities he had to endure after the 2005 accident that cost him the use of his limbs.
He took everything – good, bad or difficult – in his stride. He was one of Malaysia’s most famous sons but he was actually quite a humble person away from the public spotlight. Karpal will always be remembered as a lawyer you would want on your side, a fearless politician and, most of all, a gentleman.
State funeral for Karpal
Gobind: Father insisted on travelling by car at night
Michael — shy man whose care spoke volumes
Going to jail with Karpal and learning court language
‘Don’t play the fool’ and other quotes by Karpal Singh
Karpal Singh, my loving husband
Najib: Karpal a formidable opponent
Old foes and friends all pay tribute
Pakatan colleagues praise Karpal’s indomitable spirit
An inspiring teacher and friend
Death of a hero, birth of a legend
Tiger, tiger who burned bright
Karpal the politician
Karpal the lawyer
Old days of Karpal
From hospital to his home