The maverick lawyer took on the role of Big Brother to local journalists, protecting us from powerful local figures who tried to intimidate us.
I FIRST heard about Karpal Singh when I was still in school in Penang. It was around the time Star Wars hit the cinemas in the late 1970s.
Karpal Singh had just saved a 14-year-old Chinese schoolboy from the gallows and it was the talk of the town then.
The maverick lawyer became a local hero of sorts after he managed to persuade the King to pardon the boy who had received a death sentence for firearm possession.
Shortly after, Karpal again made the news – he was elected Jelutong MP and Bukit Glugor assemblyman. His ferocity as he spoke out on issues in parliament and the state assembly earned him the nickname Tiger of Jelutong.
He took on many more high-profile court cases and won. By the early 80s, Karpal had become larger than life.
It was not until 1986 when I joined the press that I got to know the man himself and found the Tiger to be a gentle giant and one of the most courteous persons I’d ever met.
Working in the small New Straits Times bureau in Penang (before moving to the bigger The Star office), my former colleagues and I had to cover all beats – from courts and crime to politics and general news. And that was how we knew Karpal so well as he seemed to feature in almost every field of our news coverage.
Karpal would call for a press conference (PC) at his Green Hall office near the courts at least once a week. He was famous for speaking his mind – you could ask him on any issue, including internal bickering in DAP and he would give you an answer.
Those were the days before smartphones and email.
Although his clerk would distribute cyclostyled press statements, we dared not skip his PC lest our rival papers got a better story. Sometimes we would grumble about having to attend one too many PCs a week but when he was detained under the ISA in October 1987 following Operasi Lallang, we truly felt his absence from the legal and political scene.
After he and his party boss Lim Kit Siang were released from Kamunting in early 1989, the DAP threw a big party with free-flowing beer at the Penang Chinese Town Hall.
When Kit Siang showed up, the mostly Chinese crowd in the packed hall cheered but when a garlanded Karpal arrived on the shoulders of his staunch supporters, the roar was thunderous.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to cover the Penang Legislative Assembly as a junior reporter and witnessed Karpal and Kit Siang sparring with the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
For the most part of the sitting, Chong Eu would enjoy the occasional shut-eye but when Karpal roared too loudly, he would jump to his feet.
That was when we saw some of the liveliest debates in the House.
When Karpal lost his state seat in the 1990 general election, the state assembly somehow lost its sparks and was never quite the same again. He remained as Jelutong MP until 1999.
While some senior Bar members could be condescending towards journalists, Karpal, despite his status as a prominent lawyer, treated the press with much respect.
It did not matter if you were a senior journalist or a rookie reporter or if you worked for a vernacular or major newspaper.
During his political ceramah, he would sometimes lash out at the mainstream newspapers but always made it a point to praise their reporters so that the Opposition crowd would not be too antagonistic towards them.
It was from Karpal that many young reporters learnt about constitutional law, the Dangerous Drugs Act, the ISA and the meaning of words like habeas corpus.
He had a special bond with the court reporters who, in turn, were very protective of him.
Once, Karpal almost fainted in the Penang High Court due to exhaustion and the journalists present felt it was pantang to write about it. There was a mutual agreement to keep that “little” detail from our editors.
Karpal also took on the role of Big Brother to the local journalists, protecting us from arrogant lawyers and powerful local figures who tried to intimidate us.
My ex-colleague Zarinah Daud recalled how three burly lawyers stomped into the old NST office in Chulia Street, threatening her over a court report. She told Karpal who spoke to the lawyers. There were no further incidents.
When a local developer pressured me to retract a report, I was touched when Karpal personally offered to take up my case free of charge.
A few years later, when Karpal called to ask if I could stand as a defence witness in one of his court cases in KL, I did not hesitate.
In 2008, there was an attempt by some DAP young Turks to “retire off” Karpal who had become wheelchair bound from a 2005 accident. When I rang him up, the Tiger declared he still had “fire in his belly” and was certainly not about to ride into the sunset yet.
He stood his ground and went on to recapture the Bukit Glugor parliamentary seat with a thumping 21,000-vote majority.
Karpal, for all his fame, remained very much a humble man and as he makes his journey to his final resting place in Penang today, he will be remembered as a great lawyer, a feisty politician and a dear friend to the journalists who knew him.
Rest in peace, Mr Karpal.
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A matter of principle