Karpal Singh, true humanitarian

Whatever his clients’ crimes were, Karpal Singh saw them as human beings and felt a sense of responsibility for them, writes Lee Min Choon.

Karpal Singh - Photograph: Wikipedia

Karpal Singh – Photograph: Wikipedia

This has nothing to do with the Malay Bible. But I can’t help but feel a sense of loss with the passing of a colleague at the Bar and friend, Karpal Singh. So, here’s how I remember him.

It must have been around 1985 when I was helping a convict on death row who had become a Christian while in prison. Liew Weng Seng was sentenced to death under the Internal Security Act for possession of a firearm. At the Federal Court, Liew was unrepresented and proceeded to tell the court that he was guilty and did not wish to appeal his death sentence.

When court was adjourned, his family tried to pass him a Bible but was prevented from doing so by the prison warders. A commotion ensued and made the news the next day. When I read the report, I thought, “Hey, this guy is a Christian and he had just told the court to go ahead and hang him.”

I called the office at Pudu Prison and arranged for an appointment to see Liew. When we met, he confirmed that what the newspapers reported was what happened in court. I listened as he told his story of how he got into crime. It was a pitiful story of a boy growing up in the slums and being influenced by the gangs. Soon he was committing crimes.

The law caught up with him. Possession of firearms was a capital offence. Liew was not yet 30 as he faced the gallows. Since his case was over, I offered to write a petition for pardon on his behalf to the King. I would not charge him any fees. It was a favour to a fellow Christian. Liew agreed.

Over the next one year, I would visit Liew. As he spoke no English or Malay and as my Chinese was vitually incomprehensible, I always brought along a Chinese pastor with me to encourage and minister to Liew.

One day, Liew’s family called me. They said the prison had called to say that Liew would be hanged in three days time.

I told them I would do what I could. I called the prison and then the palace to find out what happened to Liew’s petition for pardon.

Eventually, I was told that it was rejected and the court had issued a warrant for his execution.

I went to see Liew with his family. It saddened me that our friendship over the past year was coming to an end.

Liew said that he had made his peace with God and he was not afraid.

I asked him if he would consider doing some good with his death by donating his organs.

He agreed.

Over the next two days, I went to the General Hospital to find out the procedure and paperwork for this sort of thing. On the eve of his execution, I came to see Liew one last time and gave him some papers to sign to donate his organs. I bought him a meal from the prison canteen. Then we said goodbye and I told him we would meet again one day.

I arrived home late in the afternoon, went to the backroom of my house and laid down on a bed. I did not want my wife and child to see the tears I shed for Liew. In 12 hours time, Liew would be taken from his cell (at 5.00am the next day) and be hanged by the neck till he was dead.

Suddenly, my wife walked into the room and said, “Karpal Singh is here to see you.”

I went to my front door and saw Karpal Singh and another lawyer, Ngeow Yin Ngee, standing at my front door.

“Are you Liew Weng Seng’s lawyer?” asked Karpal.

“Yes,” I replied.

Karpal then explained that he was the lawyer for two convicts who were scheduled to be hanged at the same time as Liew. Karpal’s clients were found guilty of assassinating the Chief Police Officer of Perak. They had waited for him at a traffic junction in Ipoh and shot him to death when he passed by. Karpal said that he had filed a court case raising some legal technicality and had obtained an ex parte stay of execution from Judge Hashim Yeop Sani (ex parte means that the order was given after hearing only one side; later, the Judge would re-hear the case from both sides). When Karpal went to Pudu Prison to serve the order for the stay of execution, he was informed that there was a third man to be executed, Liew.

“Come with me,” Karpal said, “we’ll go to my office and prepare the papers and get a stay of execution for your client as well.”

It must have been about 6.00pm when we drove back to Kuala Lumpur in Ngeow’s car. We reached Karpal’s office past 7.00pm. He then started to dictate to his clerk who typed furiously on the typewriter.

I gave them Liew’s details. I was still in a daze.

All the time, Karpal worked at preparing the papers like a man consumed and trying to beat a deadline. We must have finished the paperwork at about 9.00pm. It was eight hours to the execution.
“Let’s go see the judge,” Karpal said.

The first place we went to was the home of Madam Harwanth Kaur, the Senior Assistant Registrar to Judge Hashim. We bundled her into the car and the four of us drove to the home of Judge Hashim in Petaling Jaya.

We reached his house at 10.00pm and Karpal banged on his door. We were let into the Judge’s living room. “Judge,” said Karpal as he handed the judge a stack of papers, “there is another man due to be hanged tomorrow. Can you give a stay of execution for him as well?”

“The Attorney-General will jump!” sniggered Judge Hashim as he signed an order for the stay of Liew’s execution.

We then left the Judge’s house and drove to the High Court in Kuala Lumpur. It was 11.00pm when we arrived. The courthouse was in total darkess and tightly shut. We found the security guard and Harwanth ordered him to open the court doors.

The four of us went into the registry section of the court house. We were looking for the court seal. The court order although signed by the judge was no good without the seal of the court imprinted on it. The four of us fanned out to look for the court seal.

It was a stroke of good fortune that we found the court seal in a short time. Harwanth sealed the court order and handed it to Karpal. We left the court house but first we had to send Harwanth back home. Her job was done.

When we arrived at the gates of Pudu prison at 12.30am the next morning, there was a crowd of reporters surrounding the huge metal prison door. Karpal banged on the doors.

A warden poked his head out and said, “All of you please stay out. Only Mr Karpal, Mr Ngeow and Mr Lee can come in.”

Karpal duly served the order for a stay of Liew’s execution on the prison director. The next day, the papers reported a sensational last minute rush to save three men from the gallows.

Within a week, we were back in Judge Hashim’s court. The Attorney-General, Abu Talib Othman, did jump and he made an application to the Judge to set aside all three stay orders.

Karpal argued the case with his usual brilliance. I cannot remember the legal point. All I can remember was that it was never argued before. Karpal had no previous court decisions to rely on. It was like going back to school to see Karpal at work and the lesson: “Think outside the box.”

At the end of arguments, the Judge set aside the three stay orders clearing the way for the men to be executed under a fresh warrant. Karpal appealed to the Federal Court. Again, it was dismissed.

Let me pause awhile. Throughout this time, Karpal did all the work for Liew’s case, paid for all the court expenses and made sure I was always present to take part. He never once talked about payment. It was as if he was meant to do this.

A few months later, warrants of execution were issued again. Judge Hashim had ruled that the High Court could not order a stay of execution. It had to be ordered by the Attorney-General, who was the chairman of the Pardons Board.

Karpal made appeals to the Attorney-General but it fell on deaf ears.

On the eve of the execution, Karpal summoned Ngeow and me to his office. It was about 8.00 pm when we got there. Karpal did a lot of things at night as he would be in court the whole day doing more than one case per day. He suggested we go to see the ambassadors of the European countries to seek their help to persuade the government to delay the executions. Karpal had discounted the US ambassador as the Malaysian government under Dr Mahathir was hostile to the United States. However, the government had good ties with the Europeans.

We went to see the German ambassador. He informed us that the European embassies have a system where they would appoint one of the European ambassadors on rotation as a representative to speak to the Malaysian government on behalf of the rest. At that time, the French ambassador was the chairman.

So, off we went to the French ambassador’s house. I cannot remember the conversation as it was a long time ago. But the ambassador told us that he was not able to help.

We went back to Karpal’s office at midnight. Five hours to the execution. Karpal was wracking his brain to think of something. I was exhausted and had almost given up but I hoped that Karpal would again pull something out of his hat. How about this? No, won’t work. How about that? On and on we went.

At about 2.00am, three hours to execution, Karpal said that there’s nothing more we could do. He asked us to go home. A few hours later, Liew and the other two convicts were dead.

Lawyers can be the most heartless of men. Society had a reason for calling lawyers sharks. It’s because we thrive on the misfortunes of others. Most lawyers I met are in it for the money. They have no heart for their clients whom they see to be nothing more than a source of income.

Karpal was not like that. In my encounter with him over Liew’s case, Karpal demonstrated true humanity and a genuine care for his clients. Whatever their crimes were, he saw them as human beings and felt a sense of responsibility for them, over and above the call of duty.

Karpal Singh was a true humanitarian. We will miss him.

Lee Min Choon is chairman of the Bible Society of Malaysia.

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