Walking in the footsteps of the Tiger: Remembering Karpal Singh

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Karpal Singh flanked by Vince Tan (right) and another youth.

While speaking out is important, taking action is even better. Vince Tan hopes to see more young tigers drawing inspiration from the Tiger of Jelutong.

Many law students would say they want to be the next Karpal Singh; however, not many actually walk the path taken by the Tiger of Jelutong.

The path he took came with much adversity ranging from imprisonment, defeats in elections, late graduation from law school and objection to his long call to the Bar. All these challenges made him the man that he was – and make us realise that we have to face our own challenges in life to realise our true potential.

Tomorrow marks the second year of his passing; yet he still remains a figure of inspiration to many others wanting to walk in the footsteps of the Tiger.

I first came across Karpal Singh back in 2010.

He had donated a smartboard to his alma mater, St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). I had the privilege of welcoming him to the school’s computer club as the then SXI Webteam chairman. That fine smartboard is placed in the school’s computer club to be used for interactive lessons in the future.

He continued the culture of giving back to the school like many other Xaverians before him. I was 19 then, doing my Form Six and never would have imagined I would later be stepping foot into the law faculty of University of Malaya (UM).

It was always a sensitive issue to be bring an opposition politician to schools as there was a culture of politicking involved in the education system that denied opposition members of parliament and of state assemblies from stepping into government schools.

A few years down the road, our paths crossed again, this time in the Kuala Lumpur court complex, where I started taking those baby steps as a university student. Karpal Singh and his daughter Sangeet Kaur Deo represented Kolej Universiti Insaniah in a matter against some students from the university.

I have a habit of going to court once in a while to watch a case or two particularly if it is a high-profile matter. Being a student activist at the same time, I found it not uncommon to find that one or two people I knew were being charged in court.

Over Karpal’s career, he handled many high-profile cases particularly involving drugs. It is in his biography by Tim Donoghue Karpal Singh: The Tiger of Jelutong, which is a ‘must read’ for those who have a passion for law and politics.

The 13th general election came soon enough, and I found myself travelling home to spend the weekend campaigning for Zairil Khir Johari, the current Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera. It was indeed a great experience and on 3 May 2013, all the DAP candidates gathered at the Esplanade to take their pledge before polling day.

I managed to take a picture with the man, together with a senior from law school who campaigned for Ng Wei Aik, the current MP for Tanjung. The experience watching the mega ceramahs on stage at Esplanade and the IJM Promenade (now called Karpal Singh Drive) was probably the best moment in the entire campaigning period. Thousands of Penangnites crying for change for a better Malaysia.

Though we did not win GE13, the results paved the way for many young Malaysians to step up and become change agents in their own way. I now have more peers joining political parties or working with civil society NGOs to make Malaysia a much better place.

blackout rally505

This generation is what I call the Blackout 505 generation. A generation of disillusioned youths who have come out to make a difference after GE13. The previous Reformasi and Bersih 1.0 and 2.0 generations have now come of age, and you see many of them in the public arena creating change in their own way.

This can only be a sign of better things to come, but Karpal did not live to see the day real Change would happen. He, together with the previous generation of freedom fighters, did sow the foundations.

The aftermath of GE13 saw a sedition dragnet with many opposition lawmakers and civil society activists charged under the Sedition Act. This sparked a movement by local lawmakers and civil society activists to form Gerakan Hapus Akta Hasutan (GHAH) or Movement to Abolish the Sedition Act.

Karpal was charged himself and convicted with a RM5,000 fine for questioning the role of the Sultan of Perak in the 2009 constitutional crisis in Perak. That was when a change of Mentri Besar occurred as a result of three state lawmakers declaring support for Zambry Abdul Kadir of the BN, sparking the collapse of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat state government.

Once again my friends and I played truant to lend our support to Karpal when the verdict of his case was delivered at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

I never imagined that such a sedition charge would also fall upon one of my lecturers, Dr Azmi Sharom. This prompted my friends and I to campaign against the Sedition Act. We started small by forming the #Solidarity4AzmiSharom campaign to rally support behind our lecturer.

Azmi-Sharom-at-Pokok-Kebebasan-Akademik

Some 500 people gathered at the Tree of Academic Freedom in the University of Malaya as a sign of protest against Azmi Sharom’s being charges.

We called for the abolition of the Sedition Act, for the defence of academic freedom and for a stop to selective prosecution in this country. Thank God, his charges have now been dropped.

Everyone was shocked by the news of Karpal’s passing in the morning of 17 April 2014. I was sitting in one of my tutorial classes, waiting for the tutor to come in while scrolling the news feed on my Facebook. I texted Zairil to confirm the news and then decided to make a trip back home to Penang to attend the funeral.

crowd-at-Karpal's-funeral

Those who attended the funeral would tell you the story of how thousands of people joined in the procession around Georgetown, and it shows how much the people of Penang loved Karpal Singh. It is not a surprise that the late Karpal Singh received the Malaysian Bar’s lifetime achievement award.

My past internships and experience allowed me to meet a few people who were taught and brought up under the wing of Karpal himself. His son Gobind Singh Deo represented me as counsel when I was detained at the Jinjang police lock-up for organising a protest called Tangkap Najib at the Sogo Shopping Complex.

My Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) lecturer was also a lawyer trained by him. My current Master, with whom I am doing my pupilage, was also from Karpal Singh & Co. It is amazing how fate works to connect people together in life and how fate allows for a single person like Karpal to inspire the lives of many others.

A lot of things have changed since Karpal’s passing, and I mean a lot. Pakatan Rakyat, which we supported and voted for in the last general election, has ceased to exist and has now been replaced by Pakatan Harapan. Pas is no longer an ally of the DAP, and a new splinter party, Amanah, replaced it in the coalition.

The economy is not looking good, and we are now living in a state of political uncertainty. We look to the lessons of the past so that we don’t repeat the mistakes made by our previous generation.

With this I sincerely recommend the reading of Karpal Singh’s biography titled The Tiger Of Jelutong by Tim Donoghue. It is a ‘must read for those who aspire to become lawyers as well as politicians.

Every lawyer would know the landmark case of Teh Cheng Poh and S Arulpragasan where Karpal’s triumph set precedents for a change in the law – which would later inspire many other lawyers to challenge the boundaries of the law in their own pursuits.

Karpal pushed the boundaries of the law so much so, after the Teh Cheng Poh Privy Council decision, the executive had to table amendments in Parliament via the Emergency (Essential Powers) Bill on 17 January 1979 to validate the Essential (Security Cases) Regulations (Escar) regulations declared void by the council. This had retrospective effect on Escar prisoners, thus condemning them to the gallows.

Another example of how Parliament showed its superiority against the courts occurred after the S Arulpragasan case. Karpal had managed to persuade the judges in the case that the standard of proof required at the end of the prosecution’s case in a criminal matter should be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, which is a higher standard of proof.

This landmark case later led to a legislative intervention to amend the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) so that the standard of proof required at the end of the prosecution’s case would be ‘prima facie’ (on the face of it) – making it much easier to prove conviction should the accused not rebut the prosecution’s evidence. Today, the words prima facie can be found in the provisions of section 173 and section 180 of the CPC.

Karpal-Singh-tiger-of-Jelutong

We have come a long way since the dark ages of human rights under Dr Mahathir’s time but that would not be possible without the people’s dissent and th political tsunami back in 2008. We are in a better state today than before. There are a lot of youths like me out there who want to see a better Malaysia.

But a better Malaysia will not come if we sit idle and not do anything. While speaking out is important, taking action is even better. I hope to see more young tigers walking in the footsteps of the Tiger of Jelutong. Change begins not in the streets but it starts from within ourselves.

Vince Tan is a young pupil-in-chamber based in Penang. After his adventures in law school, he now travels around experimenting on ways to create social change.

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