The Karpal Singh I knew...

I HAVE never known Karpal Singh, who died tragically in a road accident on Thursday, to have black hair on his head or a black beard.

It was always white, even when I first met him when he was about 45-years-old.

On that day in 1985, I was a staff correspondent for The Star in Seremban, Negri Sembilan.

Karpal invited me and another DAP leader, Hu Sepang, to tea and nasi lemak at a lane off Jalan Peel, where he would usually have his morning cuppa whenever he was in town.

It was after a court case and he had represented Hu Sepang, then Rahang state assemblyman, in one of DAP's numerous brushes with the law.

I was a rookie then but I noticed how everyone, even those in the DAP, treated him with great respect and deference, and how many passers-by stopped to shake his hand or ask his opinion on many matters.

He obliged all comers with a willing smile.

Many were fearful of his reputation, but the real Karpal was obliging and mild-mannered and liked to offer wry jokes together with his views.

Being a famous lawyer did not go to his head. He had no airs about him, was humble and not throw his (legal) weight around.

He always wore a ready smile that said he was willing to listen, no matter how small or trivial the matter.

His trademark wry humour, even towards himself, was never far behind.

Of his many sayings, "one can't always win, but should not stop trying either" explained why he took on so many battles.

He once told me about his disappointment with some of his political colleagues who fought with him while in the opposition - but once in power started chasing datukships.

He was very upset with this datukship-chasing attitude and likened it to ambulance-chasing lawyers and urged me to write articles supporting his strong opposition to it.

DAP members might not have understood - and sometimes disagreed - with his strict adherence to the letter of the law, but they all acknowledged he knew the law like the back of his hand.

Karpal told me at that first meeting that he always placed the law above everything else, and joked that his head was full of white hair because of the weight of the law on his head.

We all had a good laugh!

That first meeting turned out to be the first of many encounters with Karpal.

Described as an indefatigable warrior for justice by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in his press statement, Anwar was once denounced by Karpal during his days in Umno, but Karpal was quick to defend Anwar's rights after he was charged.

He was ready and willing to defend anyone for any reason, and he took his cases seriously and prepared ahead.

His untimely death is a huge loss to all Malaysians who believe in a society based on the rule of law.

They are suddenly bereft of a true champion.

The law was his always his first love and politics came in second, almost by accident, when he first stood for a state assembly seat in Kedah in 1974 and won.

His legal career started when he was admitted to the Penang Bar in 1969 after reading law at the National University of Singapore.

He took on many prominent legal cases in a career than spanned four decades, but as a politician he is best known for his stringent opposition to turning Malaysia into an Islamic state.

He believed the Federal Constitution provided for a secular state.

"My opposition to Islamic state and hudud is to preserve and defend that Constitution," he once told me.

"I am not opposed to Islam at all...I am a God-fearing man."

After the first accident in 2005 that left him paralysed from the neck down, I asked him how he would like to be remembered.

"As a good man… who fought a good fight" he said.

After he turned 70, he told reporters he would like to die "in the saddle" meaning he would like to go out fighting.

He could not picture himself dying of old age.

For all the glories he had achieved in his life, he was constantly aware of an almighty power ruling over him and others.

In later life, he was deeply aware of the fragility to human life.