The roar of the Tiger

Karpal at the launch of 'Tiger of Jelutong' which was on the 'Bestsellers' list weeks before its official launch.

MALAYSIA - It's way past dinner time and Karpal Singh has just finished seeing clients for the day at his legal firm in Pudu.

Wheelchair-bound since an accident eight years ago, Karpal has a bell which he rings when he's ready to see the next person or needs assistance. His clients are everyday folk, although only the big names he represents make the news.

Despite the long hours, the maverick lawyer who turns 73 this year, is relaxed, the fiery tiger eyes that flare on ceramah stages and in court appear warm and kind. He smiles easily, has a wicked sense of humour and confesses to being a doting grandfather to his 11 grandchildren.

"Nothing compares to the feeling of going home to hugs from my grandchildren. No doubt, I am a much better grandfather than I was a father because I spend more time with my grandchildren," Karpal shares during an interview with Sunday Star. "It was not by choice that I had to be away from home so much when my five children were growing up. But I had to work hard so that I could send them abroad to study."

His biography Karpal Singh: The Tiger of Jelutong hit the bookstores two weeks before its official launch on Sept 7. By Sept 1, it was already on the number two spot of the MPH Mid Valley Megamall 'Bestsellers' list for non-fiction.

"I hear the book is also a best-seller in Singapore. I did not expect this much interest," he says.

The Tiger of Jelutong is a nickname the veteran politician gained during his years as a vociferous Member of Parliament (MP) for Jelutong, a Penang seat he held on for two decades. Interestingly, the intimidating moniker stuck even after the DAP stalwart was defeated in Jelutong in 1999. Today, Karpal is the MP for Bukit Gelugor.

"People are afraid to approach me thinking I'm serious and fierce. I'm not sure how the image came about but I suppose it's good because my opponents seem to fear me. No point in having a friendly tiger because otherwise, all you have is a toy," says a bemused Karpal, looking every bit the distinguished gentleman in his usual crisp white shirt and black suit.

Despite his comfortable lifestyle, thanks to a successful legal and political career, Karpal hasn't forgotten his impoverished childhood during the Japanese Occupation.

He remembers reading his lessons as a young child under dim streetlights, and seeing dead bodies hanging in public places and Japanese soldiers marching on the streets. His family stayed in Green Hall, near the Penang High Courts, and later moved to Brick Kiln Road where the Gurdwara is located.

During his University of Singapore days, Karpal was "very sociable" - too sociable perhaps, resulting in a rather late graduation.

"My lecturer, Professor Tommy Koh, finally sat me down and gave me a good talking-to. I owe him for setting me straight," says Karpal who in later years became one of the country's most famous criminal and constitutional lawyers with a reputation for taking on 'mission impossible' cases.

Brought up by very religious Sikh parents, Karpal, who grew up with a turban, shares how his late mother Kartar Kaur was deeply upset when she discovered he had cut his hair.

"I was in my early 30s and practising law in Alor Setar, Kedah. I had been thinking of cutting my hair for some time but didn't quite have the courage to do so until one particularly hot day, I grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped it off.

"Then I got really scared - how was I to face my parents? Had I betrayed my religion? I wanted to glue it back but it was too late," he recalls with a laugh.

On his next trip home to visit his parents, he wore a turban.

"My mother saw my short hair sticking out and wailed loudly, saying I had disgraced the family. My father calmly pulled me aside and asked me to keep the turban on for at least a year to give the family 'face'," he adds.

No judge of innocence

While there's an entire chapter dedicated to Karpal's representation of Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim over the course of 15 years, he refrains from sharing his personal thoughts. Does he think Anwar is innocent?

"Well, he pleaded not guilty and I defended him. I felt I should help. Whether someone is innocent or not is not for me to judge," he points out.

He also serves as DAP's counsel in times of trouble, and has on several occasions represented party leaders like Lim Kit Siang and his son Guan Eng when they got into trouble with the law.

He now shares the task with sons Jagdeep, 42 and Gobind, 40, both chips off the old block. His other children Ramkarpal, 36, and Sangeet 33, are also lawyers while his youngest Mankarpal, 26 has an aptitude for numbers and is in banking. The family is very close and constantly shuttle between the family homes in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

"Don't ask me who is more like me or a better lawyer because they won't be happy with me comparing," he cautions. Karpal recalls how Jagdeep had refused to leave for Melbourne to study when he was facing Internal Security Act detention in 1987. "I had to persuade him to get on that plane and said to 'go study so that you can do something about this when you get back'."

Karpal clearly has a soft spot for his only daughter Sangeet, whom he says works with him on many cases and has much potential.

He regrets not being able to play the role of the father of the bride at Sangeet's wedding in 2006 because of the severe injuries he sustained during his accident.

"It was a very bitter pill to swallow, not being able to give her away and carry out my duty as a father," he says.

For the last 43 years, Karpal has been married to the "love of his life" and he remembers vividly an image of Gurmit Kaur in a beautiful blue frock when she was just 10 years old.

"Our families knew each other. I saw her and thought: 'My God, what a beautiful girl'. Years later when I was chambering, I saw her again at the library and I thought 'Wow, that's the same girl'," he says, adding that everyone has "some element of romance" in them.

Bad boy

The late Penang Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad share the 'honour' of being Karpal's "main political nemeses".

Karpal describes Dr Lim as a refined gentleman politician in the book while Dr Mahathir "makes things interesting".

"I can go after Dr M, people don't mind (unlike Badawi whom people like). In politics you can't take things personally but Dr Mahathir is truly a political animal and that's not necessarily a positive thing," he says, drawing attention to Dr Mahathir's remark that Karpal is the "most contemptible of politicians and individuals".

"See how kindly he has described me."

Karpal's public persona has always been that of a tough and unapologetic guy and this 'don't expect an apology' trait is highlighted in his biography.

"If I'm wrong, I have no problems apologising but not when it's not due," Karpal insists.

He admits to punching a police corporal in the chest in 1984 because he claimed the man was lying in the witness box.

"He testified that I had assaulted a constable during a DAP marathon relay in Alor Setar when in actual fact, it was him I hit. Since I was already in trouble, I decided to show the court exactly what happened and go out with a bang!" he recalls.

In 1990, he made headlines again, throwing his copy of the Standing Orders at then Penang State Assembly Speaker Ooi Ean Kwong. Karpal insists it was "well-deserved".

"I never orchestrated this 'bad boy' image but it helps because people are frightened of me. Some say I deliberately create chaos to get thrown out of Parliament so that I can work on my legal cases but it's a complete lie," he adds.

There is little in the book that indicate his feelings about his party comrades and Pakatan Rakyat leaders. This, he says, is because he is more a lawyer than a politician.

Karpal sees no conflict in defending those accused of serious offences including drug traffickers, despite him being a lawmaker and an elected representative of the people.

"If someone comes to you for help, you help them," he says.

Many of those whose lives he saved from the gallows have kept in touch, including former Penang racecourse worker S. Arulpragasan.

Charged with trafficking, Arulpragasan's case is one, which every law student is familiar with. He was spared the noose after the Federal Court quashed a lower court decision where the prosecution had failed to establish a 'beyond reasonable doubt' standard at the end of its case.

Another high-profile case was that of a 14-year-old boy who was found guilty of possession of a pistol and ammunition in 1977 and sentenced to death by hanging. The case received widespread media coverage because of his tender age. Thanks to Karpal, the schoolboy received a pardon and was allowed to live.

"Arulpragasan came to help with my recent general election campaign while the boy, who was sent to the Henry Gurney School after he was pardoned, came to my office in Penang after his release. He came to say thank you and invited me to his father's new shop - that was a very nice gesture," Karpal tells.


While the many landmark court cases he won and his battles in Parliament and the Penang State Assembly were interestingly played out in the book, some juicy nuggets had to be left out especially on the case of (former Deputy Speaker) DP Vijandran's pornographic tapes as these were just 'too colourful' to include, he says.

Fittingly, the book was launched in Kuala Lumpur by Kit Siang, his old friend and party comrade.

"He is a party leader and a very good friend. We've been through a lot together but unlike him, I see myself as a lawyer first and politician second.

"Kit Siang, who actually ran his own law firm for a few months, is 110 per cent a politician. He would have been quite good as a lawyer if he had stuck to it," Karpal muses.

Asked if a mere 325-page book does justice to his four decades legal and political career, Karpal says it's the quality that matters.

"(New Zealand journalist) Tim Donoghue, had approached me about writing my biography back in 1987. He completed it in 1999 but I lost the general election so I didn't think the time was right to launch the book.

"He called me again in 2004 after I was back in Parliament to continue the project but then a year later, the car crash happened. I was going in and out of hospitals and was pretty much knocked out for two years.

"Then in 2008, he rang me again and this time I said okay, we have to finish it because we may not have much time left," he recalls, referring to the accident on Jan 28, 2005, when a car rammed into a taxi he was in from behind just outside his home in Penang.

"My late father Ram Singh Deo, passed away in a similar accident in Punjab, India - I am lucky to have survived.

"I have forgiven the driver who rammed into me - it's just one of those things. It will take more than a car crash to finish off the Tiger of Jelutong," he says defiantly.

Right after the accident, a determined Karpal declared: "I have to walk. God willing, I will."

These days, he is more realistic and has accepted the fact that he will remain a tetraplegic for the rest of his life.

"Well, I've waited eight years to walk again - that's a long time to be sitting down. The reality is that I will be wheelchair-bound unless someone somewhere comes up with a way to repair my broken spine," he says wryly.

Despite his advancing age, Karpal sees contesting in the 2018 general election as a very real possibility if nature doesn't interfere.

"I'd want to defend my Bukit Gelugor seat but look at (founding Father of Singapore) Lee Kuan Yew - he said he would keep going but then the forces of nature had other plans. Then again, I'm relatively young compared to him (Lee is 90)," he quips.

Karpal has high hopes his legacy will live on and his children will help realise his dream for racial equality in the country.

In the book, he stresses that although the DAP and PAS are now political partners - a far cry from their early relationship - Malaysia will never be turned into an Islamic state headed by an Islamic government. Not on his watch, he maintains.

"Yes, I won't be around forever but I have children and grandchildren whom I'm grooming to take over."

Love him or hate him, the Tiger is roaring louder than ever.