April 23rd, 2014

A matter of principle

No one could stop Karpal Singh from speaking up on what he believed in. He did not care if he was taking on the prime minister or even a sultan. He had taken on all of them.

SOME time in the middle of last year, I received a phone call from Karpal Singh. He offered to appear as a witness in support of me and this newspaper against a suit filed by a senior DAP official.

The veteran politician and lawyer, who saw my career grow from a rookie reporter to the group chief editor, told me not to worry.

The call was most surprising as it was unsolicited, and I had no intention of even fighting the case in court.

It’s an occupational hazard for the chief editor of any media group – he gets to be named as a defendant in many legal suits even though he has no direct hand in the offending story, which would have been written by a reporter and edited by the news editor or other editors.

While the chief editor is expected to take responsibility, it is near impossible for him to be aware of the hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories that appear daily in the newspapers and online portals. In most media groups, the other platforms include radio and television channels.

Karpal felt that the suit was unnecessary and unjustified. But I also didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire involving party rivalry either. If the case had gone to an open court, it would have been most unusual to have two party leaders slugging it out on opposite sides.

Common sense finally prevailed. The suit was withdrawn and the case closed after discussions between the lawyers. But that’s Karpal for you.

He had consistently spoken up against PAS and its objective of setting up an Islamic state and introducing hudud laws.

Not many of his party comrades were prepared to do that, especially before the 2013 general election, as they saw the possibility of Pakatan Rakyat forming the federal government. No one was prepared to put a dampener on Pakatan’s march to Putrajaya.

Both DAP and PKR would not want to make PAS look bad, which was already the line taken by the Barisan Nasional, especially the Chinese-based parties within the coalition.

But no one was going to stop Karpal from speaking up on what he believed in. It was a matter of principle, while others were more interested in political expediency.

Karpal’s concerns may have been right all along. Until last week, he was worried about what PAS was planning to do by wanting to push through a Private Member’s Bill to implement hudud in Kelantan. He had told the media that PAS appeared serious this time.

Those who have criticised Karpal for his non-compromise stand against hudud may have forgotten that in 1991 he had defended Halimatussaadiah Kamaruddin, a general clerk in the Perak State Legal Department, who was sacked for wearing the purdah to work.

She had been wearing the purdah since 1983 but a circular prohibiting women in the civil service from covering their face was issued in 1985.

Karpal had argued that it is the fundamental right of every citizen to profess and practise one’s religion, even in the workplace. The case went all the way to the then Supreme Court, but she lost.

Those who know Karpal would tell you that his principle was simple – he argued for the purdah, but he would also insist that no one has the right to tell others what to wear or not to wear as far as Malaysians are concerned.

In 2002, Karpal was asked to defend four Singaporean Muslims who were banned from wearing the tudung in a Singaporean school. Karpal was prepared to take up the case but the Singaporean government denied him a work visa, and banned him from practising on the island nation.

Karpal was always consistent when it came to fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. He would have stood up against any attempt by any group who uses any form of religious argument to deny others their rights. He wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Beyond his legal work, which included many landmark cases, I have had the privilege of seeing Karpal in action at the Penang State Assembly and Dewan Rakyat, posing problems to his opponents on the government bench.

I saw him being removed from the Penang State Assembly when the debates became intense. In interviews in recent years, he said he considered only two persons worthy of being his opponents – the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, who was Chief Minister of Penang from 1969 to 1990, and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister.

While Karpal frustrated Dr Lim, calling him all sorts of names from “scum” to “liar” to “old fox” at the assembly, which often resulted in the state opposition leader being thrown out, the Gerakan founder was equally good at dealing with him.

As Karpal played to the gallery with his rhetoric, Dr Lim would just close his eyes and smile, seemingly unperturbed by the uproar.

Once, when Karpal pointed out to the Speaker that Dr Lim was sleeping during the debate, Dr Lim opened his eyes, grinned, and closed his eyes again.

As Karpal recalled in the book, Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong, written by Tim Donoghue, when he called Dr Lim “an old fox”, the latter corrected him by retorting “I am not an old fox. I am a very, very, very old fox.”

I remember Dr Lim telling me once, in jest, that Karpal Singh should be remembered as “Kepala Pusing” (Bahasa Malaysia for a big headache, in a play on his name Karpal Singh) for his political antics in the assembly.

The Penang Yang di-Pertua Negeri, Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas, was then the state assemblyman for Bertam and he sat next to Dr Lim by virtue of his then position as the most senior state executive councillor.

Always impeccably dressed, the former headmaster would join Dr Lim in the debate, but there was much class and finesse then. There was no animosity, and even as they jeered Karpal, they did so with smiles on their faces.

But Karpal, like everyone else, was also a mortal. For all the accolades that have been mentioned, Karpal was never known for his constituency work and in 1999, Barisan successfully used it against him and he lost in the elections.

His opponents in the Dewan Rakyat have also accused him of deliberately getting himself suspended so he could attend to his busy court schedule, but that has never been proven.

Veteran journalists have often asked Karpal privately to explain why he had chosen to defend Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges although he himself had purportedly spoken out strongly about the allegations in 1998 at a DAP ceramah.

My interaction with Karpal became less over the years as I took on senior management roles, leading to my appointment as group chief editor and then as managing director and chief executive officer of The Star media group.

But when I bumped into him occasionally at functions or at the airport, he never failed to ask me about my family, especially my daughter who is now sitting for her Bar exams. Family always remained important in his life.

Like many Malaysians, we will miss Karpal. The people saw him as someone they could count on to speak up against any form of injustice.

Karpal did not care if he was taking on the PM or even a Sultan. He had taken on all of them. He was also someone the media could count on to give his party upstarts “a piece of my mind” when he felt they had let power go into their heads.

I have had the privilege of knowing Karpal as a reporter, seeing him up close and personal. It has also been an honour to have Karpal and his family members as fellow Xaverians, a fact that I am mighty proud of.

Farewell, Karpal Singh. WONG CHUN WAI The STAR Home News On the Beat 2014/04/20

A man who loved his country more

I WOKE up to very sad news. The tiger is no longer around.

Karpal Singh was a true Malaysian who loved his country more than himself.

He did not need a title in front of his name to be respected.

All he had was an LLB title behind his name. That was good enough for him and us.

We respected the man for himself and not for the titles.

Confined to the wheelchair after a bad accident, his love for his country did not stop him from serving her. Yet again, in a twist of fate, it was another bad accident that took his life.

One of the last true warriors of the Malaysian political arena, he was indeed a man who saw no boundaries in terms of race, colour or creed.

He was true to his calling. He defended the law, the constitution and the less fortunate against the evil, corrupted and greedy people who are unworthy of being called leaders or politicians.

Thank you, Penang government, for bestowing an honest man the highest honour and respect. God does work in mysterious ways.

Here is a man who is found guilty of sedition, yet honoured with a dignified and most respectedfuneral a man of service can ever receive.

Rest, dear sir. Your roar will not end. Your cubs have grown and will continue your legacy.

You may not appear in our history books but your legacy will be passed on to each and every Malaysian.

You made us proud to be Malaysians and now it is our turn to make you proud.

Sarala Poobalan Kuala Lumpur The STAR Home News Letters 2014/04/19

Karpal – for the true believers

AS I sit here at my home in Penang at 4am on April 17, waiting for my driver to come and pick me up to go to the Ipoh Hospital, I felt numbed by the shocking news relayed to my wife Betty through my sister Hui Ying an hour earlier. I had gone to bed early as I was unwell and was still groggy when the import of her words sunk in.

DAP National Chairman Karpal, who meant so much to us, was gone. A man filled with such vitality, brilliance and energy was no more. A leader who gave forth so much strength, vision and guidance had left. A true friend in our darkest days, whether in the depths of prison cells or the abyss of electoral defeat, had departed. A loving father and an even more loving husband had suddenly passed away in the early hours of this terrible rainy April 17.

As the messages and tweets on the handphone flashed back and forth, scattering my thoughts everywhere, I could not find the words to describe my acute sense of loss. DAP leaders are shaken because it was so sudden and unexpected.

Karpal left before his time when he still had so much to contribute.

I will miss hearing the cheer in Karpal’s voice, the optimism that comes from doing the right thing and the fighting spirit no matter how highly impossible the odds. But I can still hear Karpal’s voice – undaunted and forthright with a deep sense of humanity.

Karpal was one of those rare voices who spoke his mind, respected by friend and foe alike and completely fearless. Even Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had personally told Mrs Karpal when he paid his last respects that “politics aside, Karpal was a great man and very bold”. Indeed Karpal was not afraid to offend anyone no matter how high and mighty, how wealthy or powerful if he felt he was right. And he forgave easily those who could not live up to his exacting standards, but he never forgot.

He was a lawyer’s lawyer upholding the basic tenet that everyone had a right to a fair trial and counsel. That was why he was more than willing to defend former foes who were victims of injustice. Truly, there are no permanent friends nor enemies in politics, only permanent principles.

He reminded me from the time we shared our dormitory in the detention camp in Kamunting in 1987-88 when we were both detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) or in his visits to my dingy Kajang Prison cell in 1998-99 when I was serving time under the Sedition Act, of the importance of distinguishing the true believers from the unreliable ones.

The true believers were the ones who anchored their beliefs simply in terms of right and wrong. The true believers were incorruptible and fought on even when all was lost because it was the right thing to do. They continued the struggle because they had to as human beings, for simply to live and permit such injustice and corruption, was unacceptable.

He never feared defeat. He told me that to lose occasionally is good for you as it puts iron in your soul, where you learn to climb back up quickly. “After all, I lost electoral battles, Kit Siang had lost too and both of us are still here,” he reminded me with a twinkle in his eye. He said defeat is merely a test of your mettle to see how quickly you bounce back.

Even when his body failed him after the 2005 traffic accident outside his house in Penang, he refused to bow out. He did not allow his wheelchair-bound body to still his voice but focused his brilliant legal mind totally on improving the law and righting wrongs.

We had bonded in Kamunting Detention Camp and the years after as only comrades in adversity could. I learnt from him, was guided by his wisdom and refreshed by his iron will and spirit. We shared the same travails, whether persecuted or prosecuted under the ISA detention without trial or Sedition Act. And indeed it only made us stronger and more determined.

He shared his passion for DAP and his open brotherhood with my father Kit Siang as well as his comradeship with Sdr Dr Chen Man Hin, the late Sdr P. Patto and Datuk Chian Heng Kai. His belief and trust in Kit Siang and faith in Sdr Dr Chen was the bedrock which the party pulled itself up and built upon the ashes of defeat.

This trinity of Kit, Karpal and Chen in the DAP would never yield and submit to a corrupt and authoritarian regime. They were all prepared to be broken, as men with honour, who preferred to live by dying on their feet rather than survive on bended knees.

I will miss you, Karpal. I am honoured to be your associate.Malaysians will miss Karpal too and salute a towering Malaysian patriot who made every citizen proud of his country and gave hope to the dispossessed, weak, defenceless, poor and voiceless.

Your greatest legacy is not the honours bestowed by leaders or tributes by famous personalities overseas or locally. What moves us are the tears shed by the many ordinary Malaysians who do not know you and whom you never met, but yet are touched by the sacrifices you have made.

Rest In Peace – you deserve to, after all you have done for the party, nation and people. LIM GUAN ENG Penang The STAR Home Opinion Letters Saturday April 19, 2014 M

Karpal, my hometown hero

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.

Hello there: Karpal shaking hands with a housewife at the Perak Road market in 1989.

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. LIM AI LEE The STAR Home News Nation Sunday April 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM

Dong Zong's ring-a-ding

NATIONAL SCHOOLS: Even if all is not well, the system at least holds that hope of a more integrated Malaysia

NOW the pings are unwittingly coming from Dong Zong (the United Chinese Schools Committees' Association of Malaysia) -- a throbbing signal that should alert all Malaysians about the group's declaration it would start a petition and lodge a complaint with the United Nations should the government insist on implementing the Malaysia Education Blueprint.

The ultra-Chinese education group, according to recent news reports, claimed the government would eventually wipe out Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools or what it described as "mother-tongue learning", and make national schools the first choice of school.

Dead against it, Dong Zong said it would make a report to the world body citing "discrimination", foolishly hoping that by putting a gun to the head like that, it would solve things and make it better for everyone.

This, sadly, will remain the great Malaysian contradiction. The perfect irony. We lament continuously about disharmony, all round mistrust and lack of racial integration and yet we reject the slightest effort towards a common school system.

On one hand we relentlessly push for an end to race-based and religious-based organisations. We loathe the slightest mention of introducing hudud. But on the other hand, insist that Chinese schools must remain in the whole scheme of things. And dubiously claim that it is "mother-tongue education" despite many being raised in dialects other than Mandarin.

Consider this: The Dong Zong discrimination claim came at a time when Chinese independent secondary schools were becoming so popular that they had to conduct special entrance exams to enrol pupils. Even so, they had to turn away thousands because of the limited places. So, that accusation was a little misplaced.

It is understood that at least 2,800 Year 6 school-leavers who had applied for admission to the eight Chinese independent schools in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor were turned away earlier this year due to lack of places.

China Press reported recently that the strong demand forced four Chinese schools in Kuala Lumpur -- Confucian Private Secondary School, Tsun Jin High School, Chong Hwa Independent High School and Kuen Cheng High School -- to have entrance examinations to pick the brightest applicants.

By the end of last month, Kuen Cheng, which had 800 places, had received 1,681 applications; Chung Hwa, with 1,000 places, had 1,500 applications; Tsun Jin (530 places) received 900 applications; and Confucian had 530 applicants vying for its 400 places.

In Klang, Selangor, Hin Hua High School received 1,200 applications for its 500 places. The other three schools in the district -- Guan Hwa High School, Chung Hwa Independent High School and Pin Hua High Shool -- received 1,150 applicants for the 1,115 places.

This is still not taking into account vernacular education in total, including national type schools.

The preference shows how little the regard is for a common school system that is the practice in most if not all countries, particularly among Malaysia's immediate neighbours and is the basis for the much talked about integration. If we continue to have large numbers being schooled under different systems and do nothing about it, we should stop lamenting about Malaysians not living in harmony.

Unfortunately, it is even worse for Tamil schools because, apart from the above argument, it is really a pity that the returns from these institutions are very small. I mean, let us be realistic -- what does a person who finishes Tamil school do? And yet for the sake of politics, we find groups demanding "rights" for such schools.

Again, the same for pure religious schools producing ustaz who have no qualms condemning others not aligned to their "edicts". Like the ones mentioned above, they should not be in the mainstream if they defeat the whole purpose of promoting national integration through education.

On this, a glimpse of the concern among Malaysians came through elder statesman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his latest blog posting on the arrest of veteran thinker Dr Kassim Ahmad.

He said: "Those given the responsibility on Islam in the country are seen as if they prefer the sunnah (practices of the Prophet) to be placed higher than the commandments of God in the Quran.

"Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Islam is a moderate and considerate religion, a religion of fair advice. If it becomes a cruel and brutal religion and places priority in its mazhab (schools of law) more than the Quran in reverence to the teachings of certain leaders, then Muslims will be divided."

What we have now is a very divided arrangement for our children. They do not mingle. The bottom line, therefore, is a common school system, which in our case are the national schools.

Even if all is not well with national schools -- like deteriorating English proficiency among teachers and damning reports from international bodies -- the system at least holds that hope of a more integrated Malaysia.

Now, the task is to plug all the weaknesses. A big task that requires more than just a master plan not too long ago and a blueprint now.

Syed Nadzri | syednadzri@gmail.com NST Opinion Columnist 22 April 2014