KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 — The country knew Karpal Singh best as the fiery opposition lawmaker who earned himself the moniker of “Tiger of Jelutong”.
But for the legal fraternity, Karpal was also a criminal lawyer who never took vacations, did not carry a smartphone, and could rattle off cases and laws off the top of his head even at the advanced age of 73, before he died in a car crash this morning.
Lim Chi Chau, a lawyer who worked in Karpal’s firm here for the past six years, recalled that his former boss worked seven days a week and would go to the office on weekends just to read case law.
“He’s like the encyclopaedia of law,” Lim told The Malay Mail Online in a phone interview today.
“We worked long hours until late at night, but most of us enjoyed doing work with him. It’s a pleasure working with the best lawyer in town,” he added.
Lim said Karpal did not believe in bribing court officials or the authorities to get “faster assistance”. Nor did he subscribe to defeating his legal opponents on technicalities.
“He was a man who always goes on merits. He doesn’t compromise. He’s the type that will follow the rules,” said Lim.
The lawyer said Karpal mostly handled criminal cases like murder and drug trafficking.
Lim observed that the only times during his six years working with Karpal when the veteran lawyer took some time off, was during outstation work trips to places like Sabah.
“When the case was over, we asked the clients to bring us around. There’s also one time when we went to the Sepang court. Sepang has the F1 circuit. He said, ‘why not have a look?’”
“To him, his life was about politics and law,” Lim said, adding that Karpal had given him the necessary, versatile training before he left to set up his own law firm.
Criminal lawyer Amer Hamzah Arshad spoke of Karpal’s courage in saying that the Perak ruler’s actions in the state’s 2009 constitutional crisis could be questioned in a court of law, an opinion he said was shared by the legal fraternity.
“These are the things that were on the minds of most people and most lawyers, but not every lawyer has the courage to express the views that Karpal had expressed,” Amer Hamzah told The Malay Mail Online.
“Let’s not forget that no one’s above the law. That’s the point that he was trying to convey to the public at large. That’s what we should remember — no one is above the law, not even the royalty. That’s why I said he always acted without fear or favour,” he added.
Last February, the Kuala Lumpur High Court found Karpal, who was also the DAP national chairman and Bukit Gelugor MP, guilty of sedition for saying that the Perak sultan’s decision to remove PAS’ Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin as mentri besar, in favour of Barisan Nasional’s Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir, was open to legal challenge.
Karpal appealed against the conviction and RM4,000 fine, after which the Attorney-General’s Chambers filed a cross-appeal seeking a harsher punishment.
Amer Hamzah said his last assistance to Karpal was helping his legal team prepare points for his mitigation in the sedition case, before the High Court imposed the “high sentence” of the RM4,000 fine, a penalty which would have disqualified Karpal as a federal lawmaker if his appeals failed.
He also described a drug trafficking case which he had worked on with Karpal last year to defend two of the accused, where the charge against his client was dropped, while Karpal had managed to get the prosecution to reduce the charge against his own client to drug possession.
Karpal’s client had escaped a death sentence and was sentenced to nine years’ jail instead with the reduced charge.
Amer Hamzah said Karpal was against the death penalty, a punishment he believed to be “cruel and inhumane”.
He also described Karpal as a lawyer who projected a “certain aura” in court that could be intimidating, despite sitting in a wheelchair, one who went straight to the point in cross-examinations, a “no nonsense” kind of lawyer.
Yet, despite the over four decades of experience as a lawyer, Karpal had continued to make himself available to his juniors.
“If you’re a first-year lawyer and you approach him, he’ll definitely talk to you,” Amer Hamzah said.
“Though he’s gone, his legacy lives on forever. And we, members of the Malaysian Bar, will continue the good fight for justice which you had fought for during your lifetime,” he added.
A deputy public prosecutor, who did not want to be named, said Karpal was famous for asking only a few questions during a trial.
“He cross-examined our witness approximately 10 questions in the whole case, one drug-trafficking case, and his question would be ‘Saya katakan cerita kamu reka’ (I say that you are making up stories), and ‘Saya katakan cerita tak betul’ (I say that your story is not true). He lost the case in High Court, but won it on appeal to the Court of Appeal. He won on point of law,” the DPP told The Malay Mail Online.
Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mohd Noor Abdullah, who once presided over a case where Karpal defended DAP’s Lim Guan Eng at the Malacca High Court, said Karpal was polite and respectful to the Bench.
“He respected me for my integrity, independence and impartiality on the Bench, as he once said when he criticised me for saying the Chinese betrayed the Umno-MCA solidarity. That much did I respect him too in court, but I criticised him in politics for relentlessly championing racial disunity and disintegration, which sadly, he paid for it recently,” the ex-judge told The Malay Mail Online.
Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar, called Karpal a “giant in the legal fraternity”.
“He was both feared and respected as a lawyer,” Leong told The Malay Mail Online.
“Karpal was also a vocal defender of the Federal Constitution against those who seek to undermine, subvert, misconstrue, or change its fundamental provisions and structure. His defence of the constitution was in respect of civil liberties, independent judiciary and freedom of religion. In particular, against the attempts to change the original and fundamental secular structure of the constitution. The Malaysian Bar conveys its deepest condolences to Karpal’s family,” he added.
Karpal has always insisted that Malaysia is a secular state and hence, has no room for hudud law, an Islamic criminal justice system.