The life and times of Karpal Singh: A fighter to the very end

File photo shows Karpal Singh with DAP leader Lim Kit Siang (right) in 2009. ― Picture by Siow Feng Saw
File photo shows Karpal Singh with DAP leader Lim Kit Siang (right) in 2009. ― Picture by Siow Feng Saw

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 18 — Karpal Singh, the veteran opposition politician, died in a car crash early this morning on the way to a court hearing in Penang, forever defining the DAP chairman as a fighter for just cause to the very end.

Despite his reputation as a political institution, the Bukit Gelugor MP thought of himself as more of a lawyer than a politician, as noted in a media interview during his 70th birthday in 2010.

He was survived by five children, four grandchildren, and Gurmit Kaur, his wife of over 40 years.

Here are some of his defining moments in the Tiger of Jelutong’s illustrious career as a lawyer and statesman:


Following the May 13 riots the year before, Karpal joined DAP citing the party’s multiracial political platform.

He had also started his own law firm after being called to the Penang Bar in 1969.


As a staunch advocate against the death penalty, one of Karpal’s earliest victories was to successfully get a pardon from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for a 14-year-old Chinese boy who had been sentenced to death for possessing a firearm under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

He is alleged to have told the King that the boy’s death would be “politically explosive”.


Karpal won the parliamentary seat of Jelutong, keeping it for five subsequent terms, spanning a  21-year period.

Four years earlier, he had contested for parliamentary and state seats in Kedah. He won the state seat.


In July that year, Karpal defended Australians Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, who were convicted of drug trafficking by the Penang High Court.

Barlow was sentenced to death in 1986, but Karpal still tried to clear his name afterwards.


Karpal criticised the then Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Iskandar of Johor, and filed a suit against the King for allegedly assaulting two men in his royal palace.

He was criticised by Barisan Nasional MPs  but refused to apologise.


Karpal defended New Zealander Lorraine Cohen and her son Aaron, who had been charged for drug trafficking. They were both convicted and sentenced to life, before being pardoned and freed in 1996.

It was during this time that Karpal met New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue, who would later complete his biography. The book, titled “Karpal: Tiger of Jelutong” was released in 2013.

Together with other opposition politicians, Karpal was detained in October under the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial,  for “inciting racial tensions”. He was detained until January 1989.  

He was subsequently named a “prisoner of conscience” by human rights group Amnesty International.


Karpal accused Deputy Speaker D.P. Vijandran of acting in pornographic videotapes, leading the latter to resign in 1990 despite the case being dismissed due to lack of evidence.

In 1992, he would later pass a copy of the alleged videotape in Parliament to unsuspecting Deputy Speaker Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat with a contingency plan that would include burning the evidence in a flameproof briefcase.

Karpal was worried that the videotape may not be accepted as evidence and that he could be charged with possession of pornographic material instead.

The audacious move has been described in his biography by Donoghue as the “biggest bluffs of his political career”.


In a political rally in Sungai Pinang, Karpal was reported to have made the “An Islamic state over my dead body” quote, leading his detractors to brand him as an “anti-Islam”.

Karpal continued to be a staunch critic against implementing Islamic laws and the Islamic state, insisting that Malaysia is a secular country that has no place for either.


Karpal became the lead counsel for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim after the former deputy prime minister was charged with sodomy.

In September, he accused the authorities of poisoning Anwar, which led him to be arrested under the Sedition Act in January 2000, the first against a lawyer in court.

Karpal would return as Anwar’s lead counsel when Anwar was charged for sodomy the second time in 2008.


In February, Karpal and DAP criticised the Singaporean government for banning Muslim female students from wearing headscarves.

He was barred from practising in Singapore and was denied entry to the city-state to represent the students.


Karpal returned to politics after winning the newly-created Bukit Gelugor parliamentary seat, after five years of absence.

He was also elected DAP National Chairman, succeeding Lim Kit Siang.


Karpal was paralysed from waist-down and bound to a wheelchair after a car rammed the taxi he was travelling in.

A number of people, including some of his best friends, were reported to have suggested it would have been better if he had died.


In February, Karpal was charged for sedition a second time for questioning the involvement of the Sultan of Perak in the Perak Constitutional Crisis, saying the Sultan’s move could be questioned in a court of law.


Karpal was suspended from Parliament for six months, along with opposition fellow MPs Anwar, Azmin Ali, and Sivarasa Rasiah.

Karpal Singh was suspended for contempt of parliamentary proceedings for revealing an influential parliamentary committee’s decision on Anwar before it was disclosed in parliament.


In March, The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that Karpal was guilty of sedition for saying that the Sultan of Perak’s involvement in the constitutional crisis in the state in 2009 could be questioned in a court of law. He was fined RM4,000. The ruling put his political career at risk.

In the early hours of April 17, the car Karpal was travelling was involved in an accident with a lorry, killing him and his long-time aide, Michael Cornelius.

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