In Memory: Karpal Singh, True Humanitarian

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This has nothing to do with the Malay Bible. But I can’t help but feel a sense of loss with the passing of colleague at the Bar and friend, Karpal Singh. So, here’s how I remember him.

It must have been around 1985 when I was helping a convict on death row who had become a Christian while in prison. Liew Weng Seng was sentenced to death under the Internal Security Act for possession of a firearm. At the Federal Court, Liew was unrepresented and proceeded to tell the court that he was guilty and did not wish to appeal his death sentence. When court was adjourned, his family tried to pass him a bible but was prevented from doing so by the prison warders. A commotion ensued and made the news the next day. When I read the report, I thought, “Hey, this guy is a Christian and he had just told the court to go ahead to hang him.”

I called the office at Pudu Prison and arranged for an appointment to see Liew. When we met, he confirmed that what the newspapers reported was what happened in court. I listened as he told his story of how he got into crime. It was a pitiful story of a boy growing up in the slums and being influenced by the gangs. Soon he was committing crimes. The law caught up with him. Possession of firearms was a capital offence. Liew was not yet 30 as he faced the gallows. Since his case was over, I offered to write a petition for pardon on his behalf to the King. I would not charge him any fees. It was a favour to a fellow Christian. Liew agreed. Over the next one year, I would visit Liew. As he spoke no English or Malay and as my Chinese was vitually incomprehensible, I always brought along a Chinese pastor with me to encourage and minister to Liew.

One day, Liew’s family called me. They said the prison had called to say that Liew will be hanged in 3 days time. I told them I would do what I can. I called the prison and then the palace to find out what happened to Liew’s petition for pardon. Eventually, I was told that it was rejected and the court had issued a warrant for his execution. I went to see Liew with his family. It saddened me that our friendship over the past year was coming to an end. Liew said that he had made his peace with God and he was not afraid. I asked him if he would consider doing some good with his death by donating his organs. He agreed. Over the next 2 days, I went to the General Hospital to find out the procedure and paperwork for this sort of thing. On the eve of his execution, I came to see Liew one last time and gave him some papers to sign to donate his organs. I bought him a meal from the prison canteen. Then we said goodbye and I told him we will meet again one day.

I arrived home late in the afternoon, went to the backroom of my house and laid down on a bed. I did not want my wife and child to see the tears I shed for Liew. In 12 hours time, Liew will be taken from his cell (at 5.00 am the next day) and be hung by the neck till he was dead.

Suddenly, my wife walked into the room and said, “Karpal Singh is here to see you.”

I went to my front door and saw Karpal Singh and another lawyer, Ngeow Yin Ngee, standing at my front door.

“Are you Liew Weng Seng’s lawyer?” asked Karpal.

“Yes,” I replied.

Karpal then explained that he was the lawyer for 2 convicts who were scheduled to be hanged at the same time with Liew. Karpal’s clients were found guilty of assassinating the Chief Police Officer of Perak. They had waited for him at a traffic junction in Ipoh and shot him to death when he passed by. Karpal said that he had filed a court case raising some legal technicality and had obtained an ex parte stay of execution from Judge Hashim Yeop Sani (ex parte means that the order was given after hearing only one side; later, the Judge would re-hear the case from both sides). When Karpal went to Pudu Prison to serve the order for the stay of execution, he was informed that there was a third man to be executed, Liew.

“Come with me,” Karpal said, “we’ll go to my office and prepare the papers and get a stay of execution for your client as well.”

It must have been about 6.00 pm when we drove back to Kuala Lumpur in Ngeow’s car. We reached Karpal’s office past 7.00 pm. He then started to dictate to his clerk who typed furiously on the typewriter. I gave them Liew’s details. I was still in a daze. All the time, Karpal worked at preparing the papers like a man consumed and trying to beat a deadline. We must have finished the paperwork at about 9.00 pm. It was 8 hours to the execution.

“Let’s go see the Judge,” Karpal said.

The first place we went to was the home of Madam Harwanth Kaur, the Senior Assistant Registrar to Judge Hashim. We bundled her into the car and four of us drove to the home of Judge Hashim in Petaling Jaya. We reached his house at 10.00 pm and Karpal banged on his door. We were let into the Judge’s living room.

“Judge,” said Karpal as he handed the judge a stack of papers, “there is another man due to be hanged tomorrow. Can you give a stay of execution for him as well?”

“The Attorney-General will jump!” sniggered Judge Hashim as he signed an order for the stay of Liew’s execution.

We then left the Judge’s house and drove to the High Court at Kuala Lumpur. It was 11.00 pm when we arrived. The courthouse was in total darkess and tightly shut. We found the security guard and Harwanth ordered him to open the court doors. Four of us went into the registry section of the court house. We were looking for the court seal. The court order although signed by the Judge was no good without the seal of the court imprinted on it. The four of us fanned out to look for the court seal. It was a stroke of good fortune that we found the court seal in a short time. Harwanth sealed the court order and handed it to Karpal. We left the court house but first we had to send Harwanth back home. Her job was done.

When we arrived at the gates of Pudu prison at 12.30 am the next morning, there was a crowd of reporters surrounding the huge metal prison door. Karpal banged on the doors. A warden poked his head out and said, “All of you please stay out. Only Mr Karpal, Mr Ngeow and Mr Lee can come in.”

Karpal duly served the order for a stay of Liew’s execution on the prison director. The next day, the papers reported a sensational last minute rush to save 3 men from the gallows.

Within a week, we were back in Judge Hashim’s court. The Attorney-General, Abu Talib Othman, did jump and he made an application to the Judge to set aside all 3 stay orders. Karpal argued the case with his usual brilliance. I cannot remember the legal point. All I can remember was that it was never argued before. Karpal had no previous court decisions to rely on. It was like going back to school to see Karpal at work and the lesson: “Think outside the box.” At the end of arguments, the Judge set aside the 3 stay orders clearing the way for the men to be executed under a fresh warrant. Karpal appealed to the Federal Court. Again, it was dismissed.

Let me pause awhile. Throughout this time, Karpal did all the work for Liew’s case, paid for all the court expenses and made sure I was always present to take part. He never once talked about payment. It was as if he was meant to do this.

A few months later, warrants of execution were issued again. Judge Hashim had ruled that the High Court could not order a stay of execution. It must be ordered by the Attorney-General who was the chairman of the Pardons Board. Karpal made appeals to the Attorney-General but it fell on deaf ears.

On the eve of the execution, Karpal summoned Ngeow and I to his office. It was about 8.00 pm when we got there. Karpal did a lot of things at night as he would be in court the whole day doing more than one case per day. He suggested we go to see the ambassadors of the European countries to seek their help to persuade the government to delay the executions. Karpal had discounted the US ambassador as the Malaysian government under Dr Mahathir was hostile to the US. However, the government had good ties with the Europeans.

We went to see the German ambassador. He informed us that the European embassies have a system where they would appoint one of the European ambassadors on rotation as a representative to speak to the Malaysian government on behalf of the rest. At that time, the French ambassador was the chairman. So, off we went to the French ambassador’s house. I cannot remember the conversation as it was a long time ago. But the ambassador told us that he was not able to help.

We went back to Karpal’s office at midnight. 5 hours to the execution. Karpal was wracking his brain to think of something. I was exhausted and had almost given up but I hoped that Karpal would again pull something out of his hat. How about this? No, won’t work. How about that? On and on we went. At about 2.00 am, 3 hours to execution, Karpal said that there’s nothing more we could do. He asked us to go home. A few hours later, Liew and the other 2 convicts were dead.

Lawyers can be the most heartless of men. Society had a reason for calling lawyers sharks. Its because we thrive on the misfortunes of others. Most lawyers I met are in it for the money. They have no heart for their clients who they see to be nothing more than a source of income. Karpal was not like that. In my encounter with him over Liew’s case, Karpal demonstrated true humanity and a genuine care for his clients. Whatever their crimes were, he saw them as human beings and felt a sense of responsibility for them over and above the call of duty.

Karpal Singh was a true humanitarian. We will miss him.

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30 thoughts on “In Memory: Karpal Singh, True Humanitarian

  1. TY Ewe

    Thanks for allowing us have this important glimpse into the greatness of the late YB Karpal Singh. Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, he must have been an inspiring soul and left a lasting impression on many that had the privilege to know him…May he rest in peace.

  2. CHONG lee ling (Ms) HONG KONG

    A true and Genuine HERO. Your are absolutely right to say that most lawyers are the most inhumane person who only looks to money when it comes to justice for their clients, I personally have met only one or two such person while i work and stay in HK though the Bar has a system called pro bono where lawyer work for free . I would certainly be privileged to have met him . and i will add that they have also subconsciously restricted themselves by not thinking out of the box because that normally would cost time and money.
    So that makes alot of solicitor stupid as “practice makes perfect.”
    I truly admire and make my greatest respect f or this Hero whom i do not know as i have left Malaysia many years ago. I only hope his departure will leave a very strong message to other lawyers all over the world . They may not have to follow all his every footsteps but at least endeavor to walk a path that has humanity and wisdom .
    Truly inspired by the Honorable Karpal Singh and i am proud that at least Malaysia has this one great Hero after all. May his legend lives on and on in our hearts AND his soul rest in peace with the the great LORD.

  3. Dahlia Lee

    I wonder whether there is anyone still alive who is able to recount the facts as to why Karpal Singh was sent to jail in Pulau Jerejak? This is for posterity sake. I have very little doubt that he was jailed because of his principles and convictions rather than for any real crimes.

  4. Manjula

    Every word I read about Mr. Karpal brings tears to my eyes. I so wish I had known him personally, as I’ve only shared “Good morning”s and exchanged smiles with him, and it was usually him greeting first. What a good soul he was. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. I was at the prison gate that morning All we knew was the lawyers had gotten a stay order but never knew how it was done. As a journalist, I knew the Tiger did a lot of things by thinking outside the box. But the world did not know this. Thank you for sharing with us. He was a great man. His feats and achievements are difficult to emulate. (Can this be reproduced?) Thanks R. Nadeswaran

  6. judy

    This story touch us to the core. It is hard to find a lawyer like Karpal Singh who will go to the extreme to help people unconditionally. Those who have the opportunity to know him are truly blessed, to be able to learn from his humility, kindness and his towering personality. Pray that he is in a better place now.

  7. I always knew that dear Mr Karpal Singh would do his best to help people in trouble regardless of their status.
    Interesting story but we must be able to see the true moral of this episode.
    Had Mr Karpal Singh succeeded in his efforts he would have wittingly or otherwise done great injustice to the victims and their family members. Two of them were convicted murderers.
    It is one thing to save the life(lives) of an innocent person about to be hang and saving the guilty ones from the gallows.
    The latter effort is NOT humanitarian effort.
    Glad that Mr Karpal Singh failed otherwise it would have piled onto his karma.

      • Curious

        Yeah, good intention to save killers’ lives but it may backfire. What if more people are daring to kill knowing that they will not be killed if found guilty?

    • Mala

      Who are we humans to take the life of another? Whatever crime he has committed, death sentence is not the answer – unless you believe in an eye for an eye. The fear of a death sentence does nor increase or reduce crimes. Has it helped to reduce the trafficking in drugs?

  8. ANNIE

    I didnt quite approve when my son did a law degree cos i was under the belief that “lawyers are liars”…but YB Karpal Singh..A grand man in every sense of the word was something else altogether. Malaysia’s great loss.

  9. Tan Yip Meng

    Wow. That was truly inspiring! This is probably a first. Never heard of a lawyer so dedicated, so selfless, so compassionate.
    When comes another?

    One regret: should have met the man himself. Life might have been different.

  10. Sheila Rahman

    Heartfelt thanks for this wonderful insight into the amazing man Mr Karpal was. He walked that extra mile and more — for a stranger and not even a client of his. Bless his kind, caring soul.

  11. Paul

    Wow! It was like reading a John Grisham’s novel. Now we know its not just fiction, after all. It truly happened in the lives of KS. A great lawyer indeed. May his soul rest in peace now.

  12. Chandrika

    Amazing is all I can say. Tq for the revelation. We don t have to be Christians to help one another. We should extend help to all irregardless of his religion and this is what Karpal has shown.

  13. Thiaga

    Karma aside, I’m just amazed at how far a person would go to defend one he barely knows, putting aside his own comfort… and you know it’s not the money. The article says much about you too, Lee.
    Long live the Tiger of Jelutong!

  14. Ronald Ho

    Mr Lee, thank you for this story. It says a lot for Karpal Singh’s character. A much admired man. I am sure God will judge him well.

  15. Richard Teh Eng Sin

    Thank you so much for sharing this episode of a GREAT human being. I had the good fortune of him (Karpal Singh) shaking my hand some 30 over years ago when our path crossed infront of the Penang Chinese Assembly hall. He being a Penang State Assembly man and Member of Parliament and I an ordinary man on the street and a stranger and yet this GREAT SINGH took and shook my hand. Never knew then that it was such a great honour to have shook his hands. May you rest in peace Mr. Karpal and Thank you for all the Great things that you have done for everyone and this country of Malaysia. May you go the Heaven. You are truly a SON OF MALAYSIA.

  16. Pari

    I was truly saddened and shocked when I read about Mr Karpal’s sudden death last week. I had grown up reading about him in the papers and knew him as a politician and lawyer of great courage and integrity. It’s lovely to read all these tributes to him from people who have been fortunate to cross his path. I don’t ever recall shedding tears for a M’sian politician before, but I did last week when the reality of his death sunk in. I hope he is truly resting in peace and may GOD give his family the strength they need to overcome their grief over his sudden loss.

  17. What a compassionate human being was Karpal Singh who went to great lengths to save a total stranger just because he was another human being. He just wanted to save another life though not his client. He was not called. He was not paid. When my son, told me that Karpal Singh had died..I was felt total grief. When I read your experience with Karpal, I say he is rare gem. There will never be another Singh like Karpal Singh. May we learn from Karpal to care, love and help others in need without expecting anything in return!

  18. O.K. Kairali

    What an honour to have so many glowing tributes given to one man who is no more with us! He truly has touched the lives of so many people of all walks of life, fighting for justice and the downtrodden! His shoes will be hard to fill for I wonder if there lives another like him here in Malaysia, as knowledgeable, respected, compassionate, vocal and daring in standing up for justice!! Shock, disbelief and an ache in our hearts was what we experienced when we heard the tragic news! Our hearts go out to the family, especially his dearly beloved wife. You truly are so blessed to have lived with someone so loved and respected by so many of us, who merely knew him through the media! YB Karpalji lives on, for memories can never be wiped away! You are sorely missed by the common man!!

  19. Lee Kar Weng

    Admired KS the day he fought and triumphed inside and outside the Courts and Parliament.
    A truly compassionate lawyer who stands up for the poor and weak.
    The righteous ONE.
    Legendary Malaysian.
    Your deeds remembered.

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