Civil rights stalwart Karpal Singh dies, but his legacy lives on

FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

Joint Press Release

The death of Karpal Singh marks a huge loss for Malaysia but his courage, determination, and achievements will serve as an inspiration for those who continue to fight for justice and democracy, said FIDH and its member organization Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).

Veteran lawyer, MP, and Chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), Karpal Singh died in a car accident on a highway in Malaysia’s northern State of Perak today. He was 73. His personal assistant, C Michael, was also killed in the crash. Karpal was travelling with C Michael and his son, Ram Singh, from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to attend a court hearing later in the day.

“Karpal Singh will always be remembered as a civil rights champion who stood against the abuses of political and judicial powers,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “Karpal Singh’s legacy will certainly live on. When Malaysia eventually abolishes the death penalty, much of the credit will have to be given to the courageous work of Karpal Singh,” he added.

Born in Penang on 28 June 1940, Karpal was the son of a poor Sikh family. As a youth, he witnessed the naked brutality of public executions by the Japanese during their occupation in Penang. Throughout his life, he rejected unprincipled power and was a staunch opponent of capital punishment. He took up numerous death penalty cases that often involved convictions on drug-related charges.

Karpal joined the opposition Democratic Action Party in 1970. In 1974, he won a seat in the Kedah State Parliament. In 1978, he was elected to the Malaysian Parliament for the constituency of Jelutong in Penang. He held that seat until 1999. In 2004, he returned to Parliament after winning a seat for the Bukit Gelugor constituency in Penang. On several occasions, the government targeted Karpal because of his political activities. In 1987, he was detained without trial for more than 15 months under the draconian Internal Security Act in a crackdown on opposition figures. In February 2014, the Kuala Lumpur High Court found Karpal guilty under the colonial-era Sedition Law as part of the government’s campaign aimed at harassing and silencing key opposition figures Law. He was subsequently fined 4,000 ringgit (US$1,235), a sentence that, if upheld by the Federal Court, would have removed him from office.1

“Today, Malaysia has lost a great son. Karpal Singh was the country’s best known human rights lawyer. He fought in many landmark cases and contributed to many important judicial decisions in defense of human rights. In politics, he spoke fearlessly for justice and steadfastly defended democracy. We mourn the passing of the towering Karpal Singh. The Tiger of Jelutong will be forever remembered,” said SUARAM Executive Director Yap Swee Seng.

In Parliament, Karpal was a vocal critic of the coalition that ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. His aggressive rhetoric and unconventional tactics earned him a suspension from Parliament on several occasions. In court, Karpal relentlessly fought against a legal and judicial system that often failed to ensure adequate protection of fundamental civil and political rights. He also defended secularism and opposed the notion of Malaysia as an Islamic state.

“Karpal Singh was a leading human rights defender in his legal and political work. He was a courageous crusader for the rule of law and civil liberties. Malaysia has lost a hero,” said FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair due to a car accident in 2005, Karpal continued to uncompromisingly pursue his political and legal battles. Karpal represented another opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, during his high-profile first (1998-2004) and second (2008-2014) sodomy trials.

“His nickname as Tiger of Jelutong and later as Tiger of Jelutong are tributes to his fierce defense of liberties during his more than three decades as a member of Parliament. His name will always be associated with that of another opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Karpal’s defense of Anwar on trumped up charges was a legal epic,” said Danthong Breen, Senior Advisor to the FIDH member organization Union for Civil Liberty (UCL), based in Thailand.

“There is an immense feeling of loss among all who have known this great man. Rest great warrior, you have inspired many others to carry on your work,” he added.

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1 Malaysian Constitution stipulates that an MP must be removed from office if fined more than 2,000 ringgit or jailed for a term exceeding one year.

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