Karpal Singh, who was killed Thursday in a car accident in Malaysia at age 73, was one of the country's strongest advocates for democracy and an articulate critic its political and legal systems. He was appealing sedition charges for questioning the authority of the Sultan of Perak when he was killed.
Numerous prominent people expressed shock at the legislator’s death including Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who tweeted from a visit to Turkey to express condolences to Karpal’s family. Details of the accident, which occurred at 1:30 a.m., were unclear. Killed with him was his chief assistant. His son was injured. He leaves a wife, Gurmint, five children and four grandchildren.
National chairman for the opposition Democratic Action Party, Karpal was one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, defending a vast array of cases from foreign national drug mules to Anwar Ibrahim in the sodomy case brought by the government against the opposition leader. He was in the courtroom during the long-running trial of two of Najib’s bodyguards in the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, representing the dead woman’s family.
Early in his career, he received a death threat while in a courtroom. When authorities urged him to go out a back door for his own safety, he told them that if he went out the back door then, he would go out the back door for the rest of his life. He went out the front door and continued to do so until his death.
Suave and goateed, seemingly unruffled by numerous actions against him, Karpal had been in a wheelchair since 2005 following another car accident. That didn’t stop him from being in the courtroom and in parliament, where he was an MP, representing a district in Penang. He was universally accessible to journalists, holding regular press conferences.
He was suspended from parliament numerous times for questioning government corruption and political repression. He was ordered to prison under the country’s infamous Internal Security Act in 1987 during Operation Lalang, the notorious roundup of opposition figures ordered by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Karpal remained a favorite target of the government for decades. The sedition charge was brought against him for questioning the Sultan of Perak’s action in removing the state’s opposition chief minister in 2009, which ultimately resulted in Perak’s return to the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition. On Feb. 21, the Kuala Lumpur High Court found him guilty of sedition and fined him RM4,000. That meant he would be disqualified as an MP if he failed to overturn the conviction or get the fine reduced to below RM2,000. The case was on appeal when he died.
“In my 35 years (of political activism), I fought and I will keep fighting,” he said after his conviction. “As an MP, we have to take risks.”
Karpal rose to prominence from humble beginnings. He was born in Penang in 1940 to a Punjabi immigrant herdsman and part-time herdsman. He was said to have met his wife while herding cows. He read law at the University of Singapore, where he began a career of dissent, protesting school policies. He joined the DAP in 1970, one of the few non-Chinese in the party, and was elected to a state seat in the Kedah state assembly in 1974. He took his current seat in parliament in 1978, where he won the nickname of “the Tiger of Jelutong” for his uncompromising stand both in the parliament and in the courtroom. He briefly lost his seat in 1999 although he returned to parliament in the next election, leading the DAP to growing parliamentary margins in 2008 and 2013.
The DAP led the three-party opposition to a 50.27 percent majority vote to 46.75 for the Barisan, although gerrymandering and the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system resulted in a 133-89 seat margin for the government. An increasingly beleaguered government went after both Karpal and Anwar in court cases.