Unless a wheat grain falls – Karpal Singh’s legacy will yield a rich harvest

Tens of thousands of Malaysians gathered to bid farewell to the Tiger of Jelutong on the holiest day of the Christian calendar.

Apr 24, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
Tens of thousands of Malaysians gathered to bid farewell to the Tiger of Jelutong on the holiest day of the Christian calendar.

At the Easter Vigil Mass the night before in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Bishop Sebastian Francis mentioned those who perished in MH370 — and Karpal Singh — in the prayers.

The passing is a huge loss to the nation, and one felt acutely by the people. “Karpal Singh! Karpal Singh!” the crowd chanted as the hearse slowly tried to wade its way past the sea of humanity gathered on the streets. The anguished sorrow was odd given that most of the people there had never known him personally - and yet it was no less genuine and heartfelt.

Penang, or maybe even the nation, has never seen anything quite like it in recent times. You would have to go far back in Malaysian history to witness this kind of outpouring of sorrow over the loss of a people’s champion. Perhaps the nearest parallel would be the passing of D R Seenivasagam of Ipoh (1925-1969) or Sybil Karthigasu of Papan (1899-1948), the funeral processions of both drawing about a hundred thousand to the streets.

Many of us have spent the last few decades with the name Karpal Singh never far from our minds. I first heard of him when he defended a young lad who faced the death penalty for firearms possessions. (The boy’s life was eventually spared.)

On a personal note, when people like Karpal and Rogers were detained, I felt the injustice most acutely. How could these people who were championing the cause of justice and the rights of the poor possibly be a security threat?

Karpal fought for the rights of those that society had given up hope on, especially those in criminal cases who faced long periods of incarceration or even the gallows. He took on many of these cases on a pro bono basis, recalls former Penang Bar Committee chairman C V Prabhakaran.

Indeed, Karpal was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. “When Malaysia eventually abolishes the death penalty, much of the credit will have to be given to the courageous work of Karpal Singh,” said International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) president Karim Lahidji.

His early values seemed to be imbued in a La Sallian environment, especially the concern for “the last, the lost and the least”. Said one IJ sister: “I am sure Karpal absorbed the La Sallian values in his formative years.”

Indeed, La Salle Brothers Malaysia director Br Anthony Rogers, fsc said as much: “Karpal has been a very important part of the history and memory of St. Xavier’s Institution Penang right from the days of his early education here and he continued to live fearlessly our common Lasallian values and ethos.”

We believe that “those who educate many unto justice and goodness shall shine as stars for all eternity”, added Rogers who spent 10 months together with Karpal in the Kamunting Detention Centre after falling into the 1987 Operation Lalang dragnet during the Mahathir administration.

“Karpal never forgot his roots,” said SXI Board of Governors chairman Dr Francis Loh, recalling Karpal’s repeated visits to his Alma Mater on important milestones for SXI and the La Salle schools.

How fitting then that Karpal received a funeral with state honours barely 200 metres from the site of his cherished Alma Mater, St Xavier’s Institution. Rogers, La Salle and SXI Board of Governors representatives were among those who walked from the school to Dewan Sri Pinang to pay their respects.

A sombre mood fell upon the gathered crowd saying their last farewell, many shedding uncontrollable tears. The sense of loss felt was even more acute with Karpal being the third of a trio (the other two being Irene Fernandez and Bernard Khoo) of passionate fighters against injustice who had passed on.

There’s another angle. The tragedy has provided a glimpse into the significant behind-the-scenes role often played by unheralded migrant workers in Malaysia. We think of the sacrifice of Michael Cornelius to be at Karpal’s side at all hours. He leaves behind a wife and two children in India. We think of the Indonesian domestic worker who was seriously injured, apparently with a brain haemorrhage. These two played important supporting roles in making Karpal’s public life in the latter years possible. No doubt, Karpal’s family will see to their families’ welfare.

The tragic deaths of migrant workers in the course of their work, especially in the construction industry, often go unnoticed — most recently a case in Penang when a worker fell to his death at a construction site. We need to ensure that their families are provided for. Karpal paid a heavy price in his lifetime but persisted stoically. When he was convicted and fined for sedition and faced with the possibility of losing his parliamentary seat, the immediate — and prophetic —response of the Tiger was: “The fight goes on. You knock out one Karpal Singh, a hundred Karpal Singhs will rise.”

These words have been widely repeated by Malaysians and as the chant of “Karpal Singh” reverberated on the streets of George Town, the verse of scripture in John Chapter 12:24 came to mind once again: “In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.”

This verse is closely associated with the Easter message of New Life and so, how appropriate it was that the Tiger of Jelutong received a rousing hero’s farewell on Easter Sunday morning.

I looked around at the crowd and I could sense a determination that they would not allow Karpal’s pursuit of justice to remain as unfinished business. They appeared to be silently vowing to step up and do their bit to ensure the legacy lives on.

From the ranks of the St Xavier‘s school band that performed to the boy scouts who marched on the streets to the dozens of college students who turned up to pay their respects, a hundred, nay, a thousand more will rise up to pursue the cause of justice that Karpal so valiantly and gallantly strived for. The Spirit of justice and truth and freedom — which Karpal seemed to be abundantly infused with —will live on.

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