A warm, caring, but sometimes searing light went out last month. Increasingly affluent and confident Asia didn’t notice, but the many millions left behind or exploited by the region’s boom probably knew or would eventually feel the resulting pall.
Karpal Singh, a Malaysian lawyer, politician and stalwart defender of the common man, was tragically killed in an April 17 car accident at age 73. Although many outside Malaysia had not heard of him, the Penang-born opposition leader and longtime member of parliament, was a mountain of a man, who never compromised his principles and who put many more famous figures to shame.
He was a figure who rose above generations of Malaysians who, like other Asians, were reputed to be willing, if not wishing, to trade human rights and dignity for more and more ringgit, dollars, yen, baht, won, pesos and renminbi.
But the Lion roared that life, freedom and dignity had no dollar value. And while the public might have snickered publicly at this supposedly impractical idealism, their heart of hearts knew Karpal was right.
Voice of the voiceless
He entered my life two decades ago, when, as Asiaweek magazine’s Malaysia bureau chief, I was reporting about a proposal by some fervent Islamists to whip illegal immigrants, including women.
Karpal fervently opposed the cruel and unjust penalty. He told me then in his wonderfully measured baritone voice: “The infliction of corporal punishment in our age is incongruous. It’s on the principle of an eye for an eye and that’s wrong.”
Of course, it is. We all know that. But few public figures in Malaysia stood up to the religious bigots to say so. Karpal did not hesitate.
As everyone should not, so no one can be singled out for public excoriation, and all would shout as one about what’s right. But most Malaysians didn’t, especially the power brokers keen to court the crowd.
Thank heaven there are heroes like Karpal, whose heart was always in the right place. His was the voice of the little man, the conscience of the nation, and for those who believe, the judgment of God.
Close to the downtrodden
His law office was tucked away in Pudu Raya, one of the oldest, grungiest areas of Kuala Lumpur. Karpal made a point to be near the downtrodden, often desperate souls he spoke and fought for.
The always crowded waiting room inside was like some Kafkaesque vision of the lost and bereft and oppressed, all waiting patiently for Karpal to deliver them from injustice at the hands of the high and mighty.
And he never let them down, never turned anyone away, as I myself discovered when he always agreed to comment on sensitive issues no one else had the courage to talk about.
Once, when I was reporting a particularly volatile story about the King of Malaysia being sued for breach of trust over a land dispute, Karpal not only gave trenchant quotes, but also additional background material.
The resulting article provoked a major outcry, and I was carted off to police headquarters and subjected to a three-hour interrogation. Naturally, it was Karpal who later contacted me and offered succor and assistance.
Death of a repairman
At around the same time, another highly sensitive story came my way. It involved police officers brutally beating a suspect in an attempt to bleed a confession out of him. The suspect, Lee Quat Leong, 42, died.
Said Karpal then: “The police privately tell me that they have to hit suspects or they will not talk. Well, that’s one thing— but to kill them?”
Well, they killed Lee, a healthy married man with two kids, who, as an air-conditioning technician, had done some work at a bank that was later robbed.
Though he had no previous convictions, not even for a traffic offence, he was taken in and questioned without being allowed to see his family or a lawyer.
Two weeks later, a constable visited his wife and told her that Lee had died in his cell. The death certificate said it was due to “internal haemorrhage caused by blunt trauma.”
Karpal invited me to go with him to see the body. It was a gruesome sight.
Lee’s arms and legs, frozen in rigor mortis, were positioned as if he were trying to beat on the coffin lid — or fend off blows. His mouth was twisted in a horrific scream. He had clearly been bludgeoned to death.
Karpal told me: “It is not uncommon in Malaysia. The police beat up people to get a confession. It makes it easier for them to get a conviction.”
Again, I was hauled in for questioning after my story about Lee’s death in custody was published. Again, the authorities were concerned not about state abuse, but about how I learned about it.
Later, thanks to Karpal’s efforts, several constables were convicted of assaulting Lee. But they got minimal sentences, and their senior officers were not punished at all.
Will Asia finally listen to the Lion’s roar?
Today, there will be one less beacon shedding incriminating light on authorities beating suspects to death, whipping women, and committing other unspeakable abuses and atrocities.
The Lion of Malaysia is dead.
Yet it may be that Asians content with decades of dollar-lined darkness may just be lighting torches from the flickers of those few who, like Karpal, would not let the powers that be trample rights and righteousness with impunity.
From Kunming and Kuala Lumpur to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, from Kabul’s unbowed women to Korea’s angry parents, people are shouting and pushing back against oppressors, corruptors and incompetents who thought they could keep getting away with murder or more.
Now that’s progress. And Karpal’s final roar.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)