Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh (1940 – 2014)

Johore Bar’s Tribute to Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh

(As published in INFO Johore Bar  – May 2014 Issue)

The Johore Bar records with deep regret and sorrow the passing of an icon and giant of the Malaysian Bar – Karpal Singh on 17 April 2014.

Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) from the University of Singapore. Though Karpal practised mainly at the Courts of Kuala Lumpur and the Northern States, he did display his prowess at the Johore Bar of which he was a member for a number of years.

Born to a humble watchman Ram Singh and his wife, Karpal’s parents, like most Indian parents, wanted him to be a doctor. But young Karpal chose to read law and he did so at the University of Malaya in Singapore. One of his contemporaries, Tun Ling Leong Sik, recently mentioned that Karpal was in the university from 1961 to 1968 and was a cheeky undergrad who took active part in the University Students’ Union and related extracurricular activities. He was not a top student but he turned out to be a top lawyer.

Much has been said about Karpal’s antecedent achievements, and bouquets and compliments have been showered on him these few days. All that has to be written and said has been written and said, and one cannot do better. Karpal’s virtues and strengths have been extolled and the good man has been eulogised in the most superlative and flattering terms, and these can be found in newspapers and periodicals. More will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

In his days at the Johore Bar, Karpal was most endearing, humble and approachable, as well as soft-spoken, polite and cheerful. It is not quite correct to say that he was aloof and ferocious as a tiger. Rather, he was mild-mannered, cool and calm. The ferocity in the man only erupted like the Merapi if someone’s rights were trampled upon or if some poor soul was bullied by the powerful. He gave hope to the defenceless, voice to the voiceless, and succour to the meek and the oppressed. He forsook his fees from the impecunious and for whose human rights he fought for. He did so without detriment to himself or to the laws.

Karpal’s playgrounds were the Courts and the field of national and state politics. He excelled in all spheres. As a true-blue Sikh, he was fearless to a fault. His comrade Lim Guan Eng is quoted to have said: “Karpal was not afraid to offend anybody no matter how high or mighty, how wealthy or powerful if he felt he was right.”

In 2006, when the Johore Bar invited him to attend a post-ethics course dinner and give a talk of his experiences at the Bar, Karpal obliged. His talk was peppered with humour and historical facts and it was not used as an opportunity to sing “How great I am”. Such was the humility of the man who was a towering Malaysian by all accounts and a leader of the Bar. Junior Members of the Bar and pupils in chambers held Karpal in high esteem, and were awed by his tenacity and reputation. But Karpal did not scare the junior Members of the Bar from approaching him. In fact, he beckoned them to impart his knowledge and experience to them. He was easy to approach and steadfast in character.

He was well known by the moniker “Tiger of Jelutong” and that reminds one of the poem by William Blake (1757 – 1827) who wrote:

“Tiger! Tiger! burning bright;

In the forest of the night;

What immortal hand or eye;

Could frame thy fearful symmetry.”

Karpal’s eyes were always bright, open and sharp – to watch out for any transgression on the rights of the common folk. He acted as counsel for peasants and common folk and acted against Kings, Rulers and Governments. He feared none. A tiger true.

It is an ancient belief that man is composed of four elements, ie Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Human perfection is said to have depended upon a well balanced mixture of the aforesaid four elements. Karpal was blessed to have been well balanced in the elements. Shakespeare’s words in Julius Caesar (Act V Sc V) may well be appropriate:

“His Life was gentle

And the elements so mixed in him

That nature might stand up

And say to all the world

This was a man.”

In our strides in the courts of law, we have seen and will continue to see great and learned lawyers making their appearances and their presence felt. But Karpal will remain in our minds as a most outstanding comet in the Malaysian legal firmament. He was, in his own way, dignified, compassionate and humble. It can be said without any compunction that Karpal was indomitable as he was formidable. He did not have to  kowtow to the powers that be for whatever reason, and that was not because of arrogance or pride but because he believed that every man must be given his just dues.

Watching Karpal going in and out of court was learning process in itself. He possessed intellectual humility and was never haughty or arrogant. Like many junior counsel, he entered the courtroom meek, humble and reserved. It can be said that he was free of the sins of pride and vanity. But when Karpal spoke, the judges listened. His advocacy was one of persuasion based on researches into the laws. If judges were puerile and/ or pugnacious, Karpal would, in his own style and manner, correct them. He had the fire in his belly till the end. He had a razor-sharp mind and the law of evidence in his fingertips. His vocabulary was rich and he stormed the courts in his own way. He had a luminous mind and the perspicacious ability to seek out and destroy the credibility of witnesses and evidence to secure a just verdict.

Karpal was a towering Member of the Malaysian Bar. And the Bar honours him. We at the Johore Bar are grateful that he spent a few years here with us to impart some degree of his wealth knowledge and experiences at the Bar. It is plain that Karpal was not a mere journeyman in the profession who sought to receive countenance and profit by it only. He contributed to the development of the profession and the laws. In fact, he was a major contributor to the development of the laws and has lit the paths of lawyers and litigants. Some of his efforts, especially in the realm of the criminal law, are a lantern to our feet. Karpal’s erudition on all aspects of the laws was profound. He had a remarkable and luminous mind, and no case entrusted to him was too trivial. Such was his professionalism.

Karpal attended law conferences and presented papers, for instance at the 13th Commonwealth Law Conference in Melbourne 2003, he presented a paper on “The Death Penalty”. He did so in meetings and conferences nationally and internationally.

On Sunday the 20th day of April 2014, the mortal remains of the great lawyer were consigned to flames following Karpal’s customary and religious rights.

The Johore Bar condoles with the family of the late lawyer Karpal. May we all take some consolation from the words of Kahlil Gibran.

“The Reality of Life is Life itself, whose beginning is not in the womb, and whose ending is not in the grave. For the years that pass are naught but a moment in eternal life; and the world of matter and all in it is but a dream compared to the awakening which we call the terror of Death.”


“The most beautiful things in life is that our souls remain

Hovering over places where we once enjoyed ourselves” – (Kahlil Gibran)

Rest in peace – a thoroughbred lawyer, gentleman and humanitarian who had embedded in his breast, the noble aims of justice and the law. If Karpal retired in the normal fashion via effluxion of timefrom active practice at the Bar, he could have said as the great Lord Denning said, quoting St Paul: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Swami Paramhansa Yogananda said:

“Thy peace and I are one,

Thy joy and I are one,

Thy wisdom and I are one,

Thy love and I are one,

That is why Thou and I are one,

Thou and I were one, and Thou and I will be one evermore.”

And poignant the words of Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

‘I am blessed with celestial peace,

Poise, bliss and pleasure, and all my

Affairs have been perfectly resolved.”



S. Balarajah

Johore Bar


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