By Augustine Low
Subhas Anandan and Karpal Singh are today widely considered the foremost criminal lawyers in Singapore and Malaysia. But back when they were fellow law students at the University of Singapore, they hated each other’s guts and almost came to physical blows.
This is among the revelations in a new biography on Karpal – Tiger of Jelutong – written by New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue. It traces the twists and turns of a larger than life character. As a fearless lawyer, human rights activist and longtime MP for Jelutong, Penang, Karpal saved men and women from the gallows, and went toe-to-toe with Mahatir Mohamed, judges, police chiefs and attorney-generals.
The book also provides interesting insights with a Singapore connection.
Karpal enrolled as a law student at the University of Singapore in 1961. He quickly took to the ragging culture and became known as “King Ragger.” As a freshman, Subhas Anandan was incensed with Karpal’s bullying and the two arranged a showdown. But Karpal’s friends overpowered him and tied him up in his room 15 minutes before the fight because he was already in enough trouble with the university authorities.
From the book: “For years Anandan thought Karpal was a coward who had chickened out of a big ragging scrap at the eleventh hour. Later, having been briefed on the reason for the no-show, Anandan asked Karpal to fly to Singapore to represent Singapore Workers’ Party chairman Wong Hong Toy in a contempt of court case. The two reminisced over their crazy student antics.”
Karpal‘s nose for politics was already evident in his student days. Donoghue writes: “Lee Kuan Yew’s hardline political style resulted in problems of academic freedom . . . the university authorities introduced a vetting system whereby students had to prove their suitability to embark upon study courses. Karpal reacted to the requirement by organising a series of demonstrations opposing the vetting process.”
As a result, Karpal was barred from his hostel for two weeks. Living in a garage, he was fed by sympathetic kitchen staff of the hostel.
Karpal might not even have graduated, if not for cajoling and mentoring from Tommy Koh (who became Singapore’s most distinguished diplomat). Karpal failed yet another exam and Koh, then a young lecturer, sat Karpal down and asked: “Look here, Karpal, don’t you want to go home?” He managed to get Karpal to promise to attend lectures and complete assignments in between carrying out student political activities.
Karpal kept his promise and finally graduated after seven long years. He returned home and got called to the bar in Kuala Lumpur.
Although he has notched up many memorable victories in the courts, he still ranks very highly one that he pulled off in Singapore, defending a Malaysian pilot who was flying for the Singapore Air Force.
The pilot, Arthur Cheah, refused to salute the Singapore flag while parading with his military colleagues in 1981. Cheah was soon charged with failing to take care of an official document and for allowing a businessman to obtain photocopies of the minutes of Singapore Air Force meetings held between 23 Oct 1972 and 2 May 1974. Cheah turned to Karpal, the legal eagle who always relishes a big fight.
From the book: “On judgement day in July 1981, Cheah packed a toothbrush and shaving gear and flew down to Singapore, where he expected to be detained at Changi Prison for some time. When he was acquitted on both charges for lack of evidence, Cheah joined Karpal for a drink before they boarded the shuttle flight back to Kuala Lumpur . . . Karpal told his new-found friend how important this case was to him . . . for in winning the case he had squared the ledger with Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the man who indirectly had him banned from his university hostel during his student days on the island republic.”
Karpal has been wheelchair-bound since a traffic accident eight years ago. The maverick 73-year-old remains active in law and politics, even emerging as the kingmaker among the various Malaysian opposition political parties.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.
By Augustine Low