Karpal and Kit Siang – two colossi

Someone asked me last week, ‘What did Karpal do for us? What did Lim Kit Siang?’ I blinked. I thought I didn’t hear it right. What did they do? The guy who asked was young. Too young. I attempted an answer and unaccountably slipped into melancholy. I began by saying… These men fought a long-drawn […]

Someone asked me last week, ‘What did Karpal do for us? What did Lim Kit Siang?’ I blinked. I thought I didn’t hear it right. What did they do? The guy who asked was young. Too young.

I attempted an answer and unaccountably slipped into melancholy.

I began by saying…

These men fought a long-drawn out battle against an implacable enemy—entrenched racism. They fought for the rule of law. They argued that the Federal Constitution guaranteed equality.  They demanded that the government of the day provide it for all, unasked. The previous regime did not execute that policy. It defeated it by all sorts of policies.

These policies were difficult to challenge. These two did and often failed. Our national history is littered with examples of the times they had tried, and failed. The Spika-M Craft case. The Merdeka University Case. The UEM Case. I remember them all. Kit Siang and Karpal mounted, led and maintained these monumental objections against the greatest odds. I was in Form 6, a student at the Royal Military College. When military classes broke for lunch, we’d hurry to our barracks, and devour news of these challenges. It was an exciting, frightening, desperate time.

After these defiant spells of protests, Kit Siang and Karpal were arrested. Repeatedly. Lim completed his law degree while in prison. Those take at least 4 years. That is how long he must have been incarcerated. Lim’s wife once remarked that when her husband left home each morning she’d often wonder if he would ever return.

Karpal and his family suffered terrible privations. When Karpal was arrested under the dreaded Internal Security Act, his wife would be told she could visit him. She’d travel all the way from Penang to Kamunting. When she got there, the guards would tell her, Karpal’s been moved here, there or some place else. This went on for long swathes of time. I can’t imagine how the family endured it all. When I see Gobind’s or Ramkarpal’s face I recall these things.

These are terrible thing to endure.

These men worked so hard. They stood their ground.  They asked for the rule of law. They were not acting in favour of one race or another. They spoke of a nation for all: a just one. The Government’s propaganda machinery divided the nation into those who loved or demonised them. For over 4 decades Lim was painted as a Chinese racist. Karpal was accused of defending criminals. Once I went to see Karpal at this office.  It is at the rear of the Pudu Hindhu temple. There were more Malay clients waiting there for him than any other ethnic group!

Lat made them the heart of the nation. Lat saw them for who they were. But as ever, he’d poke fun.  One cartoon depicts an oversized Karpal holding a massive coconut grating machine. He gestures to a trembling witness. He’d be asking, ‘I put it to you…,’ or something. An aide would thrust a note to him. It would say:  ‘Pssst. See you at the Parliament canteen. One hour. Kit Siang’.

The greatest heroes in this election were Karpal and Kit Siang.  Karpal’s memory was a free floating Tyche-like apparition.  In Greek mythology, she brought good fortune and hope. Karpal was recalled— and missed— everywhere an opposition flag was raised.

Kit Siang is another story altogether. Only once did Kit Siang stand next to Mahathir on 10 May 2018 when the elections results were being announced. That too to show solidarity. He was absent after that. He did not write. He did not post tweets, as he is wont to. He said nothing to draw attention. When cabinet names were announced, he was not to be found. He said nothing. He asked for nothing.

When you see Kit Siang next, go up to him and say, ‘Thank you’. He may not know who you are. He may be too tired to acknowledge you. Doesn’t matter.

It is our grandchildren who will live to enjoy the fruits of Karpal’s and Kit Siang’s struggles. Our descendants would know nothing of them—unless we tell them.  We must become the sentinels of time and memories before someone buries them in an avalanche of lies. We should remind our children what was sacrificed for their joy, and who did.

A sense of wonder, gratitude and melancholy assails me whenever I recall the sufferings of these men.

At the Bar, Karpal was a leviathan. At the Supreme Court, counsel had to wade their way through a throng of lawyers. Karpal would walk in. Sea change. It was like the sun had risen. Everyone would turn towards him. As the Red Sea, the crowd of lawyers, unasked, would open a lane for him. As he passed the lane would close. There’d be a lot of back slapping. One could hear people calling out ‘Good morning Karpal’.  Someone would ask him a question about current goings on. He’d say something witty. There’d be chuckles. You could sense so much adoration and admiration all round. Some would offer their seats. He’d decline. He was a soft spoken colossus. It wasn’t his size. It wasn’t his demeanour. There was an air about him. It spoke of an iron will.

The court would convene. When his turn came, he’d rise. In his usual staccato manner, jabbing a forefinger and middle finger joined, he’d make a short point. He was not one for long speeches. The other side would speak long and hard and cite copious authorities. He’d rise in reply. He’d say, ‘This is a malevolent exercise of executive power, M’Lords. You have the power to intervene’.  Jabbing two fingers in the general direction of the Bench.  He’d say, ‘You should’.

Having made his point, he wouldn’t tarry. He’d be off to another case. He was ever in motion. Yet when you spoke to him, an air of calm settled about him  He imparted a sense of someone who had all the time in the world.

The Bar is full of stories about him: far too many to relate here.

A week before he passed away in a tragic accident, I had a fleeting moment with him. It was at the Federal Court. He was wheel chair bound after a horrid car accident. Of this he’d say in an interview, ‘when you can’t lift a finger to touch your face, it is a terrible thing,’ or words to that effect. This was in the early days of April 2014.  I approached him and without explanation, touched his feet, as a sign of reverence. I often did that to my parents. Or my teachers. As I brought my hands to my forelock, all he said, smiling, was, ‘Appa inneee?’ It was as if he was chiding me for doing something undeserved. He was every bit an egalitarian.

I cannot forget that moment. When GE-14 results were announced, he was the first person I thought of.

When he passed away, a group of us went up to Penang to bid him goodbye. The family was stricken. I remember saying to Gobind: ‘Think not of your father as a man. He is an institution. He lives in our hearts’.

Like millions of rakyat, we were shattered.


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