On Monday, 30th June 2014, the Gandhi Memorial Trust organised an Homage to honour the life of the late Karpal Singh. This is the text of the speech delivered by Zaid Ibrahim and originally published on his blog.
Many good things have been said about the late Karpal Singh Deo. He was a fearless lawyer and staunch defender of human rights and the rule of law. His commitment to the best traditions of the Bar is exemplary and worthy of emulation by the younger lawyers of Malaysia.
Today I propose to speak about his gargantuan effort as a politician in defending the principles of democratic rule and the sanctity of the Malaysian Parliament, of which he was an elected Member for many years.
It is my belief that, as a Member of Parliament, Karpal’s greatest gift to his country was his unrelenting effort to advance the principle of responsible government. By this I mean that he sought to ensure that our Government would be answerable and responsible to Parliament; and that Parliament, as the highest representative of the people, would address any abuse of power.
Unfortunately for Karpal, his wholehearted devotion to this cause meant that he would be punished repeatedly: he was suspended from Parliament many times because of his tenacious questioning of the Government’s actions.
To this day, the Barisan Nasional Government remains resolutely unwilling to accept the idea of a “loyal Opposition”.
The idea of a “loyal Opposition” is not a new one within the Commonwealth. In fact, it has long flourished and is an integral part of the modern democratic system of government.
Many Opposition leaders in the Commonwealth have gone on to become Heads of Government, and vice versa. And yet this remains an elusive goal for Malaysia.
A loyal Opposition requires that a parliamentary Opposition should question the policies of the Government and criticise any shortcomings in the system—for the good of the country.
A loyal Opposition takes issue with the policies of the incumbent government but maintains committed to the state and the sovereign. Indeed, it is precisely because the Opposition is steadfast in this loyalty that it is motivated to seek only the best policies for the nation.
A loyal Opposition must therefore be able to dissent without fear that it will be accused of treason, just as judges in our highest courts may dissent without incurring the wrath of their colleagues.
A loyal Opposition is fundamentally necessary because no Government is entirely flawless, and no leader perfect—and it is a loyal Opposition that permits the functioning of a true democracy and prevents the temptation towards tyranny.
As a lawyer, Karpal fully understood that the truth could be ascertained through a dialectic. The adverserial approach of our legal system can discover the truth but this is possible only if there is sufficient freedom to examine the question at hand without impediment.
Similarly, if we are to hold our Government accountable for its actions, then that accountability requires that Parliamentarians be free to defy, contradict and criticise the Government at all times.
It is the right—and perhaps even the duty—of every citizen to speak and act in good faith according to his or her conscience; and we cannot subsequently condemn that conscience as treasonous simply because we may find it to be at odds with our views or the views of the Government.
Unfortunately for Karpal, doing what he believed was right resulted in severe penalties against him as an elected lawmaker in a notionally democratic state. On two occasions, his actions were deemed so grave as to warrant suspensions of six months’ duration.
As such, Karpal might not have been fully successful in making the Government accepting of the idea of a loyal Opposition, but he nevertheless sowed the seeds that have helped embolden younger MPs. Today, they continue to question the Government despite the likelihood of suspension or other punishment.
To be sure, Karpal could be abrasive and insulting when he chose to be. I, too, was not spared his sharp tongue during my brief tenure on the Government front bench. But if we want a vibrant democracy, then we must be prepared to be insulted, grilled, called dictators, or to be the subject of wild exaggerations, and much worse.
This is a negligible price to pay when it is balanced against the needs of the people and the nation. To put it concisely: Parliament must be free from any constraint that hampers the growth of democracy.
Dennis Skinner is a well known British Labour Party MP. He is notorious for his unruly conduct in Parliament, his acerbic wit, and for never voluntarily having missed a single session of Parliament.
Skinner has been suspended many times, ranging from a day to several weeks, on account of calling Ministers “crooked” and “liars”, and for accusing the Speaker of bias?amongst other things.
He once called George Osborne a cocaine addict. Osborne was then the Tory Shadow Chancellor and is now the serving Chancellor in Mr David Cameron’s Government. But Skinner was never suspended for long periods as Karpal was, for the House of Commons is tolerant of even the wildest criticisms because it is committed to its democratic traditions.
Compared to Dennis Skinner, Karpal was mild-mannered.
What were his terrible transgressions? In 2004 he insisted that Members of Parliament taking oath should raise their right hands. A particular MP—Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Hussein—had failed to do so. This caused a great stir in the House.
The Parliamentary Rights and Privileges Committee decided that Karpal had misled Parliament and demanded an apology from him, failing which he would be suspended for six months. Karpal stuck to his guns.
In 2008, he was suspended for the same duration again for allegedly violating a Standing Order governing the disclosure of documents before a Select Committee.
These documents concerned a public relations firm, contracted by the Malaysian Government, that was alleged to have provided the Israeli Government a product substantially similar to the one it sold us.
Karpal was a member of the Select Committee that examined these documents—indeed, it was the same Rights and Privileges Committee that he clashed with so often in the past. This time, he was held to have made reference to the documents outside the House, and was suspended for it.
The ultimate punishment for Karpal occurred in March this year, just prior to his tragic death. He was found guilty of sedition and fined four thousand ringgit.
And what was the nature of that sedition? Karpal had allegedly said that the act of a Sultan in removing a Menteri Besar in 2008 was one that could be questioned in a court of law.
How could a man who had served Parliament with such integrity and passion for so many years be guilty of sedition?
Sedition is an archaic law unfit for any country in the 21st century, and it was utterly contemptible that it should have been used against one of the country’s pre-eminent Members of Parliament.
No one who has rendered so much service to the public deserves the humiliation of being called seditious—and this was especially so for Karpal. All he did was to speak according to his conscience and in defence of both the letter and principle of the law.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We did not become a nation in a single day. The Duke of Gloucester may have handed the instrument of Malaya’s independence to Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1957. But all that instrument meant was that we ceased to be a colony.
The Tunku and his generation knew that the task of building a new nation was still to come; and in this task, we would need the aid of those like Karpal Singh who were willing to place the country above themselves.
We need them still. Today, more than ever.
Half a century after independence, we are still working on the basics of democracy in order to preserve the rudiments of it as bequeathed to us by the Tunku and his generation.
The day we can have a government that recognises and respects a loyal Opposition?when Members of Parliament are not penalised or ostracised for diligently discharging their oaths of office—that is the day when democracy will have a chance to bloom.
Karpal has shown us that it will not be easy, and that there is a price we will have to pay. However, I have no doubt that he has inspired many of us to continue with the struggle despite the growing odds.
The Tunku’s dream of a Malaysia in which there is a place for everyone in the sun—this dream is real and achievable, if not in our lifetime then in the distant future