FIVE years ago, in the blink of an eye, life changed for the Lion of Jelutong. A car accident close to midnight on 28Jan 2005 now keeps Karpal Singh confined to a wheelchair and under constant supervision and assistance in order to perform the simplest of tasks.
That incident has not dampened the Bukit Gelugor Member of Parliament’s drive to serve in law and politics. Even so, Karpal, 70, considers his disability worse than detention without trial under the Internal Security Act, which he experienced for two years from 1987 under Operasi Lalang.
At an age and under circumstances where many others would have retreated to live quietly, the DAP national chairperson is still fighting — as an opposition leader, a crusader for justice, and against physical pain, which he tries to ignore by working. The Nut Graph spoke to Karpal at his law firm in Kuala Lumpur on 20 Jan 2010 while he was preparing for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim‘s second sodomy trial which starts on 2 Feb.
TNG: What keeps you going in politics?
Karpal Singh: Making sure that government is held accountable. Once in a while we get into trouble, but that’s the risk we take. For example, I’ve been charged with sedition for saying that the sultan of Perak can be sued. Of course he can be sued. And even if I were wrong, it’s just my opinion. Does that amount to a crime?
During Anwar’s first sodomy trial, I was charged for what I said while discharging my duties in court. It was when urine tests on Anwar found that he had an excessive amount of arsenic in his blood. I made a statement in court that he had been poisoned, and that people in high places were responsible.
(Then prime minister Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) probably thought I was pointing my finger at him, and so I was charged. There was a lot of protest from other Commonwealth countries because you can’t charge a lawyer for what he says in court. That doesn’t mean the lawyer can get away with saying anything, but there are other measures, like bringing lawyers before the legal disciplinary board. As a result of pressure, the charge was withdrawn.
You are 70 this year. Do you see yourself retiring from active politics by a certain age?
I don’t know how many years left I have in me, but I wish to go on for as long as I can. It’s challenging, but I will continue for as long as my mind is active. Body-wise, I have this handicap, but it hasn’t deterred me in any way.
Have you fully come to terms with the accident that has left you paralysed?
It is not easy. It is a terrible thing. You are a prisoner within yourself, unlike being locked behind bars. At least you can walk around in the cell. Here I can’t. I’m stuck. And I have to be minded by someone 24 hours a day. I can’t be left alone, and it’s a terrible thing. Immobility is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. You’re grounded.
How do you deal with it?
I just tell myself that whether I like it or not, I have to take it. To get on with life. I work a lot to keep my mind away from this. But anyway, I’m going to be over 70, and if life is a like a 10-mile relay, I’ve done seven and just have another three more to go before I reach the end. The major part of it is done. It’s okay if I look at it that way. I’m lucky it didn’t happen to me when I was 16. God has been kind to me, that for a major part of my life, I was on my feet.
In an interview in 2006, you spoke about your determination to walk again with the help of physiotherapy. How is that going?
I’m trying my best, but it may not be that easy. If I can walk the last lap, that’d be nice. I do daily physiotherapy. And I’ve got this wheelchair at home with a button that lets me stand up when I press it. That’s very important for blood circulation after sitting the whole day. Every night for at least for two hours, I stand up as I used to and watch TV while standing.
Without physiotherapy, you’re dead. Whenever I go to hospital for physiotherapy, I feel so sad seeing younger people in my condition or worse. If my injury had been higher up my spine, I would be like Superman (actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralysed from the neck down).
With spinal injuries, you are in pain all the time, and I avoid taking painkillers because I don’t want the side-effects. Secondly, I don’t want to become dependent on them. The pain is in my arms, legs and my back. It’s constant. The only way is to somehow get used to it, but it’s not easy. You can get used to other things but not this.
(Sighs) The 29th of January. Had I not been there, even by 30 seconds. On the other hand, had I been sitting in front, I could have been thrown into the windscreen and probably gone on to the road. I was sitting at the back in this old Japanese-made taxi. Some people said, if only you had been in your Mercedes. But I didn’t want to trouble my driver that night. I had been on the last flight that night and I thought if the poor fellow came to get me, he would only go home by 1am. So I thought, why not take a taxi?
What have you learnt from seeing things through a disabled person’s perspective?
It’s terrible, the way you get taunted in Parliament and even in the courts. But I am still lucky. I’m still active in the courts and Parliament. But there are so many others out there who feel hopeless. For them, it’s the end.
It’s different if you are born disabled. You were never able, and therefore you won’t know what it is like to be able. But to become disabled makes you realise, my God, how these people have suffered. You don’t realise what their suffering is until you get into their position.
On Monday, part two: Karpal on the DAP
Read previous Realpolitiker interviews