Joanne Chua‘s touching personal tribute to Karpal Singh and Michael Cornelius.

When I was 12, I told my dad that I wanted to be a lawyer. My dad did not approve of lawyers. He looked at me thoughtfully and said — “If you must be a lawyer, be one like Karpal Singh.”

In 2009, I did an attachment with Karpal Singh & Co. I did not spend much time with Mr Karpal (or ‘Boss’ as we called him) himself because he did almost everything on his own, down to his legal research. He would be in the office till midnight doing legal research in his library. The times I did spend with Boss were when he needed something drafted and he would dictate to me. I savoured those moments, but I never did say much to Boss because I was just too much in awe.

But the greatness of Mr Karpal was such that you only needed to be around him to know just how amazing he was. Every Thursday without fail, two cartons of fresh fruits would be delivered at the firm. Mr Karpal would ask for the fruits to be distributed amongst the members of the firm. In my third week, I commented to his secretary that it was very thoughtful of Mr Karpal to buy fruits for the firm every Thursday. She laughed and told me that the fruits were from a client Mr Karpal defended pro-bono because he could not afford legal fees. The client subsequently got back on his feet and although over a decade has passed since, the two cartons of fruits still arrive every Thursday from the grateful fruit vendor despite Boss’ protests.

The office operated past the usual business hours, as Mr Karpal spent most of his day in court or in Parliament and would only be able to meet his clients late into the night. Most of the staff would have left by then so my company would be Michael. He would hang around the photocopy machine and we would talk about my family in Melaka or his family in India, sometimes the weather when we ran out of things to talk about. It was Michael who taught me how to use photocopy and binding machines (two most underrated skills for a lawyer!).

On my last day at the firm, I approached Mr Karpal to tell him how grateful I was to be with them. He motioned for me to take his hand and I did. He told me, “Girl, I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with you but I’m glad you spent the time here. Please come back and visit us when you can.” I was never more humbled than I was then.

Years later when I bumped into Mr Karpal in court, I was always too shy to make conversation, especially since he was usually surrounded by other lawyers. Instead I would hang around the back to speak to Michael. I always asked him how he and the family were. He would smile and cheerfully tell me stories. Happy ones, always.

After the cremation on Sunday, we headed to the Gurdwara for lunch and I was seated beside Auntie Gurmit’s sister who had just arrived from New Zealand. She asked me how I knew the great man. I told her that I was an attachment student with Mr Karpal and now work with Mr Gobind. She told me, “Then you’re family.”

And that was just how Mr Karpal and his family treated all of us. Like family.

Boss, Michael, words cannot express how I feel now but I hope to at least share how you made me feel then.


Joanne tweets at @tsufae.

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