DAP chairman Karpal Singh has been wheelchair-bound since an auto accident last January. During his hospitalisation, he and his family downplayed the severity of his injuries. For the first time, he tells CHIN MUI YOON how he survived the ordeal and how he is coping with life as a disabled person.
PARLIAMENT is in full swing and veteran opposition MP Karpal Singh is in his element.
“You are not brave enough to allow me to speak!” he accuses Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad when he is denied the chance to question the Home Affairs Minister on the issue of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state.
That’s typical Karpal. Throughout his 36-year legal and political career, the 66-year-old DAP stalwart has been booed, cursed, ridiculed, threatened, fined, suspended and jailed. So taking on a government minister – even from a wheelchair – is just another day’s work for a man “all out to oppose”.
Publicly, the man whose admirers call the Tiger of Jelutong for his astonishing fifth electoral win in the Penang constitutency, remains as sharp and formidable as ever. But privately, he is struggling to regain his health and the full use of all his limbs since his accident in January 2005.
“I am fighting an internal battle that people don’t see and which I can’t express,” he says. “Life is so different now. I can’t stand to address the court or Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. I need assistance even to scratch my forehead. It’s a terrible thought when you can’t do simple things that were once so normal.”
I meet the legendary lawyer at his office located in an old part of Pudu in Kuala Lumpur, tucked amidst colonial houses, backpackers’ inns, mamak restaurants and Sikh and Hindu temples.
A dozen people cram inside the little office with tired faces, dusty slippers and stained shirts as tattered as the threadbare carpet.
Framed plaques from clients decorate the walls. One proclaims “Karpal is an institution by himself”; another is a pair of preserved lobsters from a grateful client of case CV6088/99.
Never mind their lawyer is wheelchair-bound, these people still want Karpal Singh to take up their cases.
Work has become therapy for Karpal. When the mind is occupied, you forget your troubles, he says. He returns even on weekends to prepare cases for his lawyer sons.
“I’ve never been the sort who enjoyed golf and things like that; my hobby is reading law journals. But before the accident, I was on the move all the time and could be in several states in one day. Suddenly, I can’t even move. Helplessness overwhelms me sometimes. Still, I can’t fall into Depression, which is difficult to get out of. I keep telling myself to get on with life. My family’s support had been necessary to keep me going.”
A fateful decision
The accident that has crippled him should not have happened if he had not changed his routine. Karpal regularly flew from KL to Alor Star where his eldest son, Jagdeep, who runs his legal office there, would pick him up at the airport and drive him home to Penang.
But on Jan 28, 2005, Karpal changed plans. He didn’t want to trouble Jagdeep, opting instead to catch the last flight out of KLIA directly to Bayan Lepas. Neither did he want his Penang driver to stay awake just to drive him home from the airport.
Before his accident, Karpal was always on the move, promoting one campaign or another.
“So I took a taxi home,” Karpal recalls. “I always sit in front with the driver to chat. Somehow this time, I sat at the back.”
The taxi stopped in front of Karpal’s home in Jalan Utama and signalled to turn right into the driveway. Suddenly a car rammed into the taxi from behind and violently flung Karpal about inside the car.
“What have I done, I hit the Tiger of Jelutong!” bank manager Lau Yee Fuat had reportedly cried out upon seeing who was in the taxi. (Lau was later charged under the Road Transport Act 1987 for reckless driving).
“I felt an excruciating pain in my neck and down my back; I knew it was a spinal injury,” says Karpal. “I told the driver to get my wife. Gurmit rushed out to the car. I told her I had hurt my back.”
Scans at the hospital revealed a severe contusion to Karpal’s Thoracic Vertebrae as a result of whiplash to his spinal cord which often occurs in such accidents.
Painkillers were administered and Karpal was unconscious for days. When he woke up, doctors told him that for him to walk again, it would be “a very slow process.”
While Karpal is not paralysed, his nerves and tissues in the spine have been damaged, causing sensory Impairment and reduced Motor strength. Immediately after the crash, he lost all sensation of his body.
Ram Singh making sure his father is in position in the Dewan Rakyat. Karpal’s place in the front row of the Opposition box was moved to the back to accommodate his wheelchair.
But he has since regained sensation and can feel his toes and fingers. He can move his legs and “walk” on water during hydrotherapy and stand for short moments. However, his mobility remains badly affected. He requires rigorous physiotherapy and hydrotherapy to continue his recovery.
“My life was changed, just like that – all because of a decision I made,” says Karpal quietly. “I kept asking myself: What if I had taken an earlier flight instead?
“Yet, once it’s fated, somehow or rather, we would still arrive at these points. In just a moment, my life and future was altered.”
An internal battle
Throughout 2005, Karpal was in and out of several hospitals in Penang and Singapore and had one major operation.
Since January this year, he has been undergoing physiotherapy two hours daily and hydrotherapy on weekends.
Karpal’s mobility needs were swiftly handled. His bedroom was relocated from the lowest floor to the entry level of his three-story split level home in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur.
An electronically operated lift was installed in his KL office and a ramp built in his Penang office.
Kiwi writer Tim Donoghue’s biography on Karpal was put off after the DAP’s disastrous loss during the 1999 election. Karpal hopes to have the book out this year.
But accepting and dealing with the devastating loss of his bodily functions took longer. It was not until February this year that Karpal regained a little movement in his arms.
“I was surprised when I tried to hold a pen to sign a piece of paper and I found that I could. Not only that, my signature was the same as before!” he says.
That is significant progress considering he is unable to raise his arms more than a few centimetres.
Unfortunately most courts remain inaccessible although the new buildings in Putrajaya are disabled-friendly. Parliament installed a ramp for Karpal when he returned on June 27 last year, just before his 65th birthday.
A place was made for him in the back row beside Batu Gajah MP Fong Po Kuan in the Opposition block as the aisle leading to his usual front row seat beside Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang is too narrow for his wheelchair.
But not everyone is so noble when a political opponent is down. On June 28 this year, Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin (BN-Kinabatangan) drew flak when he told Karpal to “Shut up and sit down. You are lucky you are only in a wheelchair and did not die. Even in a wheelchair you want to create trouble in here.”
Karpal retorted by requesting for “this animal” to be taken out.
Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk M. Kayveas also couldn’t resist taking a jibe at Karpal on the same day by saying “You are now in a wheelchair. Later, no one will know what your condition will be.”
“There are always people who are insensitive, we just have to take it,” says Karpal. “There is nothing you can do about it. We cannot be discouraged, as that’s exactly what our enemies would want.
“Yes, I am more humbled now. Once you are in this situation, you realise how little the disabled have in this country. Governments in many countries make lots of allowances to include them in society.
“We haven’t reached that stage. I will do what I can to make sure the disabled are given all opportunities in line with other countries.”
Does it mean we will see the Tiger back for the next elections in 2007 or 2008?
“Yes! I hope to, even if I am still in my wheelchair,” Karpal readily replies. “After all, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt directed World War II from his wheelchair. But it depends on the party’s decision. I would like to contest; I’m not that old!
“I tell myself I must walk again. It is possible with physiotherapy but it will be a very slow process. I have to walk. God willing, I will.”
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* Comment #1 (Posted by C P Tew)
Dear YB Karpal,
I met you just now at the thanks giving gathering at Puchong jointly organised by YB Teresa Kok & YB Gobind Singh. I wanted to share my injury which has certain degree of similarity to yours just now but had eventually decided not to do so because you were too busy responding to the huge crowd attending the gathering.
I graduated from The University of Malaya with a Bachelor (Hons) degree in Chemistry in 1990, and have been working as Chemist initially in Singapore then to the position of Operations Manager in Malaysia till October 2007.
I met with a road accident in New Zealand in Nov 2003 with traumatic brain injury. I was in coma for 2 weeks, could not breath then, was taken to the hospital by a helicopter, went through 2 major neurosurgical operations and 2 minor surgical operations, ventilation with tracheostomy and dysphagia with PEG in New Zealand. I was hospitalised for 3 months in 2 hospitals in New Zealand. After the traumatic brain injury, I had a left sided hemiplegia, very weak motor movement of my left upper and lower limbs, and is unable to use my left hand and left leg functionally.
I returned to Malaysia in late Feb 2004, continued with physiotherapy, Chinese medication and Chinese acupuncture since then, with insignificant improvement. In fact, all local and foreign neurosurgeons, neurologists and Chinese physicians including the famous neurosurgeon in Beijing, Professor Ling Fong who treated the Taiwanese traumatic brain injury patient resulted from a train clash in Europe, told me that the chances of the recovery of my injury are very slim, almost to Zero.
4 months ago, a good friend of mine, introduced me to learn a non-religious Qigong called Zhen Qi Yun Xing Wu Bu Gong (Zhen Qi Yun Xing Five-step Meditation). This Qigong was developed by a renown Chinese Physician, Professor Li Shao-Bo, now 100 years old (born in 1907).
Through more than 60 years of scientific and clinical research as well as many case studies, Professor Li Shao-Bo developed the meditation technique of Zhen Qi Yun Xing for the sole purpose of health care and preservation. Zhen Qi Yun Xing Five-step Meditation involves no movement at all, it stresses on focusing your thought, regulates the breathing and the nurture of “zhen qi”. Once sufficient “zhen qi” has been accumulated. It will penetrate all meridians and move freely in the body. In this process, it will stimulate the internal organs and regulate the health condition of a person. Therefore, it will give an individual greater immunity against diseases, delay ageing and achieving excellent health and longevity.
Zhen Qi Yun Xing Five-step Meditation stresses on nurturing “zhen qi” in the body. It is easy to learn and yet it produces remarkable results in a relatively short duration of practice. It has helped curing patients suffering from paralysis,stroke, brain injury, heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, skin diseases, hepatitis B, other liver diseases, etc. One can practise this Qigong through sitting or lying (for patient who is not able to sit), so, it is ideal for stroke patients or disabled patients who have difficulty in motor movement. It can be practised in wheelchair, and in fact in any places, example while watching TV, reading book or newspaper, while waiting for people etc. As a disabled, I am not able to practise Qigong involving movements, and so far, Zhen Qi is the ideal Qigong that I can learn because it involves no movement at all, I believe it is ideal in your case as well as you have difficulty in mobility / transfer.
I stopped receiving physiotherapy, acupunture and medication since I started practising Zhen Qi 4 months ago, however, my disablement reduces gradually, and my health condition improves particularly on the motor movement of my left limbs. My left hand can be raised higher than before learning this Qigong.
In Malaysia, this Qigong is taught by the instructors from Zhen Qi Yun Xing Association Malaysia. Zhen Qi Yun Xing Association Malaysia is a non-profitable association, the instructors are volunteers who have been trained and certified by Professor Li Shao-Bo’s disciples from China. Students have to go through a 12 nights continuous training session (7.30 pm to 10.30 pm each night) inclusive of Saturdays and Sundays to acquire the Zhen Qi Yun Xing Five-step Meditation technique. The fee is RM300.00 per person per session. Normally, the student will sucessfully acquire the technique by the end of the 12-night session, however, should the student not sucessfully acquire the technique by the end of the session, he / she can join the following session with no additional charge. The fee of RM300.00 per person per session is nominal, it is solely meant for expenses like rental for the training venue normally community centres, schools, associations etc, some nominal fund for up-keeping the association and some token for the instructors in assisting their expenses like transport, food and drinks. Introducers are not given any perks, token, allowance or commission as this is like a welfare activity, solely helping the needy, like what DAP does.
As the instructors are volunteers, the training classes of “Zhen Qi” will not be conducted periodically. It will only be conducted when the instructors have the time to do so and with sufficient students to make up a class. However, the Zhen Qi Yun Xing Association Malaysia has always been trying to conduct the training classes regularly as long as the number of student is sufficient.
I have been a very loyal DAP supporter since my school day. I admire the fighting spirits, dedication and persistence of DAP leaders especially those who had been detained under ISA or had been imprisonment, like yourself, Mr. Lim Kit Siang & Mr. Lim Guan Eng etc. I was very upset when Badruddin of BN publicly insulted you that your injury resulted in you being in wheelchair is the punishment from the God.
I sincerely hope that you, as my hero, will take up this Qigong, in an attempt to recover from your injury, of course not 100% guarantee, but to certain extend of recovery is possible. Should you need further assistance on this, please do not hesitate to contact me on +6017 365 7113.
Regards, Tew Chee Ping (Mr.)