on the Word 'Keling'
In 2003, wide controversy erupted in the Malaysian media
over the use of
the word 'keling', with a lawsuit by an Indian Muslim group against the
Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) over the inclusion of the word in the official
Dewan Malay dictionary. They claimed the word is a racial slur and
and found offence with the dictionary's inclusion of examples such as
mabuk todi" (to connote one fond of talking nonsense) and "keling
(one who talks noisily) in the dictionary.
Many other references in the Sejarah Melayu refer to more
events during the Melaka Sultanate period - such as Hang Nadim's visit
'Benua Keling' - which must refer to India generically, rather than
in particular, as Kalinga had by then significantly declined as a major
for quite some time, following its destruction by Asoka and later the
The Hikayat Hang Tuah also has a whole chapter describing Hang Tuah's
to 'Benua Keling'.
Isabella Bird's famous travelogue of the Malay Peninsula, '
Golden Chersonese', written in 1879, described the Klings as natives of
India. "Among the twelve thousand natives of India who have been
to Singapore, and among all the mingled foreign nationalities, the
from the Coromandel coast, besides being the most numerous of all next
the Chinese, are the most attractive in appearance, and as there is no
on the immigration of their women, one sees the unveiled Kling beauties
great numbers." Bird's book is illustrated with a drawing of a southern
gentleman, captioned as 'a Kling'.
What is important to note, however, is that none of these
of the use of the word or references to 'kelings' - from the Sejarah
in the 16th century down to the British travelogues of the 19th century
were in any way used in any derogatory sense or intended as racial
It was simply a word to describe the people of South India or their
in the Peninsula.
I personally would hate to see a word that has come down to us
the centuries and used in the epics of Malay literature to be suddenly
out of our vocabulary in classic Orwellian 'new-speak' style - just
some people might think it is a quick-fix solution to address racism
Malaysians of Indian descent. I realize myself that many people do use
word 'keling' in a derogatory manner and I deplore the use of terms
as 'keling mabuk todi' or 'keling karam' - but I doubt if 'India mabuk
or 'India karam' would be deemed less of a racial slur.
Banning a word is futile if you don't address the racism - institutional or otherwise - behind its derogatory use. And that is by far a more challenging task than striking a word out of our dictionary.
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