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Buddhist Empires

A Historical Perspective 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 Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) over the inclusion of the word in the official Kamus Dewan Malay dictionary. They claimed the word is a racial slur and derogatory, and found offence with the dictionary's inclusion of examples such as "keling mabuk todi" (to connote one fond of talking nonsense) and "keling karam" (one who talks noisily) in the dictionary.

The word 'keling' may well have been derived from the name of the kingdom of Kalinga (the modern state of Orissa). Nebertheless, it has been used to describe south Indians since early times, and not specifically to inhabitants of Kalinga. The Malay language unfortunately makes a similar mistake with the term 'Bengali', who are of course not really Bengalis at all, but Punjabis.

The first reference to the word 'keling' in the Sejarah Melayu, for example, occurs in the second chapter dealing with the exploits of Raja Chulan, whom the emperor of China is said to refer to as 'Raja Keling'. If this chapter is indeed, as some theorise, a distant memory of the invasion of Rajendra Chola during the Sri Vijaya period (circa 1025 AD), one can surmise that that the 'keling' referred to in the chapter may indeed be the Cholas of south India rather than Kalinga in the east.

Many other references in the Sejarah Melayu refer to more recent events during the Melaka Sultanate period - such as Hang Nadim's visit to 'Benua Keling' - which must refer to India generically, rather than Kalinga in particular, as Kalinga had by then significantly declined as a major power for quite some time, following its destruction by Asoka and later the Moghuls. The Hikayat Hang Tuah also has a whole chapter describing Hang Tuah's voyage to 'Benua Keling'.

The Dutch 'Dagregister' refered to Indian inhabitants of Melaka as 'Clings' or 'Klingers'. More contemporary British colonial writings also refer to the 'Klings' - again, mostly in reference to immigrants from Madras and the Coromandel coast. Nicholas Belfield Dennys' 'A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya' (1894) defined 'Kling' as "a general term for all the people of Hindustan, and for the country itself". Scareboeus is quoted in the 16th September 1887 issue of The
Penang Gazette as stating that "the word Kling is a most interesting one and points to a connection between the Straits and India reaching nearly as far back as the time of Alexander the Great, the only trace of which remains in its continued application to the natives of Southern India." He adds that the word was not only used in the Straits but all over the Dutch and Portuguese possessions in the East Indies.

Isabella Bird's famous travelogue of the Malay Peninsula, ' The Golden Chersonese', written in 1879, described the Klings as natives of southern India. "Among the twelve thousand natives of India who have been attracted to Singapore, and among all the mingled foreign nationalities, the Klings from the Coromandel coast, besides being the most numerous of all next to the Chinese, are the most attractive in appearance, and as there is no check on the immigration of their women, one sees the unveiled Kling beauties in great numbers." Bird's book is illustrated with a drawing of a southern Indian gentleman, captioned as 'a Kling'.

What is important to note, however, is that none of these examples of the use of the word or references to 'kelings' - from the Sejarah Melayu 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 slurs. It was simply a word to describe the people of South India or their descendants in the Peninsula.

I personally would hate to see a word that has come down to us over the centuries and used in the epics of Malay literature to be suddenly struck out of our vocabulary in classic Orwellian 'new-speak' style - just because some people might think it is a quick-fix solution to address racism towards Malaysians of Indian descent. I realize myself that many people do use the word 'keling' in a derogatory manner and I deplore the use of terms such as 'keling mabuk todi' or 'keling karam' - but I doubt if 'India mabuk todi' 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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