Wednesday, February 1, 2023

I'm not insulted when called a Keling. A scrutiny of the term.

(first published in 2013)

Happy Ponggal to all.

I'm writing this piece after reading through some articles that are found online, describing the origin, usage and sentiment of the supposedly sensitive word 'Keling'. I want to drive the message that, being called a Keling should not be accepted as insulting anymore, if we care to 'educate the idiots' (pun intended) on the history of the term. Whenever someone call me a Keling, I take the initiative to tell them a small story, which I've appended at the end of this article. Read on, find out when and who turned it into a sensitive term.

I'm called Keling? So what?

The word Keling in Malaysian context is seen as derogatory or insulting now. If any non-Indians call another Indian Keling, immediately there will be tense moments among them. I'm intrigued with the way Indians squirm when called Keling, as such I took particular interest to read some articles online to see what, why, where and how the term has evolved from referring to a great kingdom into a racial slur (only in Malaysia). Do click on the links in the article to read further.

The Origin ..
We need to turn our attention to historical and geographical facts to find the origin of the term Keling. Historically, the origin of the term is rooted in the former cultural and economic influence of the Kalinga kingdom over south east Asian kingdoms.Geographically, the area which is now Orrisa is called Kalinga in the ancient times. According to the historical source, Kalinga is mentioned in the Adiparva, Bhismaparva, Sabhaparva, Banaprava of Mahabharata. This place saw a great war between Mauryan empire's Great Ashoka, which resulted in casualty beyond 100,000 between 262-261 BC.

The Usage ..
According to the above sources, its stated that India was then referred to by the Malays as Benua Keling. Furthermore, in the Sejarah Melayu (the Annals of Malay history), written in the 15th century, the term Keling used to refer to India. Long past the end of the Kalinga Kingdom in 1842 CE, derivatives from its name continued to be used as the general name of India in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. "Keling" was and still is in use in these countries as a word for "Indian", though since the 1960s Indians came to consider it offensive. A point to note is, in its early usage, the term was not considered offensive or derogatory by anyone.

The word Keling has long been used to name many items in Malaysia throughout the time. Here are few of them:

  1. Sireh Keling (Piper betel Linn)
  2. Ubi Keling (Ubi Kemili - Stemona tuberose) – Kelantan
  3. Kampung Sungai Keling - Labuan
  4. Kuih Telinga Keling - Johor
  5. Masjid Tanjung Keling - Melaka
  6. Pengkalan Ubi Keling - Terengganu
  7. Cempaka Keling (Michelia Figo/Magnolia Figo/Magnolia fuschata)
  8. Gelama Keling (Johnius amblycephalus)
  9. Gendang Keling Ibu - Kedah
  10. Jambu Keling (Eugenia malaccensis)
  11. Masjid Kapitan Keling, George Town - Pulau Pinang

According to the sources, its also noted that, the change of the word keling as an offensive term can be said started around 1960 / 1963. In the original Cerita Jenaka, which was a collection of stories was prepared for the Malay Literature Series, and first published in 1908. When a new edition of the book was published in the year 1963, the editors have in some instances adjusted the text to modern tastes, for example, by changing orang Keling to orang India. This is where we can see the transformation of the term, used in a derogatory or insulting manner.

The Addition, Definition & 'Misuse' ...
Then came the era of 1960s, where the word Keling is 'coupled' with other words and made into new terms with attached meanings, that skewed towards labeling the Indian community in an insulting manner. See the word being listed in DBP's 'dictionary', note the examples marked in red box:

This is where the word Keling in the so-called poem/puisi turns everything upside down, from being used as identification of a great kingdom or ethnicity, its now used to insult. I'll translate for better understanding.

Orang Keling sembahyang kusami, (Indians pray to God/Goddess)
Bawa dian sepuntung seorang; (bringing a lamp each)
Ibarat ambo rumput di bumi, (like the grass on land)
Pagi petang dipijak orang. (stepped upon every time)

Then there's a 'proverb', claims that workers who are lazy but only wants to eat are termed 'Golok Keling'. More 'proverb' like Keling mabuk todi indicates drunkards:

From here, we can see how a simple term derived from Kalinga kingdom, to word Keling used widely to (proudly) identify people from south east India in Malaysia & Indonesia before, is now 'corrupted' by those who feel its OK to insult others. An article in The Star denotes that, but at some point, the term keling degenerated into a racial slur and took on an offensive edge, with some people even claiming that the word now has an additional connotation – “coarse”, as in coarse in looks and character.

The story that I wanted to tell everyone is, whenever someone calls you a Keling, tell them that you're proud to be a descendant from the great kingdom from India. Well many (dunggus) wouldn't know or accept the history, so tell them this: 1 of the top 3 richest person in Malaysia, the man who funded 1st satellite enabling cellular communication and (quite expensive) cable TV is from Indian origin, another man who enabled everyone to 'balik kampung naik kapal terbang' is from Indian origin, there's another man who's behind world icons like Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, KLCC, KL Sentral etc. is from Indian origin, the list of successful and prosperous Indians in Malaysia goes on. All these so-called Kelings, have employed thousands of non-Kelings in this country, enabling them to have a career, feed their family and live a good life... thus I'm proud of them and all people from the same origin, Keling or not!