Historical references to keling not meant as offense

Sabri Zain, Cambridge & UK

Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

I have been intrigued by recent articles in malaysiakini over the controversy surrounding the use of the word ' keling ' and would like to offer some historical perspective on the issue.

While the word may well have been derived from the name of the kingdom of Kalinga (the modern state of Orissa), 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 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, following its destruction by Asoka and later the Moghuls.

The Hikayat Hang Tuah itself has a whole chapter describing Hang Tuah's voyage to 'Benua Keling'. Portuguese accounts also indicate that the majority of Indian inhabitants and traders in

Melaka were Muslims from the south of the subcontinent, with little mention of people from the Orissa coast.

Furthermore, Orissa did not have a significant Muslim population - Buddhism and Jainism played a much more important role in Oriya culture and society. South India, on the other hand, did have a significant Muslim population.

More contemporary British colonial writings refer to the ' Klings ' - again, mostly in reference to immigrants from Madras and the Coromandel coast, rather than the people of Orissa. Nicholas Belfield Dennys in a '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 September 16, 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.

What is important to note, however, is that none of these references to ' keling ' - 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.

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 theepics of Malay literature be suddenly struck out of our vocabulary in classic Orwellian 'new-speak' style - just because some people might think it is a quick fix 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.