IF I told you that a word that you regularly use to describe me is derogatory to me, would you stop using that word, or would you continue because you have “always” used that word to describe people who look like me? ?
I ask because words evolve and most of the time people understand evolution and change their vocabulary accordingly.
For old fools like me who grew up in the last century, you could have told me in the 1970s how gay you were and I would have perfectly understood that you meant you were happy. Yet if you said that today, it would mean something different, right?
The word and the world have changed, haven’t they? You have also changed the way you use this word.
However, for some reason, it seems difficult for some Malaysians to change their ways when it comes to using the following words: keling, keling kuai.
We Indians have heard these words used to derisively describe ourselves for many years by our fellow Malaysians.
This time the K word was used in a Facebook post by user Burhan Che Rahim to denigrate young Malaysian badminton player Kisona Selvaduray, 23, who is preparing for the Paris Olympics in 2024, after having won gold at the 2019 SEA Games and six World Badminton Federation titles since 2017.
Burhan, who turned out to be Bersatu Pasir Puteh vice-president Borhanuddin Che Rahim, made the comment after World 62nd Kisona lost their Sudirman Cup matches.
Kisona went on to win a bronze medal with a spirited young Malaysian side surpassing their standings and finishing third with South Korea last weekend.
Her father, retired policeman A. Selvaduray, 61, told The Star that the remark not only disparaged his daughter, but the Indian community as well.
“My daughter is both embarrassed and emotionally upset by this remark.
“I hope the police will investigate the individual,” he said.
Selvaduray, who filed a police report yesterday, told the newspaper he was at his home on Saturday when he learned that a Facebook user posted the remark.
Borhanuddin has since resigned as vice president and apologized to “all Malaysians” who were affected.
Many other anti-racists denounced these remarks and several police reports were drawn up.
There was a time when the K word came with less baggage, referring to the Kalinga kingdom, King Chola, the Kapitan of the Indian community of Penang, etc.
Today most Indians take it as an insult, because if you read between the lines you will see in most contexts that it is no longer a neutral word but has taken on a pejorative meaning.
Some people might ask you why are you so sensitive about this, “it’s not like we use the N word on you”.
Inspired by this, Dhinesha Karthigesu, a young Malaysian Indian, took part in an art project last year that attempted to reclaim the word, much like the black community reclaimed the N word in the United States.
He printed a T-shirt with the words: “I am also a Keling” and walked through Kuala Lumpur for “the looks, the displeasure and the bewildered glances at the people”.
He only realized the extent of the negative reaction when his mother saw him in a T-shirt.
In an article he wrote for Vice, he said, “I didn’t fully understand the generational trauma of the word until I saw my mother’s horrified reaction when I got home.
“She was furious. My mom was so angry and upset that the word was even printed on a t-shirt, and more, that I would consider wearing one.
“It’s hard to understand how a word can inflict damage until it’s actually used against you,” he wrote.
There is no doubt about the contemptuous derision of Burhan’s now deleted FB post in which he wrote in Malay: “BAM has snatched this Indian (Keling) from what area to become the main player in Malaysia?”
Despite the K word, the reference to the succession, suggesting a place back, added insult to injury.
Many Indians were brought to Malaysia by the British as indentured laborers to work in fields, where they held low-paid jobs with limited social mobility.
However, rubber plantations were also the driving force behind Malaysia’s economic progress from the early to mid-1900s.
So the Indian community is livid at this remark addressed to the estates, where their ancestors helped to lay the foundation for the economic success of modern Malaysia.
It might take some time for the community and other anti-racist Malaysians to cool down.
Meanwhile, it is clear that most languages offer more polite descriptions of Indians.
For example, Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka recently changed the dictionary definition of “thambi” (strictly speaking, younger brother, but also colloquially used to refer to young Indians) by removing Keling and replacing it with India (from “panggilan untuk Orang Keling yang lebih muda “to” panggilan untuk Orang India yang lebih muda “).
In Cantonese, for example, I learned in the 1970s that the polite way to refer to Indians is to say: ‘Yan Tou Yan’, but some local Cantonese speakers still refuse to use it.
In Mandarin, the polite usage is Indu Ren.
I once had a conversation in a pub with an older Hokkien speaking acquaintance who used to call Indians Keling kuai and after I spoke to her stopped using kuai.
Despite my protests, he is adamant that the K word is OK, because he has always used it and didn’t care if it took on a negative connotation.
So it is to people like him that I am addressing myself, to consider the effect you have by regularly using this once acceptable word.
Please understand that you cannot leave the responsibility of the nearby listener to understand that you did not want to be racist, especially if you are delivering it in a language the listener may not understand, such as Cantonese or Hokkien.
Why not take the advice of the fifth line of the Rukun Negara and just be courteous to your fellow Malaysians by sticking to Indian, Orang India, Yan Tou Yan or Indu Ren?
All we ask is a little respect and understanding as fellow citizens of this beautiful country.
While you are at it, please stop threatening your children to behave by warning them that a nearby random Indian like me is going to kidnap them.
It happened to me recently while I was sitting in a cafe having a drink, so I know it still happens.
There are too many adults who have this irrational fear of Indians programmed into them.
Don’t get me started on the old story that still seems to have some time with some racist parents warning their children that “if you meet an Indian and a snake, kill the Indian first”.
Instead, let’s appreciate together the beautiful tapestry of cultures that is Malaysia and strive to be an example to the world of how people of different backgrounds can live harmoniously together.
We can remember the Sudirman Cup for inspiration from doubles partners Pearly Tan and M. Thinaah.
They fought valiantly for each other, diving for every shuttlecock out of reach, giving it all on the pitch for Malaysia, against opponents who far surpassed them.
This is the kind of semangate that all Malaysians need to stick together, to defeat racists and those who win by dividing us. – October 5, 2021.
* Invictus Ponnudurai reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the author or post and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.