The word “keling” or “kling” is a term that is widely used in Southeast Asian countries — mainly Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia — to describe any Indian living there. The word is and has always been used to degrade them, and make them feel like outcasts. It has come to the point where I could simply utter it in front of my family members and have them yell at me to keep quiet. After seeing everyone’s reaction to this word, I did some research on the history behind the k-slur.
There are several theories on how this word was even invented; among the most common and logical ones are that it was derived from the name of the Hindu-Buddhist Kalingga kingdom that’s one of the oldest in Indonesian history, or the Kalinga Kingdom, which are now the Indian states of Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh. While it does make a lot of sense that the word originated from there, it is clear that it took on a dehumanising connotation in later years.
According to an article from World of Buzz, it is said that the word Keling was not initially used in a degrading manner. What was particularly interesting is that idea that “kling” was simply used as a term of reference and did not have a negative meaning behind it. However, in letters to the editor from 1941, the word “kling” has been equated to the “N-word” — an unspeakable racist term used against Black people. In arguing that the N-word has been “killed” (meaning that it should no longer be used), they pleaded that “kling” should also be a dead word for similar reasons.
Moreover, many Indians from the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Tamil Nadu were enslaved as coolies by British colonisers in the 1820s and shipped all around the world, primarily to the Carribean and Southeast Asia. Even if the K-word was used by the British simply to refer to Indians, the fact that they had probably called Indian coolies or slaves that word, and the fact that people wanted to have the word “killed and buried” just like the N-word, makes it clear that it has a dark history.
Even if the word didn’t have any dark history behind it, it is still a slur, and is still used to make Indians and Tamils in Southeast Asia feel like outcasts when compared to their friends. Just don’t say it if you can’t reclaim it (and some are trying to do just that). If the word “kling” wasn’t killed then, let us kill it now!
I’ve had so many people (especially online) bravely call me a keling and offer excuses for it, mainly by saying that they’re only calling me that in a “friendly way.” I like to tell them that whether the intention was good or bad, using a slur on someone is always racist. I’ve had other people also ask me if “keling” is the “N-word for indians,” an unquestioning anti-black sentiment in my opinion. Slurs and oppression should never be compared because different races have vastly different experiences. Indians and Tamils did not experience the same kind of oppression as African-Americans or Black people, and Black people didn’t experience the same things as Indians and Tamils. Comparing the struggles of different races is not right. The K-word is a slur. So is the N-word. That’s all there is to it.
Although the Indian-Tamil community in Southeast Asia can’t stop every single person from using the K-word, I can only hope that people recognise their racial privileges in their respective countries and work towards keeping this word out of their vocabulary. It’s really not that difficult to simply not say a word. It would also help if the younger generation could educate their family members when seeing anti-Tamil or anti-Indian racism among their families. Although some may argue that using slurs is “not THAT racist,” it is small micro-aggressions like these that lead to much bigger problems. In Malaysia, police brutality is prevalent and Malaysian-Indians are disproportionately affected by it. There have been instances in Parliament itself where Malay politicians have been blatantly racist to Indians. In Singapore, systemic racism against the Indian or Tamil community exists. Tamil students are expected to learn their mother tongue but barely have any resources to do so. It is also harder for minorities in Singapore to get jobs or houses when compared to Chinese-Singaporeans. Moreover, there are numerous instances of migrant workers in Singapore being mistreated.
Recently, there has been a spike in the number of migrant workers who have died by suicide because of how bad their living conditions were.
Issues like these can only be stopped when the people who are racially privileged listen to their fellow South Asians and work to deconstruct their racial prejudice towards them. Only then can they start showing more empathy towards Indians and Tamils, and attempt to eradicate a degrading and dehumanising slur.
Views expressed are the author's own.
The author of the piece is a 15-year-old of Tamil descent living in Singapore.