K is for Kisona 3

In this post I will begin to unpack the meaning, possible meanings rather, of Bersatu Pasir Puteh division vice chairman Borhanuddin Che Rahim statement on social media, made with reference to Kisona Selvaduray, in the context of her recent defeat in the Sudirman Cup semi-final match in Finland. “BAM kutip india (keling) dlm mana lah jd pemain utama Malaysia” or “Which estate did BAM (The Badminton Association of Malaysia) fund this indian (keling) and make her Malaysia’s main player”.

As I noted in the previous post, my instinctive response is the same as that of most Malaysians. Surely, this statement is a racial slur. Still, given the immediate apology and resignation of the perpetrator, I now have some doubts as to the meaning of his text and as to his intention as well. To satisfy myself and to do justice to the accused, I will attempt interrogate the statement in terms of its semiotics in order to determine if indeed the statement is racist and if so, what exactly constitutes its racism. If it is not racist, I will ask if it is, nevertheless, a slur of some sort, and again how it achieves its harm. In doing this, I will unpack the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of this utterance –

BAM kutip india (keling) dlm estate mana lah jd pemain utama Malaysia

  1. I will begin with some definitions. ‘Syntax’, is way in which the words are put together to form the offending phrase, ‘Semantics’ involves the meaning of words used independent of the context and ‘pragmatics’ is the meaning of the statement in relation to the context of its utterance. Pragmatics helps us approach the meaning as intended or implied by the speaker.

  2. The obvious trigger word here is ‘keling’ and while it is clearly used in a derogatory manner as exemplified and evidenced by the infamous ‘Keling Babi” video, the word is deeply complex both in its etymology and in its current usage. It is in fact a mainstay of Malay idiomatic expression (Please see my exhaustive Keling Lexicon). In semantic terms, to define ‘keling’ as having a racist denotation, or even a necessary connotation of racism, would mean denying the benign etymology of the word. At the very least it would mean that the contemporary negative connotations (which one can in fact see even in the older idiomatic expressions of the lexicon), have displaced other more neutral denotations of Indian origins and Indianness.

  3. Further, in this question of usage, there is a clear geographical diversity in the understanding the word. I have come to understand anecdotally, that the word is used freely by Malays in Kelantan, under the impression that it is not a slur and that Indians do not take it as one. I am yet to gain any insight about the Kelate Indian communities position in this matter but I consider my Malay informers astute, sensitive and reliable. If indeed this is the position in Kelantan, the explanation given by Borhanuddin Che Rahim stands corroborated. He states in his apology, “Saya tidak berniat menghina kaum India dengan panggilan tersebut, ia sebaliknya bahasa percakapan di Kelantan yang merujuk kepada orang India”.

  4. There is also syntactical indication that the use of the term might not be as a slur. It is used, not instead of ‘India’ but, as an ancillary to ‘india,’ and it is set within brackets, as if to indicate that it is an adjective modifying the noun. If the word ‘india’ is being explained by the more Kelate appellation of ‘keling’, or if ‘india’ is being qualified – indicating which type of ‘india,’ ‘keling’ or perhaps ‘mamak’, then there arises the possibility that no racial slur arises in the use of the word, at least not from the perspective of intention.

To be continued in the following post …