Updated on March 29th 2021:
With reference to the recurrent controversies around the use of the term ‘keling’, and with particular reference to the recent Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) inclusion of the word “keling” in its definition of “tambi,“ there is no need for hysterical reaction from Indians about the presence of the word Keling in the Malay lexicon and publications in the Malay Language. After all if Indians think about it carefully, ‘thambi’ itself is problematic, as it can reflect status, class and cast when used to refer to adults. In fact it is far more troubling that we use the word ‘pariah‘ as a put-down in English as well as in Malay with scant criticism. However, it reveals an extremely poor standard of scholarship and professionalism on the part of the DBP that they have used the term ‘keling’ as an index for ‘Indian’ in the contemporary setting. Yes, this failure to recognize that the main contemporary usage of of the term is to put Indians down, might even reflect a systemic (unconscious) racism in the esteemed authority in whose care we have put the future of the Malay Language.
Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently (oct 15 2019) on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’
The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with the cake’s colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled at me in and nodded in awkward acknowledgement.
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