With Annaatthe about to be released, a Malaysian politician claims a likeness to the SUPERSTAR! According to Baling MP Abdul Azeez bin Abdul Rahim his Indian constituents call him Padayappa, after Rajnikanth’s character who champions the cause of the poor and downtrodden in the film of the same name. He also took great pride in saying “I speak in fluent Tamil, which shows I not only accept the language but also keep it in high regard.” Sorry lah but I always thought the honorable member of parliament was a Tamil … you know what I mean … in ancestry, like he learnt it at home from Ammamma or more likely Appappa (judging from his proud colour, maybe even from his Appa?)! Anyhow, the point is that this analogy was thrown up in his self-defense after being angrily accused, perhaps unfairly, of insulting the Tamil language by the even more colorful Jelutong MP Sanisvara Nethaji Rayer s/o Rajaji Rayer … and it was all over an elephant! Here is the video!
6. I ended the last post by noting the semantics (etymology and idiomatic usage), syntax (parenthetical punctuation marks) and the pragmatics of its context (the explanation in the apology) of the utterance leaves open the possibility that no racial slur was intended in the use of the word ‘keling.’ There is however more to this utterance that needs to be analyzed. While the focus of attention has been on the K word, there is another word that in my view is more insidiously troublesome, the E word – ‘estate’.
7. Malaysian Indians are of diverse backgrounds, in terms of regions of the subcontinent from which they hail, economic conditions and social status with which they arrived. Many Indians were brought from Tamil Nadu to a then British Malaya as indentured laborers within the colonial economy. As Dr. I Lourdeasamy writes, “The Indian migrants in estates lived under slave-like conditions. The European planters and their staff exploited them economically and socially. Wages were low, working hours long (10-12 hours a day), housing was crowded, sanitation and health facilities were almost non-existent, and their women were molested”. He quotes historian, S Arasaratnam, who writes that the newly recruited ‘estate’ workers were “cleansed with pesticides and docked around their necks with the name of their estates and shipped under the most deplorable conditions”. These Indian Malaysians who contributed their sweat and blood to the very infrastructure that became this nation were then abandoned as the nation achieved independence. Ocer half a century after independence, a sizable number of their descendants remain in the abject condition of stateless in Malaysia.
8. Using the word ‘estate’ as adjective for the noun ‘Indian’ is a denotation of all of this and within the Malaysian milieu, it has connotations of abjection and depravation. Estate Indian can certainly be used in a neutral manner, for instance, in a census, but there is no doubt that it also connotes a lowly status. While I object to this meaning, I have the word used in this both within the Indian community and within the Malaysian community at large. I remember a classmate in primary school who was teased and shunned the non-Indian students for his smell (he used coconut oil in his hair). He was picked on and even physically abused regularly by one of out teachers. Of note is that this teacher happened to also be an Indian. So even without any racial connotation, which it obviously carries as well, the word ‘estate’ carries all the pejorative connotations of a socio-economic slur.
9. To return to the offending statement, “BAM kutip india (keling) dlm estate mana lah jd pemain utama Malaysia,” it is the use of ‘estate’ as an adjective, rather than the ‘Keling’ noun that in pragmatic analysis reveals the strong likelihood of racist intent and meaning. Indeed, ‘Keling’ might be the obvious racial slur but I take more offence from the use of the word ‘estate’ in a derisory manner in the context of this statement about a Malaysian Indian.
10. I would like to suggest that Malaysian Indians take on all of this name calling in their stride (sticks and stones …), as I am sure our champion Kisona will have to do if she wants to keep her eye on the prize, so to speak! Other peoples stupidity and careless racism really is no skin off our black noses! What is more pertinent here, than a shock horror reaction – that the K word is racist, is that all Malaysians, especially Indians, take note of the implications of use of the E word. I am not saying we should not use ‘estate’ because it is derogatory. That would be too brittle or ‘woke’ in the North American sense, to be useful to Malaysians. What I would like to come out from this nasty little BAM episode is a reflection on the contributions of estate Indians to Malaysia, and on the plight of their descendants today. On an intra-communal note, whether or not one is an estate Indian, Malaysian Indians as a whole can be proud to be associated with the word ‘estate’ and even the word ‘keling.’ We should orient the understanding of these words towards the more noble and affirmative connotations that are latent within them.
11. In concluding this post, I would like to qualify my earlier acknowledgement of the rich metaphoric and respectable etymological aspects of the word ‘keling’ by noting that what is most significant about a word when sent as a message (when it is uttered) is its contemporary meaning for the contemporary receiver. The sender should temper their use of problematic words with the reception of their message in mind.
In this post I will begin to unpack the meaning, possible meanings rather, ofBersatu 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”
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.
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.
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”.
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.
The young Malaysian Indian badminton player Kisona Selvaduray, became the victim of an alleged racial slur after her recent defeat in the Sudirman Cup semi-final match in Finland. According to Says Bersatu Pasir Puteh division vice chairman Borhanuddin Che Rahim has apologized and resigned for having made this slur. It is even suggested in Free Malaysia Today that the police will investigate this matter under Section 504 of the Penal Code for the intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of peace and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1988.
As presented in the screen garb on Free Malaysia Today, the Bersatu politician wrote, “BAM kutip india (keling) dlm estate mana lah jd pemain utama Malaysia” or “Which estate did BAM (The Badminton Association of Malaysia) found this indian (keling) and made her Malaysia’s main player”. While I am angered by this statement and its careless, privileged, racial attitude (ketuanan), I nevertheless introduce this post with the equivocation “alleged.” I do so in spite of the apology, out of a genuine concern about casting aspersions of racist intent in a statement without a careful investigation of its syntax, semantics and, particularly, the pragmatics of the utterance. Indeed, as explored in my previous images and writings, the connotation of the term ‘Keling’ varies across history, geography and context. in the following blog posts, I will attempt to unpack and asses Borhanuddin Che Rahim statement which is more complex in semiotic terms than it initially appears to be. For now, please see the following –
In my pervious post titled Deja Vu: Planet of the Apes I discussed the imprint made on my mind by the violent chase scenes in the said film. This impression was revived by the recent border patrol images coming out of Del Rio, Texas. I noted in that post how this is one of two images brought forth in me, the other being that of the “historical injustices suffered by black people in the US..” Upon further reflection, however, I have come to realize that these two images are infact one and the same. Urko and his fellow gorillas are literally black, while the regressed, abject, Yahooesque humans are Caucasian. This seems to be an artistic inversion of the historical image of the American slave patrol and I suggest that it is in this very reversal that the power of these chase scenes lies.
I wonder if the authors of this filmic scenario were conscious (I would like to think they were) of the Slave Patrol predecessor of their image, and further, if they intended a progressive parody or if it was merely a reactionary pastiche. However, regardless of this authorial intent, I am convinced that this recurring image is etched into the American psyche and is sublimated in all that is now referred to as ‘structural’ in that nations institutions.
Writing on Juneteenth 2020, Phillis Coley cites historian Gary Potter’s three functions of the Southern slave patrol – (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.
She goes on to note that the use of these patrols to capture runaway slaves was a precursor to the formal police force in America and its ethos has persisted as an element of policing role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?” Veteran Malaysian art Journalist Ooi Kok Chuen presents an overview of Malaysian Indian artists in the Penang Monthly which opens by questioning the dearth of Indians in the national canon. He goes on to offer some possible answers that he notes have been ‘bandied about,’ “Economic status, parental / social disapprobation, opportunity, (lack of) role models, patronage, minority syndrome (proportionately smaller population, of only 6.2%), “estranged” Indian-ish themes, and discrimination,” Ooi rightly states no preference amongst these reasons. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to go beyond speculation in this matter, I am glad he has asked the question publically. It is an important one as it points to the undeniable fact that, while a few Malaysian Indians have made significant contributions to the practice and theorization of the visual arts, overall, our numbers are low.
This is something that gave me pause during my years of intense involvement in the Malaysian scene from 1996 to 2002. I gave my support and encouragement to individual artists with a sense of communal allegiance whenever the opportunity came my way, but my own concerns during that period were national and international, and while intra-national questions of race and communalism formed the framework of my practice, I was not community oriented. I often wonder if I could have engaged more actively with my community in those years in terms of promoting and developing the arts.
This personal reflection and recollection, triggered by Ooi’s question, leads to a more fundamental question that lies at the heart of my Malaysian identity. Am I an Indian first or a Malaysian first? An Indian Malaysian or a Malaysian Indian! Of course, an analogous question arises for the other races of our multiethnic nation. Such pondering has even been turned into political capital. Malaysia’s present Prime Minister is reported to have said, back in 2010, “I am a Malay first, I want to say that … But being Malay does not mean that you are not Malaysian.” While the country struggles with the horrors of the recent covid-19 crisis atop an ongoing and now long running political one, the foundations of the nation are being shaken. Will the old Malaysia, whose founding social contract is premised on communalism, survive this crisis in its present form? Will we regress to a more ethnocentric paradigm, or will we emerge from this national trauma with a reformed and refined national agreement? These questions might seem far from the world of Malaysian art but this is where the stream of thoughts that flowed that follows from Ooi’s innocent, perhaps not so innocent question, has brought me – WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?”
Indians should be proud to be called Pariah! The fact that the term is offensive to Indians, both in India and in the diaspora, is really a symptom of our own horrendous internal racism or catseism. Pariah is the name of one of the oppressed Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and, according to devendrakulam.org, the English language the use of the word ‘pariah’, meaning ‘social outcast’ was first recorded in 1613. Devendrakulam.org also notes that Paraiyan is mentioned in the Classical Tamil Sangam literature in the Puram text – “Without the following four – Thudian, Panan, Parayan, Kadamban the citizens’ Categorization is not complete” . These are all categories of music workers – Thudian is a player of the Thudi drum, Panan is a singer Singer, Parayan is a player of the Parai drum, and Kadamban is a player of the instrument named Kadambu which I think might be a katam (கடம்), the clay water pot vessel that is used as a drum (I stand to be corrected).
Devendrakulam.org offers a speculative narrative of the descent of the community as Bhramanism rose in South India through the centuries. Among the intriguing possibilities offered here are the idea that the Paraiyar were Buddhists who held out against the ascendant Bhramanism and that some of the Shudra casts of the contemporary South like my own Jaffna Vellala caste emerged from the Paraiyar in a process of assimilation. The Paraiyar community has, despite millennia of oppression within the entrenched Brahmanical order, produced significant figures in Indian social, political and cultural life including, M. C. Rajah, R. Srinivasan, Thol. Thirumavalavan, Illayaraja and Pa. Ranjith. I repeat, Indians (I include Jaffna Tamils) should be proud to be called Pariah!
This is a super exposition on the Keling word on A Daview Originals. Although there are errors, for example, according to the Malay Concordance Project, in the 1963 edition of Cherita Jenaka, orang Keling was changed to orang India and not, as the presenter claims, the other way around. Sorry lah it is in Tamil!