Dewan Bahasa, stop making excuses for racism!

IGNORANCE is not an excuse for racism. This is why it is so regrettable that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) has deemed it acceptable to use words such as ‘keling’ on their website to describe Indians.

If anything, this goes on to highlight DBP’s lack of sensitivity towards the sentiments and feelings of the Indian community in the country.

What made the whole incident more unsettling is the fact that DBP director-general Abang Sallehuddin Abang Shokeran said DBP would not be apologising as the definition of the term found online was from the second edition of the Kamus Pelajar, which was published in 1987.

But here’s the problem with DBP’s explanation: it still doesn’t say why the word was still found online and without proper disclaimers. Of course, updating the physical copy of the dictionary takes time and effort, but the definition could’ve easily been amended in the past, right?

To put an end to the controversy, Sallehuddin told Malaysiakini that the department will update the Kamus Pelajar’s definition of the word ‘tambi’ and will replace the word ‘keling’ with ‘Indian’.

But an update is not an apology or an admission of guilt. Instead of making excuses for racism and issuing non-apologies, perhaps it is time for DBP learn to keep up with the times and go through its databases with a fine-toothed comb to make the necessary updates.

To recap, the issue began after a screenshot of the definition for the word ‘tambi’ on DBP’s online dictionary made its rounds on social media recently. DBP defined ‘tambi’ as “a word used to refer to a ‘keling’ person younger than us”.

Although the term ‘keling’ originated from Kalinga, an ancient Indian kingdom and had no derogatory slur, it was later used by certain people as an insult to Indians.

In the case of ‘keling’, Sallehuddin also said, “dictionaries record history through words [and] every word has a historical, social and cultural value”.

While this is true, shouldn’t DBP, as the arbiter for all issues concerning the national language, be more sensitive of the gradually-evolving definitions of certain words to begin with?

This is especially true for words with racial connotations. Words like ‘keling’ may have been accepted in the past, but over time, they have evolved and lost its original meaning and become insults and racial slurs, and this is where DBP must draw the line.

History has, after all, taught us time and again that no good ever comes from bringing up the issue of race in Malaysia, and it’s time DBP takes heed of this. – April 2, 2021

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