“Malaysian Indians have the right to be offended by the K-word”

I AM glad that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has apologised for using the word keling even if it was cited as a reference from the Malay epic Hikayat Hang Tuah. I was not surprised that news about this went viral before Christmas, sparking a furious response from the Indian community across Malaysia.

I was somehow disappointed with calls by certain quarters for the Indian community NOT to be upset by the use of this word by the PM. As a non-Indian, I don’t think it is my place to tell my Indian friends what they should or should not be offended by.

Instead, I want to highlight this episode as a learning opportunity for all of us.

Most of us use pejorative language which would be deemed as racist in this day and age in our private speech. For example, many people would use the word “Bangla” to describe migrant workers from Bangladesh.

Malaysian Chinese – especially the older generation – would refer to those from the Punjabi community as “Bengali-Singh” without realising that the “Singhs” are from the state of Punjab in Northwestern India while “Bengali” is the national language of Bangladesh that is located on the eastern side of the Indian subcontinent!

The word babi (pig) would be used unceremoniously by the Malay or Chinese community as an insult depending on which community one is from.

Our natural “instinct” to use these pejoratives in public would be much reduced if we were to stop using these words in private.

Moving away from stereotypes

More importantly, we should examine ourselves carefully as to the underlying reasons for the use of these words in private in the first place. I doubt that many of us would be using words from an “academic” setting in private.

More often than not, we are using these terms to label an entire race for the actions of a few or in a broad sweeping manner which is unfair to an entire community. Examples including labelling the entire Malay community as malas (lazy) or the entire Chinese community as “greedy” or to call the Indian community as “gangsters”.

Ong Kian Ming

I don’t think it would kill us to use the term “Bangladeshi” instead of the insulting “Bangla”. After all, we have no trouble calling our friends from Kuching or Sibu or Bintulu, “Sarawakians”. Both words have four syllabi.

Even some words which are not pejoratives can be used in “insulting” ways if the user of these words is not careful.

For example, the PM in using the words “Cina” and “DAP” to describe Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook in the context of the actions taken against ships registered to a publicly-held Israeli international cargo shipping company could be perceived as something not just insulting to the Chinese community but does not do any favour to the Palestinian cause which should be seen as a humanitarian and human rights issue as opposed to a religious or a racial one.

Our leaders from the political, business, religious, social and education communities can take the lead in making public commitments not to use such language in public as well as in private. A good place to start would be through the words used during speeches and debates in parliament.

Finally, there are simple gestures which we can undertake to move away from these stereotypes. Rather than to label someone by his or her race as our first instinct, why not find out that person’s name or talk to that person to find out more about his or her background so that he/she becomes more than just a racial label?

By humanising our interactions with others, it is a start in the process of humanising the social and race relations in this country. – Dec 26, 2023


Former DAP MP for Bangi Ong Kian Ming was also the deputy international trade and industry minister during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration (July 2018-February 2020).

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

Main pic credit: SAYS via YouTube

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