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Keling is a word used to describe people originating from the Indian subcontinent by native Malaysians and Indonesians. It is now generally considered offensive by majority of Indians.

The origin of the term is rooted in the former cultural and economic influence of the Kalinga
Kalinga (India)
Kalinga was an early state in central-eastern India, which comprised most of the modern state of Orissa/Utkal , as well as the Andhra region of the bordering state of Andhra Pradesh. It was a rich and fertile land that extended from the river Damodar/Ganges to Godavari and from Bay of Bengal to...

 kingdom over south east Asian kingdoms.The ancient Indian Kalinga
Kalinga is a landlocked province of the Philippines in the Cordillera Administrative Region in Luzon. Its capital is Tabuk and borders Mountain Province to the south, Abra to the west, Isabela to the east, Cagayan to the northeast, and Apayao to the north...

  was located in southeastern India occupying modern day Orissa and northern Andra Pradesh.India was then referred to by the Malays
Malay people
Malays are an ethnic group of Austronesian people predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula, including the southernmost parts of Thailand, the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and the smaller islands which lie between these locations...

 as Benua Keling. In the 7th century an Indonesian kingdom was named Kalingga after the aforementioned Kalinga in India. Chinese sources mention this kingdom (Holing) as a centre for Buddhist scholars around 604 before it was overshadowed by the Sanjaya or Mataram Kingdom
Mataram Kingdom
The Medang or Mataram Kingdom was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. It was based in Central Java, and later in East Java. Established by King Sanjaya, the founder of the Sanjaya dynasty, the kingdom was ruled by the Sailendra and Sanjaya families...

. The most famous Kalingga ruler is Ratu Sima.

The Sejarah Melayu
Sejarah Melayu
Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals is a Malay literary work which covers a period of over 600 years that chronicles the, then and now, Genealogies of Rulers in the Malay Archipelago...

(the Annals of Malay history), written in the 15th century, used the term keling to refer to India and traced the origin of Malay sultans to Indian princes. In its early usage, the term was not considered offensive or derogatory.

Castanheda was a Portuguese traveller who lived in Malacca during its heyday - 1528 to 1538 has written about the Kelings of what should have been said Kalinga.
"In the northern part of the city, live merchants known as Quelins(Kling, the people of Kalinga, from India); In this part, the town is much larger than at any other. There are at Malacca many foreign merchants, who I said before live among themselves. They are moors and pagans..... "

The change of the word keling as an offensive term can be said started around 1960 / 1963. This is based on the change in terms of "orang Keling" Keling people in Cherita Jenaka published in 1960 to "orang India" Indian people in Cherita Jenaka published in 1963


In the Chinese and Malay communities, keling is augmented into various words of their language to form new phrases that may considered offensive and to discriminate Indians.


The word keling is used since 15th century within the Malay community to mean "Indian-Muslim children". The term "Kapitan Keling" was used for a representative of an Indian community, similar to the "Kapitan Cina" of a Chinese community. In early Penang
Penang is a state in Malaysia and the name of its constituent island, located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca. It is bordered by Kedah in the north and east, and Perak in the south. Penang is the second smallest Malaysian state in area after Perlis, and the...

 of the 1790's the Kapitan Keling was Cauder Mohideen who, together with the Kapitan Cina Koh Lay Huan
Koh Lay Huan
Koh Lay Huan was a wealthy and educated man, who had earlier rebelled against the Manchu Qing Dynasty and fled to Siam and the Malay States, to eventually settle in Penang as its first Kapitan China...

 and other prominent members of the community, formed the first Committee of Assessors to decide the rates and collection of taxes. At the time, clearly, there was nothing derogatory in the term. This usage is preserved is the name of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, a prominent Penang landmark (see below).

However, in today's multi-racial settings the term has become politically incorrect. Keling was recently used by Members of Parliament in Malaysia
Parliament of Malaysia
The Parliament of Malaysia is the national legislature of Malaysia, based on the Westminster system. The bicameral parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The King as the Head of State is the third component of Parliament....

, resulting in uproar by the Malaysian community accusing the MPs of racism. Popular usage in Malaysia also suggests a tone of general disrespect to Indian Malaysians. This derogatory term is uttered in the same way African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

s are called nigger
Nigger is a noun in the English language, most notable for its usage in a pejorative context to refer to black people , and also as an informal slang term, among other contexts. It is a common ethnic slur...

s and Indigenous Australians
Indigenous Australians
Indigenous Australians are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands. The Aboriginal Indigenous Australians migrated from the Indian continent around 75,000 to 100,000 years ago....

 are called abos.

The phrase janji keling (janji being "promise" in Malay
Malay language
Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. It is the official language of Malaysia , Indonesia , Brunei and Singapore...

) OR cakap macam keling (cakap macam being "talk(s) like" in Malay
Malay language
Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. It is the official language of Malaysia , Indonesia , Brunei and Singapore...

) is sometimes used by people of Malay-speaking communities (regardless of race) to refer to a liar, someone who gives conflicting statements, or, more commonly, someone who changes their minds and decisions often. Considered offensive, this term is comparable to the North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

n English expression Indian giver
Indian giver
Indian giver is an expression used mostly by European Americans to describe a person who gives a gift and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return...

 (although referring to different types of "Indians") or the English expression "to welsh", meaning to fail to honour a bet.


The phrases keling-a (Hokkien
Hokkien is a Hokkien word corresponding to Standard Chinese "Fujian". It may refer to:* Hokkien dialect, a dialect of Min Nan Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian , Taiwan, South-east Asia, and elsewhere....

; 吉寧仔; POJ: kiet-lêng-á), keling yan (Cantonese; 吉寧人; Yale: gat-lìhng-yan), and keling-kia (Teochew) are frequently used within the Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore. These may be used in either a derogatory or non-derogatory manner: e.g., in Penang Hokkien
Penang Hokkien
Penang Hokkien is a local variant of Hokkien spoken in Penang, Malaysia. It is the lingua franca among the majority Chinese population in Penang as well as other northern states of Malaysia surrounding it, and is characterised by the pronunciation of words according to the Zhangzhou dialect,...

, which is spoken by some Indians in Penang
Penang is a state in Malaysia and the name of its constituent island, located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca. It is bordered by Kedah in the north and east, and Perak in the south. Penang is the second smallest Malaysian state in area after Perlis, and the...

, keling-a is the only word that exists to refer to ethnic Indians.

The Hokkien and Teochew suffixes -a and -kia are diminutives that are generally used to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups. "-yan" mean human.

Names of places

Various place names in Malaysia contain the word keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling., Kampong Keling, and Bukit Keling, etc.

In Penang, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, situated on the corner of Buckingham Street and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street), is one of the oldest mosques in George Town
George Town, Penang
George Town was voted as one of the best cities in Asia by Asiaweek, ranked 6th in 1998 and 9th in 2000. More recently, George Town has improved a notch to rank as the 9th most liveable city in Asia in a survey of 254 cities worldwide according to an international location ratings survey by , an...

. Various other Penang Hokkien street names contain the word keling, e.g. Kiet-leng-a Ban-san (Chowrasta Road), Kiet-leng-a Ke (King Street/Market Street).

In Singapore, there is a road in Jurong Industrial Estate called Tanjang Kling Road which is probably deprived from the word 'Keling'.

External links