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Keling (pronounced [kliŋ]) is a word used to describe people originating from the Indian subcontinent by native Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians. Although the word was used since ancient times without derogatory intention, since the 1960s it has been used in a derogatory sense.


The earliest known reference to the word "keling" occurs in a legend mentioned in Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals).[1] The legend mentions Raja Shulan as the king of Keling and as a descendant of Iskandar Zulkarnain (a figure modeled on Alexander the Great). Shulan and his descendant Raja Chulan set out to conquer China. In response, the Chinese dispatch a dilapidated ship with old men. The Chinese men meet Raja Chulan at Temasek, and tell him that they had set out on the voyage when they were young, but China is so far that they had become old by the time they reached Temasek. Upon learning this, Raja Chulan abandons his plan to invade China. Scholars like John N. Miksic identify the legendary Raja Chulan with the Chola king of India.[2] This gives rise to the theory that word 'keling' might have been the local name for a territory in medieval India, possibly the Kalinga kingdom in East India. However, in South-East Asia, the term has historically been used to describe the people of South Indiann origin, not the inhabitants of Kalinga.[1]

Historical usage[edit]

The later parts of Sejarah Melayu mention the voyages of Hang Nadim and Hang Tuah to "Benua Keling". This may have been a reference to India in general. The Dutch used the words "Clings" and "Klingers" to refer to the Indian inhabitants of Malacca. The British colonial writings also use the word "Kling" to describe the immigrants from Madras Presidency and Coromandel coast.[1] John Crawfurd (1856) mentioned that the term 'Kling' was used by the Malays and the Javanese as "a general term for all the people of Hindustan, and for the country itself".[3]

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:[4]

In the northern part [of the city of Malacca] live merchants known as Quelins [Klings — a name applied to South Indians]; in this part the town is much larger than at any other. There are at Malacca, many foreign merchants...

In its early usage, the term was not considered offensive or derogatory.[5] 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[6]


The word keling has been 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 of the 1790s the Kapitan Keling was Cauder Mohideen who, together with the Kapitan Cina Koh Lay Huan and other prominent members of the community, formed the first Committee of Assessors to decide the rates and collection of taxes.[7] This usage is preserved is the name of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, a prominent Penang landmark (see below).

In many cases the word is used as a derogatory term.[5] Keling was recently used by Members of Parliament in Malaysia, resulting in uproar by the Malaysian community accusing the MPs of racism.[8] Popular usage in Malaysia also suggests a tone of general disrespect to Indian Malaysians[according to whom?].

The phrase janji keling (janji being "promise" in Malay) OR cakap macam keling (cakap macam being "talk(s) like" in Malay) 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 American English expression Indian giver (although referring to different types of "Indians") or the English expression "to welsh", meaning to fail to honour a bet.


Traditionally in Java, Indonesia, the term Keling is linked with the ancient 6th century Kalingga Kingdom, which ultimately derived from Indian Kalinga kingdom. The term however also refer to several meanings, such as "ship", paku keling which is a technical term to describe "blunt nail" or rivets used to connect metals,[9] and also means "dark skinned person" which traditionally associated with Southern Indian people.[10] In contemporary Indonesian vocabulary use and also in colloquial Indonesian, the term do not have any derogative meaning or racial connotation, as it can be applied to any person with dark complexion, not only Southern Indian descents, but also to native Indonesians with darker complexion and foreign blacks.


The phrases keling-a (Hokkien; 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, which is spoken by some Indians in Penang, 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[edit]

Various place names in Malaysia contain the word keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling.,[11] Kampong Keling,[12] 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. 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 Tanjong Kling Road which is probably deprived from the word 'Keling'.

In Jepara Regency, Central Java, Indonesia, there is a subdistrict called Keling. Locals link the location with the historical 6th century Kalingga Kingdom. In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, there's a place called Pacar Keling. It's an area in the subdistrict Tambaksari, Surabaya. Phrase 'Pacar' itself means 'Lover' in Bahasa Indonesia.


External links[edit]