Penang Deputy Chief Minister P Ramasamy has blasted the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) for including the word "Keling" in its definition of "tambi" and called for its removal and an apology.
According to the Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, the online version of Kamus Dewan managed by DBP, tambi is defined as "panggilan utk orang Keling yg lebih muda drpd kita" (term used to refer to a Keling person younger than ourselves).
The word tambi is Tamil for "little brother" but is colloquially used by Malaysians to refer to any Indian male who is younger than them.
The Malay dictionary definition used "orang Keling" instead of "orang India" and while Keling is sometimes used to refer to Indians, particularly among older people and in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia, it is generally considered derogatory.
"It is racist on the part of DBP to link the commonly used word in the Tamil community tambi to the derogatory Keling.
"The latter is a derogatory word used to denigrate or humiliate members of the Indian community," Ramasamy told Malaysiakini.
"Tambi is a nice word or endearment used to term a person who is younger. Similarly, the word 'anna' (older brother) can be either used to denote a person who is older or as a term of respect.
"However, DBP should note that Keling or killing has no place in the Tamil lexicon.
"It is plain and simple, it is a derogatory and offensive word to humiliate and put down members of the Indian community. There is no such word in the Tamil vocabulary," he added.
The Perai assemblyperson and retired academic, who lectured at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for 24 years, said it was wrong for DBP to link the two words.
"In Malaysia, the group is either called Indians, based on their origins, or Tamils, since the majority of the Indian community is composed of this linguistic or cultural group.
"I advise the DBP to expunge the derogatory and racist term with an apology to Indians. Delving in racism and bigotry is not good for the country," Ramasamy said.
MIC Senator S Vell Paari also took issue with the definition and questioned how long it has been in place.
"Firstly, tambi is a Tamil word, not an Indian word. The two are not interchangeable.
"Tambi is a polite and affectionate term, just as I would address a younger Malay as adik (little brother or sister). It's part of our Asian culture to address younger people as such.
"Whoever did this translation and used the word Keling, it is very clear to me that it was done with the intention of insulting Indians in the country," he said.
Vell called on the national unity minister to take action on the matter.
"This is the sad state of the country where they can officially insult us. I hope the national unity minister immediately checks on this.
"And please don't say it is a mistake and brush it off. Investigate who did it. If it is recent, the person responsible should be sacked," he added.
Former Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj also weighed in on the issue, saying that he would be very surprised if the DBP did not know that many Indians consider Keling an offensive term.
"If they published such a definition despite knowing it, then that suggests a desire to insult or put down. If they published without realising, then it's shoddy workmanship.
"I think we should all reach out across the racial divide and that's the only way forward for this country," said the PSM chairperson.
In April 2018, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad courted flak when he criticised the Election Commission by saying: "I want to use a Keling word. The Keling say 'podah' (get lost)."
Yesterday, community activist S Shankar Ganesh raised the issue of the DBP entry saying it was an unacceptable insult and that he would write to DBP to demand an apology and the removal of the description.
He added that the government should also ensure that all sectors are mindful not to use words that are derogatory to any community.
DBP is the overseer for the development and standards of the Malay language as the national language.
Malaysiakini has reached out to DBP executive director Abang Sallehuddin Abang Shokeran and is waiting for a response.