Sticks And Stones: The Kafir Conundrum That May Break Our Bones

The education ministry came under fire for mentioning “kafir” that upset many non-Muslims in the country. But that, alongside another K word that get the Malaysian Indians’ knickers twisted, would be less offensive if the context is understood properly.

Now that the KK Mart issue is simmering down, Malaysians have now welcomed another K issue. Well, it’s another day in our education minister’s life, and whaddya know? Her tongue slipped (it’s a slippin’ when it’s not flippin’), and she uttered the ‘K” word. No, not that “K” word derogatorily used against Malaysian Indians; it’s kafir.

Since we are under a more (supposedly) open and liberal government, allow me to use those words liberally throughout this article. For those offended, here’s ten cents: go and play far and wide.

Now, this occurred when the said minister was in a private meeting, and somehow the recording got out and made the rounds, angering many non-Muslims in the country. Not all, but most of them. Now, the word Kafir, tossed around quite a bit among Muslims, can be mildly offensive if you have the self-esteem of a country mouse. A good many non-Malays in the country perhaps don’t even know such a word exists, considering their grasp of languages other than their mother tongue has loosened since they left school. Hence, there is nothing like good old social media to fan the fire among the knee-jerky netizens.

Kafir vs Keling

Let’s face it, Kafir is not that bad compared to the other K, which is even, supposedly, more offensive to the Indians: Keling. Growing up on a plantation in Johor, we kids were told that it was indeed meant to insult the Indians here. We are also told that we have equally offensive (but harmless) words to use against Malays and Chinese if they are uttering the K word as retorts, when it has not escalated into bruised eyes. 

Yet, at the same age, we were also told of the origin of the Keling word, and two possibilities are often cited. One, it refers to the sound made by bangles and anklets worn by both male and female Indians when they arrived on this shore hundreds of years ago. The natives, unable to communicate nor having any idea where these bunch of dark-skinned folks came from, just lazily took from those sounds, “Kling!” and voila! And a few still, err, cling to it today.

Another theory suggests that it came from Kalinga, a now extinct kingdom in Indonesia with rulers originating from India. I find the anklet theory to be more sound (pun intended).

Using derogatory words against other races is the norm here in Malaysia, where people are pausing to love each other in TV commercials during the Merdeka month. Growing up, for somewhat strange reasons, our insult word for the Malay community was belacan, which is a pungent but delicious shrimp paste, and we would refer to the Chinese dudes as sadaiyan, which means guy with a long braided queue—an identity referring to the hairstyle they adorned during the previous centuries.


Yet the worst word used among the Indians themselves is the P word, Pariah, which has since been domesticated in English to mean an outcast. But the way a Tamil speaker uses it when in anger or drunk—usually both—would suggest that the person at the receiving end is lower than a dung beetle.

And now, the other K word—the word now rousing the anger of the non-Malays in the country—kafir. In my book, kafir is just a technical word. What exactly does it mean? Here’s what AI chat pointed out:

Over time, its usage evolved to denote a person who:

  • Disbelieves in God.
  • Denies God’s authority.
  • Rejects the tenets of Islam.
  • Is not Muslim and does not follow the guidance of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The first two are rather vague, though I am sure here “God” is referring to Allah (which gave rise to the whole other issue a few years ago). Now, Christians too have a term for those who do not accept Jesus Christ. It’s simply unbelievers, or the extreme anti-Christ. Jews have goy, or slightly harsh, goyum. It’s all about being part of the exclusive club; outsiders can queue in the rain.

The Deafening Silence

Speaking of exclusive clubs, isn’t it deafening the silence of the non-Muslim politicians in Pakatan Harapan (PH) when their colleague mentioned kafir? In a different time, if an UMNO leader were to utter it, the so-called “offended” PH members would have combusted spontaneously.

When the Kalimah Allah issues occurred (I recounted it here), we have seen some non-Muslims denigrating the situation as laughable unemphatically. The comment space on social media was littered with a litany of snickering by non-Muslims (their words accompanied by grinning or laughing emoticons), telling the Muslims to take it easy. Now that the kafir issues are out, can the non-Muslims take a chill pill instead? It’s your turn now to grin and look at your own self-worth and self-esteem and not be hurt by a mere five-letter word.

As for me, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are tools of my profession, and I welcome them all. – NMH

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Rakesh Premakumaran Kumar
A movie buff, as opposed to film connoisseur or aficionado, because the last two words are hard to spell, Rakesh has been in the field of writing for more than two decades and hopes that one-day movie “buff”ing is lucrative enough to afford him a Batmobile, the Michael Keaton one.

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