PETALING JAYA - Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has apologised for using the derogatory word "keling", saying he never meant to insult anyone.
"I would like to apologise to the Indian community. I apologise if I had caused any problems," the Pakatan Harapan chairman told a press conference here on Tuesday.
Dr Mahathir had used the word when criticising the Election Commission at a fund-raising event in Johor on April 7.
He was reported to have said: "I want to use a 'keling' word. The 'keling' say podah (get lost)".
When first criticised for using the term, Dr Mahathir refused to walk it back, claiming that the word "keling" did not have a derogatory connotation in Kedah, where he was born and raised.
"I've used the word 'keling' since I was little, there is no problem," he told reporters on Sunday (April 8).
"My 'keling' friends never scolded me, so why is MIC angry?" he said, referring to complaints by MIC treasurer-general Datuk Seri S. Vell Paari that Dr Mahathir was racist for using the word.
"Keling" is a word deemed derogatory and offensive to the Indian community.
However, its original meaning refers to the glory days of India and its links to South-East Asia through the Kalinga empire in east-central India.
Traders from Kalinga settled in South-East Asia and Indians ended up being referred to as people from "Benua Keling" (Keling continent).
The derogatory connotation to "keeling" is said to date back to the 1920s.
A report in the now-defunct Singapore Free Press referred to prisoners brought to Malaya from India forced to work in chain gangs as "kling", derived from the clanking sound of their chains.
Datuk S. Ambiga, the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) chairperson, said on Monday (April 9), "Whilst it might have been commonly used in Kedah and not considered derogatory there, I think in today's Malaysia, it is unacceptable and hurtful to the Indian Malaysian community."
DAP's P Ramasamy, who is Penang's second Deputy Chief Minister, advised Dr Mahathir to go easy on the use of cliches and terms that may be insulting to some ethnic groups.
"I know the word was not directed at Indians, but don't go and say all these things," he said.
Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, a principal research fellow of UKM's Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita), said that in Malaysia, one should be sensitive to the different terms and concepts that might be deemed offensive.
At the same time, however, he felt the issue was being politicised.
"I think there should be more focus on substantive issues such as the different manifestos and the track records of the state governments," he told The Star.