Is ‘mamak’ a derogatory term?

by: Jahabar Sadiq

Image may contain: 3 people, indoor

My friend wondered aloud whether using the term mamak was derogatory. I replied that it wasn’t and the conversation went on for a bit.

But mamak is just a Malaysian term, and its a corruption of the word mama, which means uncle in Tamil. And it is specifically uncle on the maternal side.

Uncles on the paternal side are known as sacha or chacha. And for variety, depending where you are from in Tamil Nadu, mama is also pronounced and spelled mamu. Hence the Penang variant.

So how did it become a put-down or a derogatory term. From what I know, it came about from the old days of Malacca when the Bendahara Sri Maharaja Tun Mutahir or prime minister was seen as a vain pot. He was accused of plotting against the sultan and his entire family was put to death in 1510, a year before Malacca fell to the Portuguese.

And then there’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is of Indian Muslim descent. A fair number of people have called him derogatory names including mamak and mamak kutty. That probably explains the reason why mamak is derogatory for some.

But Dr Mahathir isn’t mamak. His family came from Kerala and they are known as Kakas. Ignorance has resulted in more odium and contempt for the more popular Mamaks rather than the Kakas.

But you want to talk derogatory? Or dirty.

The Indians themselves, and in Malaysia that really means the southern Indians or Tamils, have also described Indian Muslims in less than friendly manner. The term they use is Thulukans, or people of Turkish descent.

There’s a long history there as Islam came by land and sea to India – that sub-continent of princeling states and people divided by language, diet, culture and united by the British (correction, India was united before that so in defence I’ll say, English language).

The Arabs always had relations with India even before Islam but a fair number of Muslims came by land from the northwest and pushed right through to the south. They were of Turkic origins. The seafaring Arabs proselytised among the coastal Indians in the east coast and somewhat in the west coast and their offsprings were just known as Arabs, not Mamak or Kaka.

But among the Indian Muslims, the term Thulukan is friendly and a sign of recognition of brotherhood and family relationships.

What term do Indian Muslims or Mamaks use to put each other down? They call each other ToppiWappa. But it is friendly, not spiteful or derogatory.

Why I’m writing this down? Because I might forget all this one day and also to underline one thing. You can call Mamaks and think it is derogatory but it is a sign of respect. And you know, the Mamaks are there 24 hours to cook delicious fare for you and your family. And there for your cigarettes, condoms and crisps.

So before you think it is bad and not politically correct, just know the Mamak doesn’t quite care. They are a courteous community focussed on family, feasts and finance.

The rest of Malaysia can’t live without them, and know them as the people you go to when in you need food, foreign exchange and friendship.

Get the picture? Oh, and maybe one day I will write about 786.

Source: Facebook Jahabar Sadiq (27th May 2017)


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