Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies
Location. As of 2007, about 43,500 Semai, an Orang Asli society (Malay for “Original People”), lived in the forested central mountains in Pahang and Perak states of the Malay Peninsula in Malaysia, Southeast Asia.
Economy. The Semai have traditionally subsisted on the cultivation of manioc and rice, plus fishing, hunting, and trade in so-called “minor forest products” such as rattan. Increasingly, however, at least some are getting educations, and in a few cases university degrees. Some are entering professions as well as the labor pools in local towns. One Semai village, Ulu Geroh in Perak state, has successfully built up a tourist business.
Beliefs that Foster Peacefulness. The Semai have a strongly nonviolent image of themselves; they proclaim themselves to be nonviolent people who do not get angry or hit others. In fact, they do quarrel and get angry at times, but aggressive expressions of anger are rare, and they almost never hit their children. They see themselves as non-aggressive, dependent and nurturant. A self-image that allowed aggression would contradict their definition of virtue. Their worldview, and humanity's place in it, does not include any violence. They see themselves as helplessly surrounded by hostile forces, both natural and supernatural, and they proceed with caution in all their daily activities in the face of ubiquitous dangers. Security comes only from the sharing, peace and integration of their villages.
Avoiding and Resolving Conflict. Before they moved into permanent villages, the Semai preferred to resolve serious disputes informally, through such strategies as separation, gossip, or shaming, particularly of individuals that the community believed were responsible for causing problems. The Semai still frequently practice such informal conflict resolution strategies, but they have also adopted, and modified for their own purposes, the use of more formal meetings as practiced by the surrounding, dominant, Malay peoples. The purpose, for the Semai, of having such a formal meeting, called a bcaraa', is to settle the dispute rather than to determine guilt or innocence. After a lot of socializing, a headman will give a long lecture on the importance of group solidarity, mutual dependence, and peace. Then the principals to the dispute will present their viewpoints in speeches that may continue for many hours, until no one has anything additional to say and everyone is exhausted. The headman then concludes the bcaraa', perhaps by levying small fines if appropriate, and he continues by lecturing everyone on correct, peaceful Semai behavior. The meeting resolves the dispute itself, reconciles the parties, dissipates their emotions, reintegrates the whole village, reaffirms everyone’s interdependence, and re-confirms the importance of nonviolent behavior.
Gender Relations. The social structure of the Semai includes a clear but not rigid division of labor between the sexes: there are no separate ideals for women versus men, and no tasks that are strictly for women or men. The newly married Semai couple often lives for weeks in the wife's settlement (usually spouses are from different settlements); then they live in his, then hers, and so on, the visits lengthening until they finally settle down in one or the other. The people in the East Semai region—who have less contact with the Malay peoples—have no formal marriage ceremonies. When a couple starts living together, they are considered husband and wife; if they no longer sleep and eat together, they are considered separated.
Raising Children. Infants are cared for and loved constantly but they face a rude awakening when they are about two and their mothers decide they have other work to do and cannot continue providing constant nurturing. From two until about four, the child discovers that crying and violent temper tantrums bring no response from the parents or anyone else in the village. Children thus lose their feelings of dependency on the parents alone, and begin to seek support from the whole community. Children do not see aggression by adults, and when they fight among themselves a parent will normally take the angry child away from its game and back to the house, reinforcing their taboo against violence and anger. Children do not play competitive games.
Social Practices. For the Semai, the ideal adult man has a good relationship with his wife, loves his children more than anything, has a normal sexual appetite, a good appetite, and a healthy, cool body. He keeps his feelings and thoughts within. He does not cause difficulties for others and does not try to make someone, even his own child, do something contrary to that person's will. He does not harm strangers, even though he mistrusts them, and if attacked he will open his arms hoping to shame the attacker out of his aggressiveness, or he will flee.
Sense of Self. The Semai learn during childhood to fear emotional arousal of any kind, especially anger, which they see as highly threatening. They vastly exaggerate the consequences of corporal punishment of children, which might result from anger: if a child were spanked, he or she might die. They are quite restrained in their mourning, their anger, even their laughter; their interpersonal relationships are reserved. The only emotion they express openly, without reservation, is fear—of strangers and especially of violent thunderstorms. An onrushing thunderstorm arouses massive, and to a westerner highly irrational, fear.
Sharing. The Semai have two primary moral values: avoiding violence and sharing food. Semai women share the manioc that they harvest immediately after they return to the village from their fields. Likewise, Semai men share the fruits of their hunting, fishing, or gathering. These patterns are all quite sensible since they have no way to preserve foods, though food sharing frequently has little practical value, as one person will share a portion of a harvest or gathering expedition, only to have the recipients share portions of their foods shortly thereafter. But these sharing experiences are important for their symbolic, public statements of mutual dependence, nurturance, and the close ties of the band. No one seems to calculate the extent of their giving or receiving.
But How Much Violence Do They Really Experience? Despite the fact that they have a highly nonviolent society, when some Semai men were recruited in the early 1950s to help the British army fight a communist guerrilla insurgency, some became aggressive fighters, though when they returned to their own settlements they returned to their peaceful, nonviolent ways. While violent homicides are abhorrent to the Semai, there have been a few recorded instances of murders. Undoubtedly, the introduction of firearms and alcohol is becoming a problem that threatens Semai peacefulness. Furthermore, while some Semai maintain that they will die before fighting against outsiders who are taking away their lands, others feel their nonviolence cannot last forever against outside aggression and alcohol.
Sources in Print (click on links for complete references). Dentan 1968a, 1988, 1993, 1995, 2001, 2004; 2008; Dentan et al 1997; Robarchek 1977a, 1977b, 1979, 1981, 1986, 1989; Robarchek and Dentan 1987; Robarchek and Robarchek 1992
Updates: News and Reviews:
October 30, 2014. How the Semai Repel Cockroaches [journal article review]
July 24, 2014. Schooling for the Semai
February 6, 2014. The Semai of Pos Betau
January 2, 2014. A Semai Christmas
September 19, 2013. Semai Communal Lands Threatened
February 21, 2013. Semai Beliefs about Snakes
All stories in this website about the Semai are listed in the News and Reviews Subject Listing