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The Semai Culture

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The non violent nature of the Semai is influenced by culture which defines the lifestyle of a community in a very unique way. The Semai belong to the Orang Asli population which is the aboriginal population of Peninsular Malaysia and are approximated to be about thirteen thousand in terms of their population in a survey conducted in 1965. (Gerco, 2000).  They are believed to be the probable descendants of the native population that originates from Southeast Asia who dialect in Austroasiatic language. Frequently, they refer to themselves as maj serak which means the inhabitants of the forest which in most cases is the montane rainforest with abundant river systems that are compounded by remarkable biodiversity. The Semai populations dwell in regions varying from urban fringes to hill jungle.

 The majority of the Semai population practices gathering and selling of woodland yields which mostly entail fruits, horticulture farming and a minor percentage of the population engage in labor work offered in urban areas, wet rice growing and arboriculture. This community is well known for its non-aggressive behaviour as the semai exercise self strain, self control and social control. This ability to avoid brutality among its members is so unique to this population. It is believed that slavery contributed to their peaceful lifestyle. History purports that the semai experienced sporadic attacks by slavers bands that seized their children, assaulted their women sexually and butchered the adults. The captured women and children were later sold to Malay nobles who tormented them further. The semai way of life is currently undergoing changes as a result of the economic development of the country they live in.

The semai are referred to be non violent because of various reasons.First, they habitually and candidly express fear of being attacked by foreigners.Secondly,the members of this community do not scuffle or quarrel like other people and thirdly, the semai parents train their offspring to dread and avoid strangers who mostly are not of semai origin. To keep up with their peaceful life, they encourage acts that heighten psychological stress as well as bodily injury is instant and blatant.Mostly, the members of the semai population do not talk about violence out of fear of getting into problems (Gerco, 2000). 

Semai Beliefs

The semai people dread witchcraft as witches were not prominent in their customary cosmology. They entirely believe in communal conviction and dependence which is far much easy to associate with a neighbor than witchcraft. Conventionally, outcasts and ghosts assumed the responsibility played by witches in other communities. Contrary to the bizarre actions associated with ghosts, the semai ghosts are inspired by the affection of the people which makes them to a desire to rejoin their loved ones. The society views suicide not as a criminal act but simply as a means of dodging pain incurred during bereavement due to the loss of a loved one rather than an expression of resentment. The belief of fear is so paramount that blood relations pass it down the family line through informal education on the essence of being afraid. Despite the masculinity of their youths, the semai believe that it is far much secure and effortless to be cautious than to be gallant. As much as the young ones differ sometimes, they do not engage in violent actions as experienced in other communities as they understand that violence is viewed as insanity in the community.

Counter violence in this community is believed to be ineffectual as an individual incurs more pain.However, this belief does not rule out the fact that the young in no way, have visualized engaging in violent act as a way of protecting their community against Malay abuse and incursions (Gerco, 2000). In reality, history shows that the members of the semai community have launched aggressive resistance against their enemies. However, in most cases, the semai have believed that violence is not the solution and thus have reverted to peaceful living. It is this vulnerable character which the semai members have embraced, that has brought a sense of peace and thus the essence of struggling to get away from such oppression is deemed unnecessary.

 

Semai Kinship and Social Organization

The senoi groups differ in generation and linearity when it comes to kingship. Elders and siblings are distinguished in Central Aslian but the sisters and brothers are not. The South Aslian on the other hand differentiates the elder sisters from the elder brothers. Both the Temiar and Semai utilize a single expression per age group to refer to the six generations beyond and beneath oneself. The Informal age grades of adolescents, old women and men are reflected by kin stipulations which entail particular description of the yet to settle adolescent. The dialect used should respect age as the old need to be given their due respect. There exists nuclear families who posses the fields but such units are not stable. Also of minimal importance are households and extended families that are difficult to discriminate. A village consisting of confined groups has communal links to a sakaq.

The movement of people to occupy novel sakaq leads to the disintegration of the local groups. However the right to keep hold of trees is still entitled to the owners. There are also kindred, which are superior kin groups, such as those belonging to the west Semai and ramages that extend to numerous sakaq.The west Semai population regard affiliations on the foundation of common ancestral descendant. The occurrence of Ramages within the main watersheds is due to the simple journey on the river. The people living in a given local group corporate in both economic and ritual activities. In such a setup, there exists an elder who foresees the on going activities in that local group and also act as an administrator of that local group.Rakan is a word used to refer to members of the same group. People from different local groups are considered as being part of the outsiders and as such, they are not trusted. Within the local group, misunderstandings, rumour mongering and quarrels are common things which imparts negative social behaviour among the members and mostly result into the breaking up of the local groups along kinship lines (Benjamin and Chou, 2002).  

The community has no clear cut out duties for the various age groups, which are men versus women or the old versus the young but there seem to be a predisposition for men to carry out certain duties while the women undertake a totally different chore. This facilitates efficiency in work and ensures social responsibility in the community is maintained by all individuals. There seem to exist a strong emotional connection  between the males and females of the Semai and thus, nearly all the adults marry .Their marriage system involves spouses that mostly originate from varying settlements and when married, the couples reside in the wife’s residence for a number of days ranging from one week to a month. The marriage involves shifting form the woman’s place to the man’s place and this continues for a long period of time until they decide to settle in one place. Insanity in Semai is believed to be as a result of loss of a spouse. Formal marriages are not practiced by the East Semai people unlike the Malay population who consider marriage ceremonies as part of their culture (Benjamin and Chou, 2002).

In the case of the East Semai population, a man and a woman are considered to be wife and husband when the couples begin to live together and are seen to be separated when the two no longer eat and sleep as a couple. In the family set up, the young ones are taken care of by the parents. The love to their young is so intense for a fraction of the child life which in most cases is when the infant is below two years. Consequently, when the child surpasses the third birthday, their mothers tend to abandon them for other duties which they consider more essential than nurturing their children. The up bringing of the child is mainly focused on the beliefs of the community which regard peace as a very crucial aspect in their lives. For this reason, the children are taught how to live without violence mostly by the actions of the adults in the community who do not engage in violent acts. In case of aggression by a child during play, the culprit is apprehended and taken to the house. To keep up with the life of non violent behaviour, children are prevented from engaging in competitive games which in most cases tend to be the foundation of quarrels that end up into a fight.

Morals in the Semai community are of great essence to the well being of the members. With regard to this, a man is considered responsible and mature when he has a mutual, flourishing and respectable relationship with the wife, takes good care of the children, lives healthily by not being a glutton and fulfills conjugal rights of the wife as expected. The manner in which the man handles life pressures also defines the kind of person he is. The man is expected to be very vigilant and patient when handling matters. Since the man is required to be a role model, not only to his children, but also the entire community, he is expected to withhold his emotions and thoughts and not to cause any hardships to people or engage in forceful acts that interfere with individuals rights even if they are his children. As much as the Semai do not trust srangers, they are required not to harm the strangers in any way, even when attacked by the stranger. In such a scenario, the Semai surrenders by raising his hands (Benjamin and Chou, 2002).

During the youthful life of Semai, the fear for emotional stir up, particularly anger, whish is viewed as danger is learned. The Semai disregard corporal discipline of children due to anger to the extent of alluding that the punished child may die. Their expressions of anger, sadness and even joy are restrained unlike their expression of fear which is so evident, principally the fear of violent breakout and foreigners. Apart from the fear of violence, the other moral value the Semai hold dearly is that of sharing their food. The harvested manioc from the farms is shared among the Semai women upon their return from the fields. In the same way, men engage in this practice after fishing, hunting or gathering. Sharing is a means of maximizing the use of their food products since they have no preservation techniques. The act of sharing highlights nurturance, mutual dependence and close relationships among members of a local group. The amount of food which an individual may share with other members of the group is not calculated and it is not restricted to what is to be shared.

Semai Political Organization

The identity of the Semai is linked to modern ideologies subscribed by the federal state. The development and incorporation history of the Semai justifies the existence of various powers that controlled the political scene but there existed no particular political organization. The early leaders of the Semai are believed to be sea-people who had shifted from individual trade to become middlemen and settled on strategic land in villages structured to compound the womenfolk. Several authors propose that the early administrative units were located in houses constructed over the water or in boats. States related to Sumatran Malay inscriptions and monumental remnants at Palembang existed and were ruled by indigenous leaders who molded their kingship on Tantaric models with a court tradition so as to get the attention of hinterland population all with a different Malay dialect (Bulbeck, 2004).These formed states although they were not specifically Malay states. Later on, Malay states with self consciousness came into being and were dominated by foreign rulers such as the Bugis and the Minang who pursued strong culture that was transcendental and made of Islamic orthodoxy and linguistic.

The norm Melayu was appropriated by these foreigners as a way of relating their rule to the king’s descendants of the original states which had settled on Malayu River at Jambi. Subsequently, the name Melayu became slowly connected to the entire population under the context of Malay states which were by then increased in number.However, European presence later on influenced the alteration of the meaning of Melayu to Malay-speaking, Islamic people of the sultan. This change left the Sultan with administrative powers only that was confined to matters affecting Islam and Malay. This resulted in defining the Malays as individuals who prescribe to Malay tradition, dialect in Malay language and profess Islam as their religion. Decentralization was effected in this way and as a consequence, centrifugal forces cropped up among the population.

Conclusion

Although there are numerous societal identities in existence over which observers might have the same opinion such as status, gender and race, the identity of an ethnic group squarely lies on the fundamental beliefs and culture of that ethnic group. Cultural ascription plays a critical role in classifying individuals according to the most basic identity. In the case of the Semai, their non violent nature is highly influenced by their cultural practices which value virtues such as peace, sharing with one another and social responsibility. All these are contributing factors to the outstanding culture and lifestyle of the Semai thus confirming why they are widely referred to as a community that shuns violence.

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