Semai people

From Anarchy In Action

The Semai people live in what's now the Malay Peninsula. In 2007, the Semai had 43,500 members.[1]


Peaceful Societies describes the Semai beliefs fostering peace:

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.

Peaceful Societies elaborates on other aspects of Semai culture including gender relations and childcare:

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.


The Semai have traditionally had a gift economy based in horticulture. They cultivated cassava and rice, hunted and fished. Sharing was paramount, as Peaceful Societies explains:

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.

Peter Gelderloos elaborates:

The traditional society of the Semai, in Malaya, is based on gift-giving rather than bartering. We could not find any accounts of their society recorded by the Semai themselves, but they explained how it worked to Robert Dentan, a Western anthropologist who lived with them for a time. Dentan writes that the “system by which the Semai distribute food and services is one of the most significant ways in which members of a community are knit together... Semai economic exchanges are more like Christmas exchanges than like commercial exchanges.”[2] It was considered “punan,” or taboo, for members of Semai society to calculate the value of gifts given or received. Other commonly held rules of etiquette included the duty to share whatever they had that they did not immediately need, and the duty to share with guests and anyone who asked. It was punan not to share or to refuse a request, but also to ask for more than someone could give.[3]


Peaceful Societies describes Semai methods of peaceful conflict resolution:

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.

Gelderloos adds:

Their murder rate is only 0.56/100,000 per year, compared with 0.86 in Norway, 6.26 in the US, and 20.20 in Russia.[11] This may be related to their childrearing strategy: traditionally the Semai do not hit their children, and respect for their children’s autonomy is a normalized value in their society. One of the few occasions in which Semai adults will typically intervene is when children lose their tempers or fight one another, in which case nearby adults will snatch up the children and take them to their respective houses. The major forces that uphold Semai peacefulness seem to be an emphasis on learning self-control and the great importance accorded to public opinion in a cooperative society.

According to Robert Dentan, a Western anthropologist who lived with them, “little violence occurs within Semai society. Violence, in fact, seems to terrify the Semai. A Semai does not meet force with force, but with passivity or flight. Yet, he has no institutionalized way of preventing violence — no social controls, no police or courts. Somehow a Semai learns automatically always to keep tight rein over his aggressive impulses.”[12] The first time the Semai participated in a war was when the British conscripted them to fight against the Communist insurgency in the early 1950s. Clearly, warfare is not an inevitability and certainly not a human need: rather, it is a consequence of political, social, and economic arrangements, and these arrangements are ours to shape.'

  1. Peaceful Societies,
  2. Robert K. Dentan, The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979, p. 48.
  3. Anarchy Works