the culture of the Semai people

Semai Culture







This paper seeks to give an analysis on the culture of the Semai people. Their subsistence mode of living needs to be known .The manner which their way of living is affected by their cultural behaviour is another essential aspect. This is because it informs people about how the culture behaves and thinks. Other aspects of the Semai culture, which should be known, are economic organization, values, and beliefs .Also, their social organization is of great importance in relation to the subsistence which they practice (Briggs, 2000).


The Semai are aboriginals and their population is appropriately 15000 people. Their houses are tiny hamlets, which house around a hundred people. The Semai have different systems, which are socio economic. Their staple food is rice, and they engage in other activities, to obtain different types of food. The nature of human beings is interesting as it involves different relationships, which are beneficial. The social relations that exist are based on reality concepts, as well as other material transactions. In some communities, the world that revolves around them is not of any significance (Briggs, 2000).

The Semai culture is found in Malaysia and it famous for being extremely peaceful. Most times, the Semai people view themselves as living in a world, which is extremely hostile. They believe that they are helpless and this is the reason why they tend to keep away from the outside world (Briggs, 2000). There is a need to understand the society’s sociality character. This is in terms of the human relations, which they experience.

This paper gives an analysis of the Semai people’s culture based on their subsistence practices. Also, how the society is affected by such practices in different ways.

Analysis of the Semai Culture

In the Semai society, violence does not occur at all, in that women are not beaten by their husbands, even children. The Semai live in small populations in the Malay Peninsula region. In order to earn a living, they engage in trapping, gathering, fishing and hunting. Most of their subsistence is based on gardening as well as other essential supplements. The region occupied by the Semai is full of mountains and forests located in the many valleys. The Semai live in bands, which have territories, which are well defined (Dentan, 2004). The territory mark is normally a valley or a river. The Semai clusters are made up of households consisting of multifamily and the extended family. They usually migrate in the different valleys as they try and find land for farming. This means that they have to abandon the farms, which were used before. Land reclamation is practiced by this society and it takes a period of more than thirty years.

The Semai engage in sharing of food, in order to obtain different kinds of food. Fish and meat is not preserved, but rather, eaten immediately it is obtained. Animals are killed and the households in the hamlet each obtain a fair share. Any kin member is entitled to a share of the meat. The society is extremely fair to the point whereby, the person who hunted the animal gets the same share as the rest. In turn, when the other hunters obtain their catch, he will also benefit by receiving some meat (Dentan, 2004). This is known as generalized reciprocity as it involves exchange whereby, all parties involved benefit. They believe that by exchanging and sharing food, they are protecting themselves and will not be affected by bad luck. This can take the form of hard times, injury and illness.

Food exchange is an essential element of the Semai society. Apart from food, they like other items such as tobacco, soap and food. They have a market found in the low valleys, and this is where most of the exchange takes place. This is how their economic system operates in ensuring that their needs are well catered for. They believe that everybody in the society can have a claim concerning matters related to food. This is an ideal, which is practiced by everyone. There is no reason why people should go hungry, yet food is in plenty. Their world view is extremely interesting, as well as different from that of the modern world. They believe that in order for people to survive in this dangerous and hostile world, the band support is extremely essential. This is because the band offers nurturance for survival purposes. They believe that spirits of a malovent nature live in the forest. The spirits seek to ensure that human beings are killed by them. Hardly ever do people go to the forest and those who attempt to do so, are viewed as being psychotic (Dentan, 2004). Their lives are full of many rituals and this is the method they use to wade off evil spirits. Taboos exist in this community and this discourages people from engaging in activities, which might upset the omnipresent dangers. The tight kinship ensures that people support each other all the time, from when one is born till they die. In case a band member becomes sick or is injured, they are assured that they will be taken care of. There is another belief that death, illness and nature is influenced by malovent spirits. In every kin, a spirits exists and has non-human and human qualities. Without community support, people cannot live fulfilling lives.

Food exchange is the reason why expression and symbolism exist in the Semai society. When someone is in need, contingency occurs. Acknowledgements are not expected as there is no loss or gain people experience from exchanging food. This means that people should not be expect to be paid due to their good deeds. Direct payment is not allowed in the Semai society as it is considered being a charge (Dentan, 2004). Anyone involved in direct offense has committed a serious offense .It is believed that an account is being kept by the person who has given out food. Also, the person was not generous when he was giving out the gift.

The Semai have the concept of pehunan, which is related to matters concerning food exchange. It means that people, who ask for food and are not given, face eminent danger and even death. This state is known as pehunan and the person may be attacked by snakes, wild animals, among others. The cultural significance of pehunan is that people, who do not have food, will not be able to survive in the outside world. In times of sickness, kin and neighbours are the ones, who should provide help to each other. Help should be provided unconditionally without expecting any favours. Everyone in the society is interdependent through the recognition and support they receive (Dentan, 2002). This cultural expression is known as tinghaa whereby, people who do not help their neighbours are bound to misery. Fishing, hunting and gardening, are subsistence endeavours and they have an element of bad luck. During death in the community, every band member participates by ensuring trees and bushes are cleared. They also engage in activities such as thatching the grave hut, digging the grave, among others. Age is not a factor in these activities as everyone benefits regardless of whether they are adults or children. The deceased is nurtured by the community as a sign of their last respects.

The subsistence economy of the Semai is being affected by the market of the economy. There are able to access many goods of a durable nature .They now know the importance of money as well as its purpose. Despite all these developments, the Semai still uphold their beliefs on sharing. They have an image to maintain and preserve, even though money dictates many activities. Exchanges are balanced by money transactions through the calculations. Money is a violation against sharing and generosity. Indecency and embarrassment has been brought about by money transactions to the Semai community (Dentan, 2002). Hunting stories and gossip occur when transactions are taking place. This is done to evade what is going on as it is viewed as being evil. Through money transactions, relationships which are social are made known. The seller shows the money by the buyer, who has to decline or accept it. This is a continuous process, which involves mostly the seller. This is known as reverse bargaining as money is pushed to and fro, until satisfaction is experienced by the two parties. The money has to be fair as well as equitable.

Those involved in such transactions should not show in the open how much they have gained. They ought to praise each other due to the generosity expressed. The ideal of reciprocity is expressed by the parties as they are able to ensure that fiction is maintained. This is helpful in their economy which is psychocultural (Dentan, 2002). Despite the fact that violations are occurring, the society benefits in many ways. The social relations are influenced by the nature of relationships and individuals.

The non-Orang Asli relates with the Semai in many ways and this has been taking place for many years. This took place when they were exchanging products such as iron and cloth. The Semai are however known for their production, which is subsistence oriented. In the last few decades, the Semai are involved in obtaining commodities, by buying using money. Some of the products, which they normally produce, are medicinal plants, bamboo, resins and gaharu. They earn most of their money through oil palm and rubber, which are essential cash crops in the community. Kampung Tual and Kampung Sungei Buntu are two Semai communities involved in such economic activities. They are known for being merchant capitals. This development is as a result of exchange, which was unequal. Most of the items produced in the traditional economy are now worthless (Dentan, 2002). They include items such as traps, blow pipes and water containers. These items are worthless, thus not of any value during exchange.

The Semai have procedures, which are followed, when it comes to settling disputes. They have to ensure that restoration is brought about through the diplomatic social relations. This is because disputes are related to the community’s sociocultural and psychological systems. Carthic and Adjudicative is sued to describe the goals, which the Semai people hope to achieve in the subsistence activities. They have a term known as bcaraa used to identify the nature of solving disputes. During conflicts, emotions are displayed and thus the cause of their grievance. In the Semai community, there is no organized political identity. This means the Bcaraa is in charge of handling any disputes (Bonta, & Douglas, 2006).

The world view of the Semai is that the world is full of malevolence whereby, people are bound to be killed or attacked. Human beings do not have the power to control their life. They are bound to misfortune, which is caused by the action they express in their lives. Malevolent beings are the ones responsible for evils such as death, injury and illness. The spirits are bound to ensure they attach human beings. The Semai community must ensure that they offer defence, in order to protect themselves. Séances are held for a period of three days, in order to fend off the evil spirits responsible for tragedy (Bonta, & Douglas, 2006).

They believe that there is no difference between violence and conflict, as they all lead to destruction of harmony in the society. It can also lead to bloodshed and eventually death. The band should gather courage to ensure that they offer defence against any posing threats. Through culture the Semai people are made to believe that everything they do in their life has repercussions. Their belief in sharing ensures that everybody in the society has their needs met. Only those who have disabilities such as the blind and the crippled are excluded from certain duties (Hand, 2003).The other able members work for the benefit of the whole community. Their social organization ensures that people are not discriminated, as everyone is expected to engage in the same activities. The economy of the Semai is dictated by the subsistence activities, which they carry out. The work ethic and way of life of the Semai people should be adopted by people in the western world. This is one of the ways which will bring an end to problems in society such as hunger, illness among others. This is the reason why the Semai people continue to flourish till today. They are now aware of the value, which money has, and how it can improve their lives. This means that culture has a great impact on people’s livelihoods and they fend for food.


In conclusion, the Semai are an extremely interesting culture, who needs to be known. They might be living in their own utopia but they are slowly beginning to embrace the ‘new’ world. Their main ways through, which they are able to survive, is through food exchange, fishing and hunting. This has in turn had a great impact on their political, economic organization. The impact has also been experienced in their values and values. The Semai should ensure that they maintain their rich culture. Thus culture is an essential aspect in any society in the world.


Bonta, Bruce. & Douglas P. (2006). Lessons for the Rest of Us: Learning from Peaceful Societies. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Briggs, Jean. (2000). Conflict Management in a Modern Inuit Community. In Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World: Conflict, Resistance, and Self-Determination. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Dentan, Robert. (2004). Cautious, Alert, Polite, and Elusive: The Semai of Central Peninsular Malaysia. New York: Routledge.

Dentan, Robert. (2002). Peace and Nonviolence: Anthropological Aspects. New York: Elsevier.

Hand, Judith. (2003). Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace. San Diego: Quest path.