A peaceful Malaysian culture by the name of Semai, is mostly known for their non-violence approach to life. This society calls the Malay Peninsula of South Asia home. With a unique way of life, the environment and their beliefs help mold the culture and its people. This paper will outline how the Semai culture socially interacts, survives in the forest and why they remain such a peaceful culture.
Living in various areas within the mountains and rainforests of Malay Peninsula, the Semai culture is highly opposed to violent activity and is always on the move. This non-violent belief is also a contributing factor to why Semai’s move around peninsula, because if any type of tension is created between neighboring groups or tribes the Semai will quickly relocate to avoid violence. In comparison to the lives in America, Semai’s daily activities are much different. As a foraging group, which means they live a hunting and gathering lifestyle; the Semai’s are always moving around year after year in search for new prime areas that are good for farming and hunting. As a foraging community, Semai’s also practice some horticultural techniques for example, cutting and burning greens and using the ashes an enriched fertilizer to the crops (Nowak & Laird, 2010). In the small Semai community labor is divided among the men and the women.
Men are mostly responsible for hunting, women are responsible for things like weaving and harvesting rice, however everyone works together when taking care and maintaining the crops. The Semai community is mostly made of nuclear families, meaning the families are made of both the mother and father and the children. The Semai community does not have a true political structure but the eldest male in the family are looked at as the leader and they rely on him to keep the peace. During any decision making within the Semai group women and men are involved. Like many other cultures the elders are also looked at for guidance during any decision makings because they are the most experienced and respecting within the family and community (Nowak & Laird, 2010). Gender relationships are easy going concept in the Semai culture because both genders are equal in the culture. Semai’s believe in the bilateral descent system, which is also the system most American’s believe in. Bilateral descent means the kinship connection is equally important on the mother and father side.
There is not a formal wedding ceremony between man and woman. The community will simply recognize a man and woman as a married couple if they are sleeping, eating, and living together. If the couple stops this activity then they would be considered separated (Peacefulsocities.org). Within this peaceful culture everything is shared, so thanking someone is actually an offensive gesture because the culture greatly believes in sharing. Sharing does not only take place within the nuclear family. Sharing is a way of life for everyone in the community, so whatever food that’s available is equally shared with everyone. Even the elderly or sick that were not able to contribute are still given equal shares as everyone else. A simple act like this explains why this culture is so peaceful. To openly share with everyone in your community or village without a second thought and to get offended when someone says “thank you” shows a true noble characteristic.
This is something that the American society can learn from. In addition, this culture is a great example of how generalized reciprocity work, because during this practice an immediate return is not expected, it is just believed that everything will work it’s self out in the long run (Nowak & Laird, 2010). Even when working outside the Semai community, the beliefs and morals of the Semai culture is still reflected in their thought process. The example below will illustrate how the people of Semai would struggle with modern day thinking of production and labor, which also means you have to separate the responsibilities of work and family. “A Semai man was hired by a logging company to level an area in the highlands, working a specified number of hours over four days. Instead of working over the requested period he completed the job all in one day, freeing the other days to work in his orchards and fields.
When he went to collect his wages, the manager informed him he would not be paid because he did not follow their instructions. The Semai man did not demonstrate the punctuality and discipline the company required. In industrialized society, time is perceived in a linear, progressive fashion. Time is commoditized (“time is money”), it is scarce (“don’t waste time”), and it is organized by a clock. For the Semai man and other preliterate peoples, time is repetitive, cyclical, and unchanging. Time is not alienable; in other words, it cannot be bought. sold, or transferred to anyone else, and there is sufficiency. Time is not organized by a clock but by nature and rituals.
Thus, based on the above comparison of concepts of time, it is clear there would be a difference of opinion. The Semai man argued that to work the schedule the company had requested would have prevented him from finding additional work and restricted his ability to go hunting; he had completed the task satisfactorily and therefore deserved payment. To him, how he had completed it in terms of scheduling was irrelevant—he had been asked to level a field and he had done so. Whether the task was completed in one day or four was unimportant—the work was done (Dentan, 1977)” (Nowak & Laird, 2010).
The Semai culture believes in Punan, which includes a list of different sanctions that encourages proper behavior such as sharing and non-violence. Semai’s believe that human feelings such as, unfulfilled desires could cause an individual to be vulnerable to evil spirit that can cause a person to become ill or die. It is also believed that these forbidden internal emotions can even cause animal attacks to a person. The surrounding forest is also considered to be full of evil spirits that are waiting to attack. So anyone that decides to venture out on their own are at great risk and the Semai community would assume that individual has gone mad or crazy.
With the belief that there are malevolent spirits that are waiting to prey on the living, the Semai culture believe that remaining peaceful and sharing is a vital factor to their livelihood (Robarchek, 1998). This belief system also reflects how Semai children are raised. Due to the importance of non violence children would rarely receive and physical punishment, however they would receive threats of punishment from evil spirits. Due to the closeness of the Semai community, everyone is involved in raising the child which embodies the importance of sharing.
From childhood individuals are taught how to behave, what to believe, what to value and how to produce. In conjunction to these basic elements and the environment around us, we are molded into individuals that create these interesting cultures around the world. The Semai culture is very different from others due to their belief system and their way of life. However, they are very similar to other cultures with their kinship and social structure. This paper outlined how the Semai culture socially interacts by encouraging gender equality and respect, foraging and using horticultural techniques in the forest, and remaining peaceful through the Punan belief. .
Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education Peaceful Socities.org (n.d). Peaceful Societies. Alternatives to Violence and War. Retrieved November 19, 2012 from http://www.peacefulsocieties.org/society/semai.html Robarchek, C. A., & Robarchek, C. J. (1998). Reciprocities and realities: World views, peacefulness.. Aggressive Behavior, 24(2), 123-133. Retrieved December 1, 2012 from EBSCO Sørensen, M. (2007). Competing Discourses of Aggression and Peacefulness. Peace Review, 19(4), 603-609. doi:10.1080/10402650701681251 Retrieved December 1, 2012 from EBSCO
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