The Semai have no police, no courts, and no government per se. According to Dentan, 1979, adults appear to be controlled primarily by public opinion. The Semai themselves say "There is no authority here but embarrassment." Although popular and verbally-facile individuals are influential in public affairs, the Semai have no formal leaders.
Disputes in the Semai community are resolved by holding a bcaraa', or public assembly, at the headman's house. This assembly may last for days and involves thorough discussion of the causes, motivations and resolution of the dispute by disputants and the whole community, ending with the headman charging either or both of the disputants not to repeat their behavior lest it endanger the community. The Semai even have a saying, "there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger" (de Waal, 2005).
Children are never punished or forced against their will. The word "bood" means "not to want to." If a parent asks a child to do something and the child says "I bood," the matter is ended. The games Semai children play are non-competitive (Bonta 1997). One game involves hitting at other children with sticks; the sticks, however, always stop short a few inches from their target so that no one actually gets struck. Children appear to be taught to fear their own aggressive impulses. Parents use fear of strangers and violence in nature such as thunderstorms to control children (Dentan, 1979).
It is thought that the Semai are the remnants of the original, ancient and widespread population of Southeast Asia. According to Keene State College’s "Orang Asli Archive," in 1991 there were 26,627 Semai living on the Malay Peninsula.
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