In a speech last Friday, Robert Dentan described how the beauty of Semai nonviolence could inspire the rest of the world. Dentan’s presentation was part of the weekly “ Asia at Noon” brown bag luncheon series hosted by the Asian Studies Program at the University at Buffalo. His talk, titled “From Savages to Serfs: How Malaysia Schools its Aborigines,” focused particularly on the Semai.
An emeritus professor of anthropology at SUNY Buffalo, Dentan emphasized to his audience the fact that the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula view violence differently from many Americans. They may scream loudly and publicly, but they absolutely abhor expressions of physical violence.
He told his audience that the Semai are quite hospitable and polite; their morality and language disapprove of violence in any form. They think that striking a child could kill it. He explained that they are normally concerned about the welfare of their neighbors. In his opinion, they may be the most peaceful society on earth. He has worked with the Semai people for six years.
He explained that the Semai have very different psychological and philosophical systems from Americans. They have no written texts and no central authority structure. One of the major factors that has influenced them is that, for centuries, outsiders raided their communities for slaves. Their culture is a response, in part, to that history of slave raiding.
Dentan effectively described the Semai beliefs: “They have a unique system of morality and law. They believe that if you (inflict) even verbal or symbolic violence to others, you will bring them stress and thus run the risk of doing them physical harm. You need them as helpers in times of need. Therefore, [the Semai] have always maintained a strict sense of nonviolence among themselves.”
He explained how Semai children are constantly in contact with adults, who are normally quite permissive. They do not require their children to be obedient. Children are constantly running around, playing with adults, he said.
“Obedience is not a value for the egalitarian Semai. The children, however, learn from the behavior of their parents.” He mentioned that when a Semai friend of his came to Buffalo, he wondered why American children were not outside playing with adults . Dentan said he still keeps in contact with scholars and friends in Malaysia, a country that he really loves. “It is almost like a second home to me,” he concluded.