A picture of Semai children

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The word "Bood," is a term of the Western Semai (a gentle, aboriginal people who live on the Malay peninsula) and translates roughly as "reluctant or shy." It means "not to feel like doing something, for any reason, for example, sickness, shyness, or laziness." Translated into today's language, it is simply one of our fundamental rights, the right to say no!

Robert Knox Dentan, in Chapter six of a book entitled "The Semai, A Nonviolent People of Malaya," (1979) Holt, Rinehart and Winston:New York elaborated on the amazing belief of "bood" and how it contributes to the lack of violence in this tribe of people. I ran across this concept by way of the book entitled: "Dark Nature, A Natural History of Evil," by Lyall Watson (1996) HarperCollins: New York, pg. 155.

You see, the children of Semai are taught from an early age, the concept of "bood." If a parent asks a child to do something and the child replies "I bood," in other words, "I don't feel like doing that," the matter is closed. The parent never tries to force or coerce the child to do something it does not want to do! Indeed, to do so is "punan" or taboo! These people find it totally abhorrent to even think of hitting or punishing their children to make them do something. According to the Semai, the Malays (who live in the more developed areas of the Malay peninsula) " 'are always hitting, hitting, hitting their children.' Semai almost never do. That is why, they conclude, Semai children are healthy and fat while Malay children are whining and scrawny..." When asked the reasons why an adult should not hit another, the simple reply is "Suppose he hit you back." I love the clear logic. If the other person hits you back, its going to hurt!

According to Dentan, "The Semai indulge their babies. Since infants cannot talk, the Semai say they cannot understand, and there is no sense trying to discipline them. Consequently, an infant can do almost anything it wants-hit people, expose its genitals, defecate anywhere, upset household arrangements. Everyone cuddles, carries, and plays with it. If it weeps, someone is always on hand to comfort it or to divert its attention. It sleeps between its parents, so that either can get up and rock it if it wakes up and weeps." Wow, this sounds like heaven to me! Unconditional acceptance!

The Semai's do not punish aggression in children. In fact, they find it to be funny, and when a child tries to hit an adult, they laugh! Well, think about it, most of the stuff little children fight about are so trivial, that to an adult, it really is funny. Instead of fighting, children from two to ten years of age, are taught a game where they can menace each other in dramatic postures with long sticks. However, when they swing the stick to strike an opponent, they always freeze a couple of inches away from the target, thus repeatedly rehearsing their fundamental rule of refraining from violence, so that it becomes second nature. Thus, the children and adults have little personal experience with violence, and so it does not even come to mind to use this tactic. In fact, they are scared of it! (We, on the other hand, see so much of it on TV, that naturally, it is the first thing that comes to mind.)

Furthermore, the child by the rules of this culture, are never placed in the awkward position of rebelling against the parents. If the child says "I bood," the parents do not object! The parents think it is wrong to pressure a child into obedience. There is no childhood power struggle with authority! Thus, all that resentment, which is the cause of so much delinquency in our youth, never gets to build up.

While all this happiness sounds too good to be true, there is a flaw in this system. Since no one can command or coerce another person to do something they don't want to do, there is no hierarchy or system of authority. No headsman, no bureacracy, no way of forcing a group of individuals to act as one unit. Thus, when the Semai come into contact with a world which does not follow these rules, they lose in the competition. Sadly, this population of kind, generous and fun loving people (who unfortunately are often considered by outsiders as timid and lazy) has dwindled down to population of less than 13,000. But maybe this population of people is onto something. Is there something beyond hierarchy? Perhaps this society is has more fairness and justice? Maybe we could adopt some of their rules?

There is also another population of non-violent aboriginal people in Malaya called the Temair described in the book entitled: "In Search of the Dream People," by Richard Noone with Dennis Holman, (1972), William Morrow & Company: New York. This fascinating group of people meet every morning to discuss their dreams! Consider the following commentary from this book (pg. 55):

"In the morning councils, when important dreams are discussed, the elders will consider not only the adults' dreams but those of the children. This inculcates in children a sense of responsibility, besides removing one of the prime causes for the feeling so common in Western children that adults have no real interests in the child as a person but are only concerned with making rules to impose their will upon him and receiving back from him echoes of their own ideas and attitudes. It is accepted by psychologists today that it is the failure of our society to appreciate and accept the children's spontaneous expression of his ideas that leads to inferiority and persecution complexes and at times to the type of pent-up hostility that can overflow into delinquency and crime...."

So parents, teachers .... when was the last time you really listened to your children? How about play with them?


Dentan, R K., (1979) "The Semai, A Nonviolent People of Malaya," Holt, Rinehart and Winston:New York.
Lewandowski, J. (2000) "Americans' Use of Discipline Examined," University at Buffalo Reporter, v31(21) pg.3
Noone, R., Holman, D. (1972). "In Search of the Dream People," William Morrow & Company: New York.
Watson, Lyall, (1996) "Dark Nature, A Natural History of Evil," HarperCollins: New York, pg. 155.
Dentan, RK, Bibliography of articles on Semai and nonviolence

First posted in February 1997, last updated 30 December 2002

Copyright © 1997-2000 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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