Update on Semai Kids
Return to Bood
This is a work in progress not to be quoted or cited without the permission
of the author:
Copyright © 1999 by Robert
Date: Thu, 25 Feb 1999 23:02:42 -0500
From: rkdentan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Duen Hsi
Subject: Update on Semai kids
APPENDIX: TEACHING KIDS FEAR AND NONVIOLENCE
(This is an appendix to a chapter on the bloodcurdling stories Se,mai
tell their kids; not for citation without asking, please)
Semai don't set out consciously to raise nonviolent kids: they just
want children to know that they're safe with their close kin and
neighbors--not anywhere else. An older man from Kniik, a teacher, said
on 21 March 92 , "We kid [-gahleeh ] our children about Head Choppers so
that they'll stay home and not go wandering off."
A Semai man, 35, from Tapah, a big town, told me on 28 March
1992 that his 9 year old son "still -siil a little" (i.e., was
timid & shy) but "not as much in the old days. In the old days
kids would run away from anything, strangers, cars, anything."
[Actually , they still did in 1992 in the rural areas]. "Because
the old folks would make them afraid [-srng>h ] them, about Head
Choppers, stuff like that. We don't -srng>h our kids like that
any more, they go to school with other kids... Buuut [shakes his
head], o, our People [ruefully]. They still -siil, but they're
beginning to be a little bolder [-branii'']."
Kids are scared, he said, -sa'ng>h, "are affected by fear," in the first
Many peoples besides Semai use visits by strangers to frighten kids,
even when the strangers are benign (e.g., Dentan 1992:231-232;
1994:79-80). The kids usually wind up as circumspect adults,
self-restrained and cautious. I don't think the child-rearing
techniques they use would have the same results outside their
traditional context, but if you're interested you can read about them
elsewhere (Dentan 1978, 1979: 59-64). Any place, not just among Semai,
where adults feel responsible for all the local children, is a place
where violence is uncommon (e.g., McGarrell, Giacomazzi and Thurman
1997:485,488; Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls 1997:918). Here I just want
to talk (1) about what happens to a child who is aggressive in Semai
terms, and (2) about the absence among traditional Semai of the
practices social scientists say make children into violent adults.
Semai kids get little active attention from adults, although they
always have a lap to go to or an adult body to lean on. They need to
learn autonomy early. One of the things they learn is that nobody
responds to the tantrums which become the lesnees, harangues, of
adults. For example, here is a lightly edited observation from the
Waar, 10 Nov. 1991:
[A little girl] threw a wild screaming hissy up in the public area
[of the settlement, outdoors], apparently because her kin went off
to [an upstream settlement] and left her behind. No one paid any
attention, although [Cat] did ask me if it was Elizabeth. Her
housemates and the girls in her playgroup stood around and
watched, without moving into her space. [The girls] explained
what was happening when I came by after 5-6 minutes, then [they]
moved away. You sure have to deal with your own susah sngii'
[emotional upset] here.
To understand how Semai traditionally treated agressive kids, you need
to meet Hamid. He's a skinny Tluup boy, about 7 years old in 1962. His
belly sticks out, probably from a combination of swollen spleen due to
malaria and swollen liver due to protein deficiency. His curly hair's a
little reddish and brittle, also maybe because of protein deficiency.
His upper lip is a little split, and maybe his palate's a little
damaged. He's pretty antsy but not very verbal.
People don't much like Hamid, not adults, not other kids. He loses his
temper sometimes when he's playing the game other Tluup kids play,
swatting away at each other with sticks but hardly ever actually
touching each other (photos in Alland 1981:146; Dentan 1989: 101 pl. 2,
116n2). Semai adults usually ignore children's activities, including
squabbling, but Hamid's screaming and flailing around with his stick at
the other kids brought his aunt down from her house. She picked him up
by the armpits and carried him away, shrieking, to his mother while the
other children in the playgroup, boys and girls of all ages, watched
The intervention isn't about kids getting hurt, I think.
17 June 1992 R'eeis. Little Bah 'Abi came into our house,
weeping uncontrollably, and nestled on his dad's lap. His dad
asked if the other kids had been bothering him, and, getting no
answer, said kids are like that, they -katii', squabble, a lot.
A little later 'Abi's mom came up, while 'Abi was still weeping
and asked his dad,
"He tired?" 'Abi said he was, and they dropped the matter. Of
course, maybe 'Abi hadn't been hurt physically. There's a lot of
verbal teasing, approaching abuse, among Semai. Maybe 'Abi -br-
snlar, had been laughed at [from -slar, -sler, guffaw,
giggle], while people were mocking (-luk ) him. People say a
sulky kid is angry, -bl'aal. Anyway, neither parent checked the
situation out, and I would have been surprised if they did.
Nor was the intervention because Hamid had made threat gestures. The
Tluup battle game itself reflects the fact that Semai make threat
gestures often, particularly toward children, and children often make
threat gestures at each other. Violence is always immanent, just really
In the mid-1970s at Mncaak Bah Robert, a namesake of mine, my cny'
(yBroSo), used to fake karate kicks at my daughter Sarah a lot,
but never connected with her, she said,though we lived there for
several weeks. Both children were 6. I saw a lot of fake
martial arts kicks by kids, usually boys, in the 1990s, but
no kicking. A lot of chasing and fleeing, usually larger and
smaller kids, respectively, not male/female.
On the Tluup the wrestling consisted of holding on to some other kid's
shoulders and pretending to try to throw him/her down. Since partners
were often of quite different sizes, you couldn't actually struggle,
just fake it.
I usually noticed play fighting among kids, but there's a good deal of
roughhousing among litaaw, young men and almost pubescent boys. One
litaaw may drag another against his will onto a dance floor, for
example. There's some routine pushing and shoving. But mnaleh, the
female equivalent of litaaw , roughhouse too.
My sense is that Hamid's problem was the loss of self-control, not the
fighting. For the blows not to hit the target, kids have to be under
control. Generally adults ignore kids, though in the evening as they
sit on the house stairs, relaxing and cooling off, they watch kids
fooling around and smile; or, when the kids laugh or shriek too loudly,
say (still grinning themselves) "Trlaac, trlaac. " The word trlaac
refers to cosmic upheavals attendant on the loss of self-control, a
catastophe associated with thundersqualls, floods and earthquakes and
involving the dissolution of all cognitive boundaries.
2 March 1992, Caweh, a 20 yr old woman from Sungkeey, a Perak
border town in the lowlands, said she'd drag off any of her kids
who actually hit someone to her house, for fear of being fined, a
common Semai response to torts. "We have no money [to pay fines],
she says, because her husband drinks it up. She complained
to the Malay teacher after Malay schoolkids called her children
Sakai ("nigger") and beat them up. He lectured the children, she
said, and told them "We're all one humanity"
Usually, when kids hit larger people, the larger people laugh and ward
off the blows. But Hamid hits his mother a lot. If she rebukes him,
for example, he hits her; she cringes and says "Adoh, adoh," ouch
ouch. After he's hit her a few times, he bursts into tears. She
complains about how often he hits her. He hit her with a machete one
time while we were there, giving her a cut above the eye which got
infected. He also hit her with a large bamboo water tube once. He
sometimes makes the insult gesture, pulling down the lower lid of an
eye, at adults.
I talk with his uncle Mrlooh about Hamid. A good child, like
Mrlooh's, sleeps with its same-sexed parent, head on the parent's arm,
until the child has passed puberty. Hamid's mother plays with Hamid's
genitals and lets the boy sleep with her. I've seen them cuddling
together. It's tolah , Mrlooh says, taboo violation, using a word that
in this context carries a lot of the same weight as "child sexual abuse"
does in 1990's American English. He adds that Hamid doesn't eat much
and doesn't sleep soundly. He wakes up in the middle of the night and
hits his parents. You couldn't hit him to punish him, though, he says.
"Suppose you hit your child, and it DIED?" Take a moment, reader, and
think about that. What you could do is -cwent , pinch the child's
cheek near the mouth and twist the pinched flesh; or -crwant, scratch
the child with one's nails; or -trnyuul, "point the finger," i.e. poke
at the child's eye with one's finger, without actually touching it.
A kid who hits people like that is sort of crazy, says Mrlooh. The
parent of a child who has completely lost his temper "might tie the kid
up and put it out in the pnraa; the heat of the sun. But it wouldn't
do any good, because the other parent would untie it as soon as
possible." Hamid's mother told my wife that everyone wants to beat her
son up, but Mrlooh says that's not true, although he concedes that
people often threaten Hamid. When Hamid makes angry aggressive
gestures towards the other children, the larger kids respond by
threatening him, e.g. with the English phrase 'fucking you', which they
picked up from counterinsurgency troops and which amuses them. The
smaller kids just avoid him.
The reluctance of Semai to hit kids has something to do with the
importance of self-reliance, "individual autonomy" as anthropologists
say, in Semai life. Learning to be obedient to apparently foolish
parental demands is important to, say, Alphavillean life, where most
people work in hierarchically organized institutions: do what your boss
says and do what your mom says are matching imperatives. But that's
not how Semai adults traditionally lived, and the parents' relative lack
of concern about "obedience" as a value in itself matches their own
lives, in which obedience isn't very important. In Alphaville, adults
in jobs which demand obedience tend to beat their children; people who
get to think for themselves usually do not (Steinmetz 1971).
Most of the time Semai children see no physical violence except the
overwhelming violence of thundersqualls and floods, although they hear
about violence all the time. Even nowadays, except when people have
been drinking (see chapter on Juni), there seems to be little spousal
abuse to give children a model for beating people up. Klip of 'Icek,
50, who has 10 kids, says, "If you -kyyd sngiid ha knah, hold a
resentment towards your wife, it's like starting a little fire which can
burn down your whole house."
Parents rarely punish children with harsh violence. A Waar woman
asks, "Why would we hit them? They're our children." 'Apel of Mncaak,
33, who has no kids of his own, says he might yell at neighborhood kids
to scare them off, if they -rmeeh (were messing with) something that
belonged to him, like his durian fruits. Right off, they'd run away, he
says; he wouldn't hit them. Long of 'Icek, 31, who has three children,
says he might pretend to hit them with a stick but wouldn't actually hit
them; I've seen this sort of physical threat several times. In 1992,
two old friends from Mncaak, Saiyah and Kin-Sima (see Dentan 1993)
discussed haranguing, lsnees, and swatting, ptnuut , children, when one
is angry, -bl'aal.
Saiyah. When I'm angry at kids, I harangue them. When I harangue
them[remaining seated, she makes a little jump forward, to show
how she harangues them], I don't swat them [shoving away gesture
with both hands.]
Boy, 7. When she harangues, she talks a lot.
Kin-Sima. You know, if you're always angry at your child, the
child gets angry. If you always harangue them, they'll harangue
Caweeh, a 20 year old married woman from Sungkeey, said much the same
thing: "We think that if you speak harshly to your children, they'll
become harsh." Western research tends to confirm this insight (e.g.,
Suttie 1960:74, referring to traditional Bemba childrearing). There is
"a consensus among social scientists that spanking should not be used as
a method of discipline for children younger than 2 years or for
adolescents" (Gunnoe and Mariner 1997:768). Semai say you shouldn't
punish children under two, because, not being able to talk, they don't
know they're doing anything wrong. And you shouldn't punish an
adolescent, a litaw or mnaleeh , because they are no longer children.
I have never seen any punishment of children in those age groups, nor
has the richly inventive and often malicious system of gossip brought
any instance to my attention.
In general, Alphavillean social scientists say, harsh or corporal
punishment produces children more prone to violence than other kids are,
even when the parents are punishing violence by the children (Fry i.p.;
Straus 1974:58; Straus, Sugarman and Giles-Sims 1997 and surveys of
literature therein). Though the children's interpretation of the
punishment modifies this effect, it does not erase it (Gunnoe and
Mariner 1997). Spanking and other forms of beating can have bad effects
on other aspects of a child's life (Smith and Brooks-Gunn 1997), though
perhaps not as dramatic as Mrlooh reported in 1962 (Dentan 1979:58-59):
We never hit our children. Malays are always hitting hitting
hitting their children.That's why our children are sturdy and
healthy and Malay children are like baby rats [always whining and
I have seen (or, oftener, overheard) some instances of corporal
punishment, more in the 1990s than the 1960s I think. I don't want to
say that Semai always follow their own rules in raising children.
But in Alphaville, parents of all social strata beat almost all
toddlers and half the adolescents (Straus 1971:658; Straus 1974:58;
Thus, because almost all American children experience
C[orporal]P[unishment], although to varying degrees, our findings
suggest that almost all American children could benefit from a
reduction or elimination of CP. Moreover, considering
research showing that A[nti]S[social]B[ehavior] in childhood is
associated with violence and other crime as an adult, society as a
whole, not just children, could benefit from ending the system of
violent childrearing that goes under the euphemism
of spanking [Straus, Sugarman and Giles-Sims 1997:767].
A fifth of the parents in Alphaville use some sort of technology, a belt
or rod, to beat their kids. And, whether or not beaten children become
violent adults, many Alphavilleans are willing to argue that "spare the
rod and spoil the child" makes beating one's children, "just a few swats
on the butt," good for them. They need the pain and humiliation,
Alphavilleans argue. The angriest least coherent correspondence I have
ever received followed an op ed piece in the Buffalo News in which I
suggested that beating kids wasn't good for them. So the Semai way is
quite different, both in the frequency with which people beat their kids
and in their willingness to argue in favor of beating children.
Similarly, Alphavillean adults tend to think of bullying in school,
which affects more than three quarters of Alphavillean adolescents and
seems to be getting worse, as a normal "part of growing up" (Rapp and
Wodarski i.p.). Indeed, about a fifth of Alphavillean children admit
having bullied others.
And, unlike Alphavilleans, most Semai parents expect children to be
timid and nonviolent. Adults keep an eye on each other's children, and
expect that their neighbors will do the same. They cry "Trlaac, trlaac"
often [trlaac refers to causing a thundersquall by losing
self-control], usually smiling or laughing when they do, because
children's glee is infectious, and intervene only when a child seems to
have completely lost control (e.g., Dentan 1978:131-132). This context,
low punishment and low expectation, is the one in which children are
least likely to use physical violence, although it doesn't render them
incapable of doing so (Dentan 1978; Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls
Education by the State
When Semai children go to government schools, though, there's a big
change (see Dentan 1993a for a general discussion). Part of the
problem, according to a UNESCO report, is that teaching impoverished and
"culturally deprived" children in Malaysian rural backwaters does not
attract qualified teachers (Anon. 1990), and the government's worry
about Semai contacts with non-Malay outsiders reportedly discourages
non-Malay teachers. In 1998 there were only about 70 Orang Asli
teachers in 95 Orang Asli schools and 47 hostels, and not all of them
shared the language or culture of their students. Semai say that Malay
teachers are often absent or do little actual teaching. My observations
suggest that they are right. In 1976 at one school where my wife
taught a class in English for free, the Malay teacher would show up an
hour or so late, read his paper for an hour or less, and go home. In
one case, the only Malay teacher available was a gardener by training
(Juli Edo 1998:254n13).
But even good and dedicated teachers--I've met a few-- face another
problem. Authoritarian Islamic education of the sort the Malaysian
authorities press on Semai kids relies heavily on rote learning;
understanding the material is secondary (Eikelman 1978:493, 510, 511).
For example, the assimilationist curriculum has required since 1925
that the children learn Arabic script, so that they can read the Quran
on their way to becoming Malays. But most kids will not convert. The
script, they say, "looks like worm shit" and is about as useful (Juli
That was the sort of education Semai children along the R'eiis expected
us to give them in English. They'd draw up lists of English words for
us to test them on. But the idea of actually using English speech
except in response to specific arbitrary demands was strange to them.
The hidden curriculum, for Semai kids, is to familiarize themselves with
the experience of a having a Malay authority coerce them into performing
tasks that are apparently senseless, to be obsequious in the presence
of their betters, to want to become like Malays (for the notion of
"hidden curriculum," see Jackson [1968/1990]). Semai schoolchildren at
'Icek in 1992 actually put things away after playing with them at our
This experience is common among colonialized peoples (cf. Nowak and
Dentan 1984:50). Teaching the children of subordinate people "their
place" in a hierarchy is one way that hierarchical peoples keep their
hierarchies stable (e.g., Wilcox 1982). But Islamic education in
general and Malaysian education in particular, at least until recently,
also stress "corporal punishment," a polite way of saying that adults,
usually the school headmasters, beat children with rattan canes ,
usually on the (sometimes naked) buttocks or on the palms of the hands
where there are lots of nerves (Eikelman 1978:494,495; Lat 1977a:41,
89-91 and 1977b:[unpaginated]). When a Malay father turns his child
over to a religious teacher, he ceremonially hands the teacher a cane
with which to beat the child, the way traditional Malay parents do. A
Malay humorist from Perak recalls:
My enrolment in the class was made in the traditional way. I can
still remember clearly what happened. Dad handed over to Tuan
Syed a bowl of glutinous rice, a fee of $1 and a small cane and
then said: "Tuan, I am handing over my son to you in the hope that
you'd teach him the Koran. Make him as if he is your own child...
if he is stubborn or naughty don't hesitate to punish him with
this cane--as long as it doesn't reach the extent of breaking any
of his bones or blinding his eyes." Tuan Syed took the cane and
nodded. Thus end[ed] the formality.
But I noticed the teacher already had his own cane (Lat 1977:
It's interesting, that bit about "blinding his eyes," isn't it? You have
to worry about your children's eyes, about maay klooh mat, the
mythical "eye-gougers," if you're parents who love their children and
are turning them over to a teacher.
Caning was novel to Semai children and adults, who tended not to like
it. It was a holdover from the same extraordinarily brutal
Alphavillean notion of schooling that gave kids the ditty about
reading and writing and 'rithmatic
taught to the tune of a hickory stick.
In the 1990s the Malaysian educational system began to move away from
physical punishment. Middle-class parents won't stand for it. Until
then, as the following table compiled by Juli Edo (1991:19) suggests, it
made school unattractive to Orang Asli children.
DROPOUT RATES FOR ORANG ASLI PRIMARY SCHOOL CHILDREN, 1978-1988
YEAR First Year Sixth Year Dropout Rate (%)
1978 2317 1983 705 69.57
1979 3102 1984 575 75.60
1980 2304 1985 654 71.61
1981 2416 1986 783 67.59
1982 2416[?] 1987 944 60.93
1983 2868 1988 1000 [?] 65.13
0n March 5, 1995, the Sunday Mail reported that in October of the
previous year, while their education was still under the control of the
JHEOA, about two thirds of Orang Asli children (47,141 out of 70,845)
between the ages of 5 and 18 weren't attending school at all.
Responding to the utter failure of the JHEOA educational program, the
Education Ministry had taken over 94 Orang Asli primary schools on
February 15, 1995. The Ministry allocated M$45.5 million for
"developing" the schools, but said that they expected problems because
"many qualified teachers are reluctant to teach in Orang Asli Schools
due to the lack of facilities and because the environment is not
conducive to learning." In 1998 or 1999 the JHEOA apparently stopped
subsidizing Orang Asli children, leaving the poorest people in the
country the responsibility for paying school fees and incidental
expenses (Baer 1999). A Malay columnist replied that "how willing
teachers are to take on Orang Asli schools depends on what the ministry
has to offer by way of incentive," noting that "teachers will be making
a terrible mistake if, at the outset, they believe that the culture of
Orang Asli is inferior to theirs."
The "third stage" of school reform, announced early in 1998, envisions
less reliance on rote learning. The goal, suggested by Deputy Prime
Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, is a "caring" and "humane" society.
But colonial-style corporal punishment is still popular among
Malaysian ruling circles: for example, in March 1998 the Inspector
General of Police suggested flogging in public for illegal refugees from
the economic disaster in Indonesia.
Despite the changes, Semai children still play hooky, or run away from
school (Radzi Sapiee 1997). At the end of 1997, Ikram Jamaluddin,
the retiring head of the JHEOA (1997) blamed the children for cutting
school, citing a study by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in which
55.6% of Orang Asli school dropouts said they left because they were
"bored and lazy" and "not interested." On any given day, as many as
half of them won't show up. Sometimes they simply get very quiet in
school, the way Malaysian Chinese schoolchildren from homes where
parents don't hit children do (Sarbadhikary 1971:67). In 1998, only a
little more than a third of Orang Asli made it through primary school;
of those who entered secondary school, 93% dropped out (Hwa and Lee
1998). Shifting the control of their schooling to the Department of
Education has had no effect.
The parents, Ikram (1997) went on, were also to blame. They "play
truant at work or drop out." And parents often support their kids'
truancy, not just because neither the parents nor the children like the
treatment the kids get, but also because (especially in fruit season)
children's labor is esasential to the traditional economy. And parents
are afraid of the teachers, says Malay anthropologist Hasan Mat Noor
(Hwa and Lee 1998).
Still, for all its unattractiveness, the school does represent their
link to all the rewards of modern Malaysian society. In fact, despite
the physical difficulties of getting to school and the contempt with
which they are treated when they get there, Semai, like other Orang
Asli, sometimes overcome considerable obstacles to their schooling.
Keeping their clothes above water level - the boys' blue trousers
folded up to their knees while the girls' long skirts [were] held
at the tips - they waded across the stream, avoiding the deep
end. Their books held on their head or tucked under their
arms, they soon put on their socks and shoes and made their way to
[school]... It was not long before a boy a boy was seen walking
half-naked through the stream with only his white shirt on, his
face puzzled by the onlookers, including the TV3 [national
broadcasting system] camera crew who quickly switched on a camera
to get the rare footage of a teenager raring to go to school
despite the watery obstacle...[But a teacher] said out of the 126
pupils registered there, slightly more than half attend regularly
(Radzi Sapiee 1997).
The teachers say the students do not appreciate the value of education.
Though Hasan says the parents do not value education, most of the
parents say they do, and the evidence supports them (Hwa and Lee
Whatever its other failures, school does make the children so ignorant
of traditional skills that they can't revert to the old Semai ways
(Dentan 1993; Dentan et al. 1997). Some students of violence, the
so-called "social reproductionists," argue that the schools' violence
towards the children of the poor replicates the dominant society's
subjugation of their parents, no doubt a useful lesson (Devine
1997:29). Caning or milder forms of physical "discipline" teach Semai
children (1) that powerful people (teachers, Malays, adults) think it's
okay to hurt less powerful people (pupils, Semai, kids) physically, and
(2) that the Semai children themselves can survive violence. Occasional
beatings by their Malay classmates reinforce this lesson in civility, as
does their practice, which Semai say is common, of putting their
book-bags on the bus seats and removing them only for other Malay kids,
so that the Semai children have to stand. Despite their parents'
emphasis on not retaliating against the Malay children, some Semai
children, of course, try to respond in kind, as the teachers expect them
to do and punish them for doing. Thus from a situation in which adults
do not expect physical violence from children and do not punish the
children with physical violence, the children move into one in which
violent adults expect them to be violent too. Psychologists say the
first sort of situation is one which is the most likely to produce
nonviolent people (Dentan 1978).
They also can learn global mass media values. Images of physical
violence transcend language barriers and pervade foreign films. Semai
like Tamil (Indian) movies and martial arts ones. Unlike the heros of
traditional cautionary tales, the heros of modern mass media do not have
to tranform themselves into monsters to be powerful. Bruce Lee, Arnold
Schwatzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are heroes whose pictures, clipped
out of magazines or newspapers, adorn the walls of many Semai houses
nowadays. A 12-year-old boy in 'Icek in 1992 proudly showed me his best
slingshot, on which he had carved "RAMBO" in capital letters. As early
as the 1970s, little Mncaak boys practiced karate kicks on each other,
without actually touching each other's bodies. By the 1990s, in areas
as remote as the Waar, little boys dressed up as soldiers: I took some
photgraphs of their elaborate homemade costumes and gave their discarded
toy weapons with the photographs to the American Museum of Natural
History, where you can see them if you ask. Even by himself, a little
boy at 'Icek in the 1990s would act out violence, sparring for example
with the water coming out of the village water tap.
Most Semai children simply fantasize about the media violence they see,
like children elsewhere; it does not legitimize violence although it
glamourizes power (e.g., Guggenbuhl 1996:27-33). The violence is inside
the children now, and coming back out.