Malaysia is the homeland of numerous indigenous tribes. We present here two of them: the Penan from Sarawak, the malaysian part of Borneo and the Semai from Malaya, the main island. Both ethnic groups are the remnants of the original, ancient and widespread population of Southeast Asia. They are called in Malaysian language “Orang Asli”. However, the very first settlers in the area must have been Negritos similar to the Andamanese - a few of them are still living there even today.

Numbering some 7,600, of whom perhaps a few hundreds remain deep in the forest following their ancient way of life, the Penan are one of the few truly nomadic rainforest societies of the earth. Like most nomadic rainforest peoples, the Penan are egalitarian and nonhierarchical. Their social structure is based on an extended network of obligations, mediated by a host of kin ties and a complex naming system that links the generations even as it aligns the living with the dead. In the absence of social stratification, there are no specialists. Although certain individuals may be more talented than others at specific tasks, the hunting and gathering adaptation demands self-sufficiency, and each person must be capable of participating in every societal activity. Tthe Penan never practiced agriculture and are depended instead on wild populations of sago palm for their basic carbohydrate supply. As hunters and gatherers they traditionally moved through the immense and remote forested uplands that give rise to the myriad affluents of the Baram River in Sarawak's Fourth Division; isolated populations ranged east across the frontier into Indonesian Kalimantan and north into Brunei.

For the Penan the forest is alive, pulsing, responsive in a thousand ways to their physical needs and their spiritual readiness. The products of the forest include roots that cleanse, leaves that cure, edible fruits and seeds, and magical plants that empower hunting dogs and dispel the forces of darkness. There are plants that yield glue to trap birds, toxic latex for poison darts, rare resins and gums for trade, twine for baskets, leaves for shelter and sandpaper, wood to make blowpipes, boats, tools, and musical instruments. For the Penan all of these plants are sacred, possessed by souls and born of the same earth that gave birth to the people. In Penan society proper social behavior is learned by example rather than by rigorous discipline, and the importance of sharing is instilled in children from the earliest age. Young boys mastering the use of the blowpipe, for example, are encouraged to carefully divide the cooked meat from the smallest of prey, allotting equal portions to all the other children.

But the Penan way of life - and the incomparable knowledge they have amassed about how to live in community with the forest and with each other - may soon disappear. In the time it takes to read a paragraph of this text, another three hectares of the Borneo rainforest will have been cut down (as late as 1983, Malaysian logging provided 58% of all tropical log exports on the world market). Driven from their homeland by logging, the Penan face "no trespassing" signs on their own rainforests. Relocated Penan now live in squalid government resettlements and drink from polluted waters.

The Semai are a semisedentary people living in the center of the Malay Peninsula, known especially for their nonviolence. They speak Semai, a Mon-Khmer language. The Semai are horticulturalists who have a gift economy. They are among the indigenous peoples of Malaysia who have been pushed into the hills and mountains by later, more technologically powerful incoming peoples. They have no police, no courts, and no government per se. According to US-anthropologist Dentan, 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 becharaa, 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 have a saying that "there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger." Semai children are never punished or forced against their will. If a parent asks a child to do something and the child says "I don't want to," the matter is ended. However, Semai parents use fear of strangers and violence in nature such as thunderstorms and lightning to control children's behavior if ever it becomes necessary.With regards to space and dominion, there appears to be no distinction between the public and private realms, and thus, "the Western concept of privacy, domestic or otherwise, is not to be found."

According to Keene State College’s Orang Asli Archive, in 1991 there were 26,627 Semai living on the Malay Peninsula. This number has increased in recent years with the advent of better nutrition as well as improved sanitation and healthcare practices. These numbers, however, does not include other peoples of Semai or mixed descent, most of whom have assimilated into other cultures and have abandoned their ancestral tribal lands in order to seek better employment and education opportunities, especially in the larger cities.

Video clips of Penan and Semai



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