The Semang are an ethnic-minority group of the Malay Peninsula.[5][6] They live in mountainous and isolated forest regions of Perak, Pahang, Kelantan[7] and Kedah of Malaysia[8] and the southern provinces of Thailand.[9] The Semang are among the different ethnic groups of Southeast Asia who, based on their dark skin and other perceived physical similarities, are sometimes referred to by the superficial term Negrito.

Sakai / Pangan / Ngò' Pa
A Batek family in Kuala Tahan, Pahang, Malaysia
Total population
Approximately 4,596
Regions with significant populations
Malay Peninsula:
 MalaysiaApproximately 2,000–3,000[1]
Jedek language,[3] Batek language, Lanoh language, Jahai language, Mendriq language, Mintil language, Kensiu language, Kintaq language, Ten'edn language, Thai language, Malay language, English language
Animism and significant adherents of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism
Related ethnic groups
Orang Asli (Proto-Malay, Senoi, Batek, Jahai, Lanoh, Maniq, Andamanese)[4]

They have been recorded since before the 3rd century. They are ethnologically described as nomadic hunter-gatherers.[10]

The Semang are grouped together with other Orang Asli groups, a diverse grouping of several distinct hunter-gatherer populations. Historically they preferred to trade with the local population. For more than one thousand years, some of the Semang people remain in isolation.[11]

Name and status

In Malaysia, the term Semang (Orang Semang in Malay) is used to refer to the hunter-gatherers, that are referred to more generically as Negrito, Spanish for 'little negro'. In the past, eastern groups of Semang have been called Pangan. Semang are referred to as Sakai in Thailand, although this term is considered to be derogatory in Malaysia.[12]

In Malaysia, the Semang are one of three groups that are considered to be Orang Asli, the hunter-gatherer people of the Peninsula. The other two groups are the Senoi and the Proto-Malay (Aboriginal Malay). The Semang have six sub-groups: Kensiu, Kintaq, Lano, Jahai, Mendriq and Batek. The Malaysian federal government has designated the Department of Orang Asli Development (Jabalan Kemajuan Orang Asli, JAKOA) as the agency responsible for integrating the Orang Asli into the wider Malaysian society.

The three category division of the indigenous population was inherited by the Malaysian government from the British administration of the colonial era. It is based on racial concepts, according to which the Negrito were seen as the most primitive race leading the vagrant way of life of hunter-gatherers. The Senoi were considered more developed, and the Proto-Malay were placed at almost the same level with the Malaysian Malay Muslims.

In Thailand, the terms Semang and Orang Asli are replaced by the terms Sakai or Ngopa (Ngò 'Pa or Ngoh Paa, which literally means 'curly/frizzy (haired) people').[13] The first term is derogatory in Malaysia, with the connotation of savages, subjects or slaves.[13] The Semang have had a degree of patronage from the royal family of Thailand.

Physical features

A Semang group in Malaya, 1846.
Population genomic "TreeMix" analysis of Semang and closely related populations (eg. East Asians and Andamanese peoples).[14]

They have dark skin, often curly-hair and Asiatic facial characteristics, and are stockily built.[15][16]

Ethnic groups

A Semang group in traditional dancing attire in Kuala Sam, Kelantan, 1906.

The Semang do not have a sense of common ethnic identity. The term Semang is applied on them from an outside view, however the Semang refer to themselves only with their tribes names.[17]

In total there are at least ten tribes that are classified as Semang in Malaysia (not all of them are officially recognized by the Malaysian government):-

A few smaller groups of Semang live in the southern provinces of Thailand. These nomadic groups mentioned under the names such as Tonga, Mos, Chong and Ten'en. They call themselves Mani,[28] but their linguistic affiliation remains uncertain.

Because of the small number of some of these Semang groups, they are on the verge of disappearance.

Settlement areas

A map from Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula (1906). Blue = Semang; yellow = Sakai tribe; red = Jakun.

The Semang live mainly in the more isolated lowlands and foothills within the primary and secondary wet tropical jungles of the northern Malay Peninsula. Only the Jahai live at higher altitudes.[9]

In the past, the territory of the Semang settlement was wider, but neighbouring ethnic groups pushed them into hard-to-reach areas. Kensiu now live in the northeast of Kedah, the Kintaq of which are settled in the adjoining areas of Kedah and Perak, the Jahai are in the northeast of Perak and in west of Kelantan, the Lanoh in the northeast of Perak, in the north-central Perak, the Mendriq in the south-east of Kelantan, and the Batek in the northwestern of Terengganu, northeastern of Pahang and southern Kelantan.[29]

A significant part of these tribes live in permanent settlements, but traditionally separate groups of different time periods go into the jungle for the harvesting of jungle produce. Most often of such cases take place during the end of the fall on the maturation of wild fruit season. Because of this tradition, they are often designated as nomads, although the Semang in Malaysia at present are no longer leading a nomadic way of life.[30]

Today, among the Semang; as part of the Orang Asli group, they also live in urban areas of Malaysia, mixed with members of other ethnic groups.

Several isolated Semang groups reside in the jungles of the southern provinces of Thailand. So far in the north, there are two groups in Trang Province and one in Phatthalung Province live for several kilometers apart from each other. For many kilometers, in the southern direction, there is another very small group of Semang in the southern part of the Satun Province, near the Malaysian border.[31]

The remaining groups of Thai Semang can be found living in the Yala Province. In the upper part of the valley, in the Than To District of this province;[32] about 2 km from the Thai-Malaysian border, there is a village in which is the only settled Semang group that lives in Thailand.[33] There is another group of nomad Semang who live along the border with Malaysia in the Yala Province. Both nomadic and settled groups maintain close contacts with Malaysia. The border here has only political significance, and nothing prevents the Semang from freely crossing it.[34]

The closest neighbours of the Semang are the Malay people. This applies not only to Malaysian Semang but also to groups living in Thailand. The extreme south of this country is ethnically predominantly Malay, although the Malay people there are officially called Thai Muslims because of Thaification.


A Batek child, Malaysia.

Dynamics of the Semang population after the declaration of independence of Malaysia:-


Distribution of Orang Asli subgroups in Malaysia by states (1996):-[35]


The population of Semang in Thailand was estimated at 240 people (2010).[38]


Semang from Gerik or Janing, Perak, 1906.

Semang languages belonged to the Aslian branch of the Austroasiatic languages. These languages are also spoken by the neighbouring Senoi. Austroasiatic languages, spoken by Khmer or Vietnamese, were adopted by various other hunter-gatherer groups during the Neolithic and pre-Neolithic period. Later, Kra-Dai and Austronesian languages partially replaced Austroasiatic and other languages.[39]

Aslian languages are divided into four main divisions: the Northern Aslian languages, Central Aslian languages, Southern Aslian languages and the Jah Hut language, which occupies a separate position.

Among Semang in Malaysia, there are further extended languages and dialects such as Kensiu language, Kentaq Bong dialect, Kintaq Nakil dialect, Jahai language, Minriq language, Bateg Deq language, Mintil language, Bateg Nong language, Semnam language, Sabüm language, Lanoh Yir dialect, Lanoh Jengjeng dialect. Most of them form the Northern Aslian languages group of the Aslian languages, only the languages of the Lanoh language (with the dialects of its subfamilies and Semnam language close to it) belong to the Central Aslian languages group. Very few Semang languages have been studied in Thailand, most likely in Kensiu language or Jahai language.[26]

A characteristic feature of the Semang languages is that they do not have clear boundaries. This is a typical phenomenon for languages whose carriers are mostly small nomadic groups, of whom the usual situation is when representatives of different ethnic groups live together in the same temporary camp settlement. Thus, all the Northern Aslian languages together form a large continuous network of languages, interconnected by constant contacts. A similar but smaller network form the languages of the Lanoh language.[38]

Not all Semang languages have survived to this day, some of the dialects are already completely extinct. This danger also threatens some of the existing dialects, including Sabüm language, Semnam language and Mintil language. At the same time, the situation with most Semang languages remains stable; regardless of the small number of their speakers, their language are not threaten with disappearance.

Most Semang, in addition to their own language, also speak Malay. There are also many Malay loanwords in all Semang languages. In addition, some Aslian languages contain many loanwords from each other. Another source of loanwords is the Thai language, which is noticeably predominantly in the Kensiu language, in the north of the peninsula. In Thailand, most of the settled Semang also speak Thai. However, in some rare cases, some or a few Semang can also speak English since that Malaysia was ruled by the British from 1867–1957.


It is considered that Semang people ethnically formed in the Malay Peninsula. They descended from an East Asian-related populations, which expanded southwards, from Mainland Southeast Asia into Insular Southeast Asia. This East- and Southeast Asian lineage (ESEA), can be distinguished from Australasians (AA), and West-Eurasians, and diverged into at least three ancestries, including the 40,000 year old Tianyuan-lineage, present-day populations of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Siberia, and Hòabìnhian ancestry found 8,000-4,000 years ago in Southeast Asia.[40]

East Asian-related groups expanded much earlier than previously suggested, long before the expansion of Austroasiatic and Austronesian groups, and are associated with the early carriers of the archaeological culture of the Mesolithic Age of Hòa Bình, which was distributed in Southeast Asia from contemporary Vietnam, to the north eastern part of Sumatra in the 9th-3rd millennium BC. These East Asian-related Hoabinhians were also hunter-gatherers and practiced plant cultivation and some forms of agriculture. The Semang are suggested to be descended from the Hoabinhian culture people.[41][42][43]

Approximately 4,000 years ago, the practice of Slash-and-burn farming came to the Malay Peninsula, but nomadic hunting and harvesting continued to exist.[44] New migrants also brought to the peninsula Aslian languages, which now speak modern Senoic languages and Semang languages. It is believed that the ancestors of the Senoi became farmers, and the ancestors of the Semang continued to engage in harvesting, sometimes supplementing it with trade and agriculture. A stable social tradition, which made it impossible for marriages between these groups, contributed to the delineation of these two racial types.

After 500 BC, maritime trade was already developed and the Malay Peninsula became a crossroads that bound India with China.[45] On the coast there are settlements, some of them subsequently turned into large ports with permanent populations, consisting of foreign traders who maintained constant ties with China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. The Semang become suppliers of jungle produce, which was in high demand in other countries such as aromatic woods, camphor, rubber, rattan, rhino horns, elephant tusks, gold, tin and so on. They also played the role of jungle guardians.

The Malay Srivijaya empire came in contact with the Negrito. In the year 724 AD, two Negrito pygmies were among the tribute gifts to Malay rulers. Negrito pygmies from the southern forests were enslaved and exploited until modern times.[11]

At the end of the 14th century, on the coast of the Strait of Malacca, the first trading settlements were founded by Malay settlers from Sumatra.[46] The main center was Malacca. At the beginning of the 15th century, the ruler of Malacca embraced Islam. Malay settlers began to slowly move upstream deeper into the peninsula, while some were subjugated to the Malays, most of the Orang Asli retreated into the interior regions.[47]

During the early years of contact, the Semang peacefully interacted and traded with the Malays, but with the strengthening of the Malay states, the relationship between them began to deteriorate. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Semang and other indigenous groups became slave trade victims of Batak and Rawa raiders.[47] In response to attempts to capture slaves, the Semang developed a tactic of avoiding contact with outsiders. As a way of preserving their autonomy, they would immediately destroy their shelters if an outsider intruded and they would remained hidden or "closed" in the jungle.[48]

A Semang man, 1899.

The more the Semang were isolated from the surrounding peoples, the more surprising they were perceived by others. Many peoples of Southeast Asia considered the jungle as home to magical creatures, among those that assented are the Negritos. These people were endowed with magical qualities, and with various legends associated with fairy tales. Among the Malaysian sultans and rulers of the southern provinces of Thailand, it was once regarded as prestigious to keep Negritos in their yards as part of collections of amusing jungle beings.[49][50]

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the king of Thailand, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) visited the southern regions of his country and met with the Semang. In 1906, an orphan Semang boy named Khanung was sent to the royal court, where he was perceived as the adoptive son of the ruler.[51] From this event, it has led to the patronage of the Semang by the royal court.

The British colonial government banned slavery at the end of the nineteenth century and introduced a protection policy for the Orang Asli. The British perceived the indigenous people as noble savages, who lead an idealized and romantic existence and need protection from the devastating actions of modern life.[50]

Attention to the aborigines drew only during the Malayan Emergency in Malaysia in the 1950s.[52] In order to bring them to the government's side in the confrontation against the communist rebels, a special department was established, the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, JHEOA); which was to provide education, health and economic development of the Orang Asli. A comprehensive control of indigenous communities was then introduced.[52] Similar actions on the neutralization of the Negritos, albeit on a smaller scale, were also carried out by the Thai government in response to the transfer of communist soldiers into Thailand's territory.

The proclamation of Malaysia's independence in 1957 and the cessation of the Malayan Emergency in 1961 did not bring about significant changes in the state's policy towards the Orang Asli. In the 1970s, the Department of Orang Asli Affairs began to organize for the Semang settlements, which were meant to relocate several nomadic groups.[53] Approximately by the end of 1980, the widespread development of jungle harvesting and the replacement of jungles for plantations, it has severely damaged the lives of most tribes of the Semang.[53]

Much of the Kintaq, Jahai, Batek and Lanoh people now live in villages built by the state, surrounded by secondary jungles and plantations, as well as villages whose populations do not belong to the Orang Asli. They were forced to give up their livelihood and to some extent became accustomed to small farming.[54]

In 1966 (according to some sources, 1973),[55] in order to improve their lives, a Sakai Village was established in Thailand. The state laid a rubber plantation for them. In the early 1990s, it was decided to turn this village into a tourist centre, where the Semang in a theatrical form began to demonstrate to tourists features of their traditional way of life.


A group of Semang at Siong, Baling District, Kedah, 1906.

In terms of religion, the Semang are animists.[56] They believe that not only people, but all natural objects have souls.[57]

The land of the Semang are imagined in the form of a disk that lies on a huge snake or turtle floating underground. The earth is connected with the sky with one or several stone pillars. The world is filled with numerous immortal supernatural beings, spirits living on the sky, in stone pillars and underground. Skyline is a paradise filled with flowers and fruit trees. Supernatural beings have created rain forests to meet the needs of people on earth. Some of them in the past lived on the ground as ordinary people and now from time to time come back here, appearing in people in dreams.[58]

Most supernatural beings have no names, they are often associated with certain natural phenomena or objects, such as wind or fruit trees. Others have their names and individual attributes. Most of the Semang are afraid of three natural phenomena; thunder, floods and storms.[59] The main deity in them is the god of thunder Karey. He is not loved and very afraid, he is considered cruel and evil. Karey, according to local beliefs, carries out an important moral function, imposing punishment on violators of taboo. It can cause death, injury or illness through lightning strikes or wildlife attacks.[60]

In each group there is a shaman called a hala. He acts as an intermediary between the visible world of people and the invisible world of spirits. Shamans perform rituals and magic rites, practice magic, anticipate the future, cure illnesses, and define a safe place for camp placement. Treatment of diseases is carried out using different herbs and magic spells. Semang believe that their shamans in a state of trance communicate with supernatural beings, can express them gratitude, as well as learn from them the way to treat a serious illness.[61]

Shamans can be both men and women. There are big and small halas. Small halas are ordinary mortals who know some ways of treating. For the treatment of diseases, they use certain songs, massage, herbal medicine and spells. Sometimes during the healing ceremony, they are part of the trance. Great halas, according to the Semang, are people with supernatural abilities. Not only do they communicate with spirits through dreams or trance, they themselves are supernatural beings, for example, they can turn into tigers and drive away from wildlife people. Big and small halas get their knowledge from the spirits through dreams or from another hook. The best way is to wait on the grave of the deceased shaman until he appears in the likeness of the tiger, and then he will turn to the person and begin to teach the beginner.

Special rites accompany important events in life, such as birth, disease, death, there are also various rituals of economic orientation.[62] When rituals are carried out, animist symbols are used.

The Malaysian government is pursuing a policy of conversion of the Orang Asli to Islam. A certain demographic of the Semang was considered Muslim by the end of the 20th century. The statistics are as follows:-[35]

Muslims Negritos (1997)108672929461710
Total population (1996)2242351 049359145960


A Batek man is seen with scarification on his arms.

Scarification is practised.[63] Young boys and girls are scarified in a simple ritual to mark the end of their adolescence.[64] The finely serrated edge of a sugarcane leaf is drawn across the skin, then charcoal powder rubbed into the cut.[65]

They have bamboo musical instruments, a kind of jaw harp, and a nose flute.[66] On festive occasions, there is song and dance, both sexes decorating themselves with leaves.[67][68]

The Semang bury their dead on the same day itself with the corpse wrapped in mat and the personal belonging of the deceased kept in a small bamboo rack placed over the grave.[69] Only people of great importance, such as chiefs or great magicians are given a tree burial.[70]

They have used Capnomancy (divination by smoke) to determine whether a camp is safe for the night.[71]

Traditional way of life

Traditionally, the Semang have been living a vagrant lifestyle of jungle hunter-gatherers.[72] Each group occupies a certain customary territory, which was a territorial subsistence for them. Within this territory they are constantly moving from place to place in search for new food resources. The Semang are not hunter-gatherers in the literal sense, as they constantly change their livelihood depending on what is currently beneficial for them. As soon as one source of edible resources is exhausted, they turn to another.[73]

This way of life has been steadily maintained for a millennia due to the specific social structure of their society. Separate families in Semang community are completely autonomous;[74] where they can gather together in temporary camps, then diverge, each in their direction, and then gather together with other families in new camps. Exogamy in such a society has an extreme level, which leads to large-scale family ties.[54] Such model for the society ideally corresponds to the nomadic way of life and is unacceptable for the settled population. It served as a barrier that divided the populations that have been living together for a millennia.

Semang consider their customary territories free for use by all members of the local group. Western Semang recognize their human right to possess poisonous trees and perennial fruit trees that they have planted or found in the jungles. Other groups consider such trees to be free for everyone.[75]

Claims of exclusive rights to a particular area in a dispute with other groups of Semang or with other peoples are usually not put forward and in any case are not valid. The Malaysian government does not at all recognize any rights of Semang to customary lands or resources.[75]

Although they are commonly referred to as the inhabitants of the deep jungle areas, Semang actually occupy a transition zone between tropical jungles and agricultural districts. The resources here are very diverse and abundant. They can also collect valuable wood and maintain trade with neighbors. In the deep jungle they can only hunt small animals living among the trees, as valuable vegetation resources are practically absent from there.[76]

In state villages, the Department of Orang Asli Development is trying to attract Semang to agriculture. On cleared jungle areas, the state organizes the planting of rubber trees, durian, rambutan, oil palms and bananas. The Semang are forced to adapt to new conditions, but agricultural activity requires long term waiting results, which contradicts their world view. At different times of the day, a group of Semang may send a whole group or individuals to harvest forest products, trade them, get hired in casual paid jobs from Malay farmers, go fishing or simply beg or live off of gifts left by visitors.[77]

With this in mind, JAKOA provides the people with grocery kits so they do not leave their work. But, when there is a delay with the release of these rations, the Semang immediately stop agricultural activity, and some even return to live in the woods. The harvesting of jungle produce for sale still remains a priority for them, followed by work for money, settled agriculture and horticulture.[78]


A Semang man shoots an arrow from his blowgun. The bamboo quiver at his side contains the strongly poisoned arrows. 1937.

The main livelihood of the Semang has traditionally been gathering, hunting and fishing in a wandering lifestyle. They should add barter trade. Only in the 20th century some groups, the Lanoh and Batek in particular, began to practice Slash-and-burn farming.

For daily consumption, the roots and fruits of wild plants are collected in the jungle. The basis of gathering is wild yams (Dioscorea), of which at least twelve species can be found in relative abundance throughout the year. Other wild foods include bamboo shoots, nuts, seasonal fruits, mushrooms and honey. Apart from this list, there is also a range of medicinal herbs.[77]

Different jungle produce are used by the Semang for various economic purposes. Bamboo is used for housing construction, it is used for the production of blowguns, darts, fish traps, kitchen utensils, water containers, combs, mats, rafts and ritual items. From the wood, they produce handles and sheaths for knives, and cutting boards for slicing meat. Pandan is used to make mats and baskets, tree barks for baskets and also clothing,[79] and rattan for rope, baskets, ladders and belts.

The Semang spend a lot of time and effort on harvesting jungle produce intended for sale or for exchange with neighbouring Malay villages. These includes wild fruits, as well as rattan, rubber, wax, honey, and herbs. The most popular fruits are petai (Parkia speciosa), kerdas (Archidendron bubalinum), keranji (Dialium indum), jering (Archidendron pauciflorum) and durian (Durio pinangianus). Petai and durian are collected from August to November, kerdas during February to May, and keranji from October to January. Money that the Semang receive from the sale of these goods are then used to buy rice, oil, tobacco, salt, sugar and other food products, as well as clothing, fabrics, knives and other provisions.[80]

Hunting is done with spears, rifles, slings, but the main weapon is blowgun that is used to hunt small game (squirrels, monkeys, bats and birds). Hunting with bronze guns using poison dart supplies provides most of the meat that these people eat. Guns and spears are used to hunt large animals such as wild pigs, goats, deer and tapirs. Occasionally hunting traps are set. Slingshots of wood and rubber are used mainly by young men to capture birds, bats and other tree dwelling animals.[77] Some of the Semang in the past used bows and arrows, arranging a collective hunting group, but this practice disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century.[81]

Fish in the rivers are caught using special traps made of bamboo, spears, hooks and fishing rod.[77]

The produce obtained are shared with everyone in the camp.[82]

Most of the Semang groups from time to time have long been growing a certain number of cultivated plants (Upland rice, caviar, corn, sweet potatoes, vegetables). Primitive manual farming was practiced on small scorched areas of the jungle. The resulting of the harvest is the property of the married family that has planted in their backyard, but after harvesting, the foods are distributed to all as a rule.

Pottery and weaving among the Semang are absent.[83] Steel knives and axes are obtained either through trade or by the processing of steel waste from spearheads, arrows, and blades from knives. Individual specialization is practically absent, except for the religious sphere.

Mainly women are engage in harvesting and farming, and mainly men go hunting.[82]


Freshly head shaven Semang women from Gerik, Hulu Perak District, Perak, 1885.

Until recently, most of the Semang led a nomadic way of life. They lived in temporary camps consisting of a group of primitive shelter structures. Typically, these are simple palm straw shields that are tilted, such that one edge stands on the ground, and the other is based on two or three supporting sticks. This design is a temporary accommodation that provides people with protection from wind and rain. In each of these shelters lived a spouse, a widow or widower, or a group of unmarried young men or girls.

Western groups of Semang sometimes put their lean-to in two rows facing to each other. Thus, a long common communal hut was formed in the form of a tunnel with exits at each of its ends.[75]

The Semang live in caves or leaf-shelters that form between branches. Sometimes Semang erect circular dwellings with the center space being used as a meeting place, dancing and ceremonial rituals. For short stays they would take shelter in caves, rocky overhangs or groups of trees overnight.[84]

Settled Semang live in small bamboo or straw huts on stilts. Residential groups built by the state under the RPS (Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula, meaning "Regrouping Schemes" in English) have typical Malay-style of wooden huts.[75] RPS villages are provided with basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water supply, children's and medical institutions and elementary schools.

Traditionally, the Semang tribes place their homes very close to each other. A negative remnant of a nomadic way of life is that they habitually spill garbage around their huts.[85] Previously, Semang simply left their waste and went further. Now, these two factors together lead to people living in constant contact with their own waste, and this harms their health. Before that, they also use water from the polluted waters of their own.

Traditionally, Semang had a minimum of household items and tools, because all their treasure should have been carried with them. Their habitation, utensils and tools were made mainly for single use.

Traditional clothing of the Semang is loincloth for men and skirts with processed bast for women. A loincloth for the men, made of tree bark hammered out with a wooden mallet from the bark of the terap, a species of wild bread-fruit tree, and a short skirt of the same material for the women decorated with segments of bamboo in patterns to magically protect its wearer from disease, is the only dress worn;[79] some go naked although not customary.[86] Women also tattoo and paint their faces.


Semang from Gerik or Janing, Perak, 1906.

Semang lived in small family groups of 15-50 people without a strict tribal organization. The jungle can not feed a large mass of people. Semang do not have associations with fixed membership, there are no related groups and no affiliation by ideology. Many camps consisted of one or more extended families, but these were only temporary formations.[87]

The only stable association in the Semang community is the nuclear family, consisting of a man, a wife and their children.[88] The family usually occupies an individual home, adult children can put up their own housing, located next to the hut or shelter of their parents. The family is engaged in farming together, and at the same time adults teach children the basic skills of management and cultural values of the group.

The kinship account is carried out both on paternal and on the maternal line. For the Semang, there is no difference between relatives and cousins and siblings, but they differentiate their age categories by dividing their brothers and sisters from the elder and the younger.[89]

Young people usually choose their own spouses, as parents have little influence on these processes. Theoretically, a future husband must ask for permission of marriage from a girl's parents, but this does not always happen. The marriage ceremony is as simple as possible and limited to the participation of the actual married couple, who often arranges a small holiday for themselves. Some groups have been set up so that the groom brings some gifts to the young parents, and the groom handed over handmade items to the bride's parents. Marriage is considered concluded when the young spouse begins to live together.[90]

The general groups are exogamous.[54] For the Semang, marriages between blood relatives and close people (persons related through marriage) are not allowed. These rules require the search for marriages among distant groups, thus creating a large-scale network of social ties.[91]

A Semang family in Perak, 1885.

The rules for avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex, backed up by appropriate taboos, make it impossible for sexual relations outside the family. Polygyny and polyandry are allowed, but they are rare. Instead, divorce is commonplace in most Semang groups, especially if the couple have no children. The procedure is very simple, the couple just ceases to live together. Sometimes there are sharp conflicts on this ground, but in the majority of cases everything is peaceful, and the former spouses remain friendly, staying in the same camp.[90]

Little children of divorced couples usually stay with their mother; older children make their own choices and often move alternately from one parent to another. The fathers and stepmother usually refer to the children from the previous marriage as their own.[90] Just as in the case of a divorce or death of a wife, a Semang man may marry again and again but remain monogamous.[92]

The nucleic family is also the main economic unit of the Semang society. Features of the complex economy of nomadic groups are caused by low fertility. A woman plays an important role in the traditional economy, providing the family with food, spending a lot of time harvesting fruits from the jungle and fish from rivers. A pregnant woman or a woman with a baby is not able to fully perform their work, besides, she becomes less mobile. In addition, taking care of children takes a lot of time and requires more food. Children in the Semang community do not have "economic value". Most of the time during the day they would simply play, simulating the activity of adults of the respective gender. In addition to the simple awareness of the "economic value" of children, in the society Semang also adhere to certain restrictions and taboos on sexual contacts.[93]

Characteristically, with the transition to a sedentary lifestyle, the birth rate among the Semang is rapidly increasing.[94] Labor, oriented mainly for future times, requires more working labors; women are no longer faced with the problem of caring for their children. In addition, the food stamps that children receive at school and bring them home have become a significant factor in family life and have changed the perception of children in society.

Semang society is egalitarian.[95] People are interconnected by ties of kinship and friendship. Social classes do not exist. No adult has any authority over any other adults. There are no means of coercion. Individual autonomy is highly respected. Antisocial behavior is discouraged, an act generally condemned.[90] People believe that violations of the norms will be punished by supernatural forces. Semang in general despise violence. Disputes are resolved through public discussion on the basis of a consensus decision. Individuals who do not get along with one another cannot be in the camp at the same time. In the event of a conflict that involves third parties, the Semang, as a rule, would simply go where they cannot be found.

Individuals of charismatic personality, men and women, may have some influence on others, hence become informal leaders in certain situations, but they have no real power.[90] Such a leader is called penghulu, a Malay term.[96] Some penghulu, exclusively for men, are senior members appointed by the Department of Orang Asli Development, but they only act as mediators between the group and outsiders and they do not have any power within the group.[90]

A penghulu receive wages from the department. Formally, they are elected by a group of men, specifically for this purpose as organized by the authorities.[97] No direct consultations with women are held, although they do express their views on this. The main quality, which is paid attention at the elections, is judged by the voters. Usually the position of the penghulu is inherited by the eldest son, although there are exceptions. If the current penghulu does not suit the JAKOA, the department pressures on the group to make a replacement.

See also


  • "Semang" . New International Encyclopedia. 1905.


  • A. Hale: “On the Sakais” – Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 15. London: Trübner & Co 1886, 285–301. (There is also a special print assigned to “Harrison and Sons” who was the printer for Trübner & Co.)
  • Geoffrey Benjamin & Cynthia Chou (2002), Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISBN 98-123-0167-4
  • Alberto G. Gomes (September 1982), Ecological Adaptation And Population Change: Semang Foragers And Temuan Horticulturalists In West Malaysia (PDF), East-West Environment And Policy Institute
  • Joachim Schliesinger (2015), Ethnic Groups of Thailand: Non-Tai-Speaking Peoples, Booksmango, ISBN 978-16-332-3229-7
  • Alberto G. Gomes (2007), Modernity and Malaysia: Settling the Menraq Forest Nomads, Routledge, ISBN 978-11-341-0077-4


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Further reading

  • Human Relations Area Files, inc. (1976), Semang, Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms
  • Mirante, Edith (2014), The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia's 'Negrito' Indigenous Peoples, Bangkok, Orchid Press
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