The Semai are able to maintain peace in their communities because they can effectively resolve their conflicts. Three scholars who are intimately familiar with those people describe, in a recent article, how they developed their formal, conflict resolution meetings in the last century by modifying Malay practices. The authors maintain, however, that the Semai commitment to peacefully resolving disputes is based primarily on their own earlier, traditional beliefs.
The authors—two of whom, Juli Edo and Anthony Williams-Hunt, are themselves Semai—argue that the formal conflict resolution meetings, known as bicaraás (or variant spellings), as described by Robarchek (1979), represent a fairly recent development. The bicaraá is not practiced in all Semai villages. Although they live entirely within a Malay context, the Semai are not necessarily submissive to the will of the dominant society and when they need to settle disputes they can solve them in their own fashion.
Traditionally, the Semai had an egalitarian society with no headman. No one had the right to coerce another, though people did defer to the judgments of elders. Opinions as to who was an elder varied, and were often fluid. People tried to maintain a state of peace, called slamaad, by cooperation and sharing instead of by directly negotiating reciprocal relationships. This slamaad in their villages usually included at least toleration of others, if not always mutual affection.
The focus of the three authors is on a Malay chief in the late 19th century named Tok Bayas who lived near the Semai in the Cameron Highlands of Peninsular Malaysia. He accepted his authority from the sultan of Pahang state who derived his power from the British colonial masters. A Semai leader named Bah Busu became friends with the Malay chief, who accepted him as a vassal, a subordinate client.
In 1909, Tok Bayas took Busu to meet the sultan, who gave him the official regalia of his office—a kris, a gong, a couple swords, and a letter investing him with authority over the Semai people in the Cameron Highlands. Busu, in turn, appointed leaders in each of the 36 or so villages in his district to report to him. Thus, British colonial feudalism transformed the traditional, egalitarian social system of the Semai villages.
Busu presided over a new system of land ownership in which people began planting rubber trees and harvesting the cash crops for their overlords. The rubber plantations remained fertile, which prompted the Semai to settle and continue to farm the same areas rather than to move about as they had always done.
The settling affected their conflict resolution strategies. Previously, they had preferred to resolve disputes informally. The parties to conflicts would separate, gossip, or try to shame the individuals that the community felt were primarily at fault. People lived in spread out settlements, so it was easy to avoid others with whom one had disagreements.
Although informal approaches still prevailed in many cases, once the Semai settled closely together into villages, they accepted, at least at times, the more formal bicaraá meetings, derived from the Malay court system, which Busu introduced. The village headman, or his agent, would interview people to gather all the facts in any dispute, particularly to find out which individuals seemed to be the most at blame for a problem. He would seek to form a consensus within the community so he could make a judgment, and would then try to persuade the people involved to accept his resolution of the matter. Or he would convene a bicaraá.
Unlike the Malay system, where only the senior men of the community would be involved, in the more egalitarian Semai villages everyone was invited—encouraged—to attend the bicaraá. People who had the least involvement in the case would testify, for as long as they wished, about anything related to the dispute. Finally, when everyone had had their say, the officials of the village would summarize the general community sentiment, state the penalties assessed against guilty individuals, and conclude the meeting.
Frequently, to this day, villagers get sick of interminable meetings, which can go on and on for several days and nights, and the bicaraá will simply dissolve without a matter being settled. The bicaraá is still used, but it is employed as a court of last resort—it takes time for everyone. The Semai continue to maintain the slamaad, the general peace, within their villages or between their communities. Their traditional strategies of avoiding conflicts—by joking and temporarily withdrawing from others—are still widely practiced. Communities will only schedule a bicaraá if bad feelings persist.
Financial restitution is an important aspect of healing. In their previous, traditional, system of conflict resolution, a wronged individual would seek a gift from a guilty party. Typically, the person who had been wronged would ask for a substantial gift, but after lengthy negotiations, the individual who had admitted his or her guilt would give a very modest present, which would then be accepted. The dispute would be over, feelings of justice accepted, the psychological hurts resolved. The token gift would conclude the matter.
Busu introduced into this process a more complicated Malay system of fines that the headmen could impose on guilty parties after the conclusion of the bicaraá. Busu, in effect, introduced bureaucracy, formal negotiations, and complex formulas. The amounts of fines would be calculated, though often the village leaders would not agree on their correct amounts. The important issue was that the dispute was finally over, and that everyone begged forgiveness. The reconciliation often required the involvement of conflict resolution experts, officials appointed by Busu. In general, though, the primary force for settling disputes in the village was, and still is, the shame that people feel when they realize that the tide of public opinion is against them and their actions.
The authors conclude that, despite the way the bicaraá system was introduced into the Semai communities, the changes did not really have a significant impact on the very low incidence of violence. The new system worked more effectively as an instrument of state expansion than it did as an approach to resolving conflicts. To this day, effectively getting past conflicts—by whatever means—remains an essential aspect of Semai peacefulness.
Edo, Juli, Williams-Hunt, Anthony, and Dentan, Robert Knox. 2009. “Surrender, Peacekeeping, and Internal Colonialism, A Malaysian Instance.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 165 (2&3): 216-240