Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros16ArticlesCəmam or Sexual Prohibition among...


Cəmam or Sexual Prohibition among the Kensiw of Kedah, Malaysia

Le cəmam ou les interdits sexuels chez les Kensiw de Kedah, en Malaisie
Shuichi Nagata
p. 133-155


Les interdictions liées à la parenté comme celle concernant les parents par alliance sont un trait caractéristique du mode de vie des Semang, des locuteurs septentrionaux d’une langue asli de la péninsule malaise. Toutefois, avec le stress récent dû à la politique d’islamisation et le changement de leur base alimentaire, quelques Kensiw, un groupe de Semang de Kedah, ont le sentiment que les règles s’opposant au cəmam ou « comportement sexuel impropre entre parents » pourrait être contraire au maintien de leur identité et sont en train de se rapprocher d’une identité plus inclusive de l’ensemble des « Orang Asli » de la péninsule.

Haut de page

Notes de l’auteur

I started visiting the Kensiw resettlement community of Lubuk Legong, Kedah, Malaysia, in 1972, and began staying in the settlement in 1986-87, 1991-93, and 2000-2001. My stay was assisted by SERU (Prime Minister’s Department), JHEOA, USM, RISDA, SSHRC (Canada) and numerous other institutions and individuals, particularly Legong residents, many of whom are since deceased. I owe a debt of thanks to Colin Nicholas (COAC), Mohd. Razha Rashid and Long Jet Heng (USM) and Evelyn Hong (Third World Network) for their support throughout the years of my research. The population of the settlement in November, 2000, was 212 persons, distributed in 49 house buildings. A part of this essay was presented in a seminar of the Sociology Department of the National University of Singapore in 2002. A version of the essay was commented on by C. Dallos, R. K. Dentan, K. Endicott, and J. Nagata. I extend my sincere thanks to all the people that helped me in the composition of this work.

Texte intégral


1Kinship-related prohibitions such as the “in-law” avoidance are a defining feature of the nomadic foraging way of life of the Semang, northern Aslian speakers of peninsular Malaysia (Nagata1999: 55-56). Benjamin writes:

The Semang rule of sister-in-law avoidance, then, encodes a morality of ecological restraint just as much as a sexual one. It serves, on a smaller scale, the function that some scholars have ascribed to the Great Wall of China: to put a distance between oneself and ways of life that seem attractive in some respects but which would be destructive to the way of life that one has invested much effort into developing. The Semang kinship rules thus encode important ideas about the social alignments appropriate to the foraging way of life, in particular the disarticulation of the conjugal family from the wider web of kinship, the general fluidity of social alignments, and the necessity of constantly setting up wide-ranging social links with individuals in other local groups. (2004:21, also 1980:15.)

  • 1 See Appendix I for the transcription of cəmam and other Kensiw words used in the text. I am unable (...)

2Among the Kensiw Semang in Kedah, Malaysia, the punishment by cəmam1 against “improper sexual behaviour between relatives” (Endicott 1979: 77), including the violation of the rule of sister-in-law avoidance, may be regarded as a means to maintain the Kensiw cultural identity. With the stress of the recent Islamic assimilation policy and the changing base of subsistence, however, some Kensiw are feeling that the cəmam rules may be contrary to the maintenance of their identity.

3In the following, I shall describe the Kensiw practice of cəmam prohibition and then discuss its functional consequence and the people’s perception of it as a threat to their identity in the contemporary milieu of Islamisation.

Cəmam as the upholder of the incest taboo

4Kensiw ideas and behaviours relative to cəmam form an extensive complex of incest rules between affinal kin, punishment by cəmam for the infraction of these rules with sickness and death, ambiguity in relating infractions among affines to cəmam effects, difficulty of mate selection due to expansion of affines and their kin, all subject to cəmam avoidance, and the projection of punitive power of cəmam onto the aberrant natural phenomena, and in the human realm onto an “evil” other.

5Schebesta writes that “(t)he greatest and most feared misconduct is incest. Its punishment is Cemam, the sickness which is caused by the lightning strike and leads to death” (1957: 97; my translation). Typically, cəmam punishment is due to the violation of the rule of avoidance of one’s mother-in-law (kənaj, see Appendix II for genealogical definitions of kin terms of reference) and daughter-in-law (wɔŋ pεsaw, cf. Schebesta 1957: 97) but, more generally to the infringement of the avoidance rule of cross-sex affinal relatives, including classificatory in-laws of parental and ego’s generations.

  • 2 Ujong (< Malay, hujung, end or extremity) or mənji meaning “distant” or “far” and təbu means “big,” (...)

6While in a Jahay Semang camp, Iskandar Carey, former JHEOA director, was sceptical of Schebesta’s claim that the Jahay would refuse to save a mother-in-law drowning in the river (Schebesta 1928: 242) and asked his Jahay friends of its veracity. Carey reported they were willing to suspend the rule and save her in such an emergency (1976: 53-4). I posed the same question to the residents of Legong settlement, all of whom said they definitely would not suspend the rule but would call others to help save her instead.

  • 3 Bishop gives ‘wy from the Kensiw of Yala province, Thailand (1996: 250).

7Cəmam also prohibits mentioning the names of the opposite sex in-laws, creating an insuperable difficulty in census taking. A person may even refuse to tell the name of his mother-in-law. Uy3 is the word used for a man to address to the same sex in-laws, for instance man calling his wife’s brother or vice versa, but cannot be used to call opposite sex in-laws. Same sex in-laws may talk to each other but cross-sex in-laws may not; in either case, the names of the in-laws must not be mentioned. A man cannot use uy to call his wife’s sister nor can he speak to her. Unlike the Batek who resort to teknonyms to get around name avoidance of in-laws (Endicott 1974: 202), the Kensiw strictly prohibit referring or addressing to cross-sex in-laws. In this respect, they are similar to the Temiar (Benjamin 1999: 10).

8While cəmam is concerned with affinal cross-sex relations, cross-sex segregation among consanguine is also in force, and Schebesta speaks of the Jahay taboo on parents and children six years or older of opposite sex sleeping close to each other (1957: 97). In a forest camp, one sees a hut in the centre of a camp ground occupied by unmarried girls. Around this hut are the huts occupied by families as if to protect these girls from intrusion of outsiders.

9Another type of prohibition is pənəhad, which is a prohibition on mixing body odor or smells. In a Kintak settlement of Bukit Asu, Ulu Perak, I was sitting on a bamboo bench with a couple of men, one of whom complained of his weakening eyesight. So I gave him my glasses for him to try them on. Then a wife of the other man screamed “pənəhad!” Pənəhad occurs when entering a friend’s house or wearing his clothes or sleeping on the same mat with him. So as not to commit pənəhad, one carries one’s own mat when planning to sleep in someone else’s hut. Such precaution is unnecessary when sleeping with parents or siblings of the same sex. Violation of the pənəhad rule causes pain in the chest.

10The pənəhad rule is similar to the Batek rule about “mixing of the odours or shadows of the relatives,” which can cause “a disease called cəmam, symptoms of which are fever and aching joints and muscles” (Endicott 1979: 77). Although the Kensiw claim the two are different, they also say that cəmam “can enter” by a kənaj (older-in-law) rubbing a piece of cloth over his or her own body and giving it to a wɔŋ pεsaw (child-in-law).

Consequence of breach

11Cəmam punishes the violation of cəmam rules in various ways. The most frequently cited are a type of rheumatism or gout (Schebesta 1954: 245) and ringworm disease (kurap, [Malay]) (Schebesta 1957: 74). It could also be fever, insanity (gilaˀ < Malay), or a lightning hit that may cut one’s throat, like killing a lamb, as one resident told me.

12Although Schebesta was told by a Jahay man named Ramog’n that there was no cure for cəmam sickness (1957: 73), he (1957: 97, 1926: 233, 1928: 245, 246), Evans (1937: 175) and Endicott (1979: 156) say an immediate response by a shaman (halaˀ) to make offerings to cəmam is a way to counter its attack. Evans also notes blood sacrifice is not made to neutralize in a cəmam offence (1937: 180), although Schebesta says it is done in many groups (1928: 246).

13For instance, a woman had long been complaining of a pain in her chest and it was diagnosed as due to cəmam. Her husband’s older brother once spoke to her and thus brought cəmam on her. The brother is her kənaj and she is his mənuy. It is taboo for him to speak to the wife of his younger brother. In this case, the woman was given a sucking cure (soˀ), a procedure in which a curer, who may be a ritual sing leader (cao neges) as in this case, or a halaˀ or a man or a woman known in the settlement for the ability to perform jampi (Malay), try to suck out a disease agent by applying the mouth at the spot that a patient complains, and spit out the agent, which may be small stones or other obscure objects. It may be worth noting that the curer in this instance was the ailing woman’s (A in the diagram below) classificatory older brother (tɔˀ kəmεn, C) and hence the woman’s husband’s (B) kənaj, a kin, if the curer were a female, to be avoided. In this case, the curer had been married but then divorced from an older sister (D) of the ailing woman’s husband and hence the latter husband’s (B) bahuˀ, a non-avoidance kin (see Appendix II for genealogical definitions of kin terms in the diagram). As this example shows, cəmam beliefs entail complex kinship relations as will be discussed later.

14Disease and death are not the only punishment due to cəmam. There are spots near the settlement, which, though in the middle of bushes, are bare of vegetation. These spots are called təmpat cəmam (“place of cəmam”), made devoid of trees and shrubs because of the anger of Kaei, the thunder god. In these places, only a type of dark skinned, monitor lizard, bab pənlas, can live. A lake in Kroh, Upper Perak, is another təmpat cəmam, said to have been created by Kaei’s anger over the misconduct of the məniˀ, the Orang Asli. Kaei’s place in heaven is called pətaˀ cəmam, pətaˀ meaning a territory. When the growth of the crops of durian fruits are irregular, the people say it is tεhun cəmam (“year of cəmam”). Usually when the durians mature, they mature together and if they fall, they fall together. But in tεhun cəmam, some fruits fall while others stay put and yet others are still unripe.

15Although personal physical ailments and death are commonly cited as the consequence of cəmam infringement, the above cases show that cəmam may also provoke natural calamities at the misconduct of the people as a form of collective punishment.

Attribution of disease and death to cəmam

  • 4 Kamεn in Kintak Bong is translated as Malay kemanakan (sibling’s child, anak saudara) (Asmah 1963: (...)
  • 5 Marriage among the Kensiw is not a ritually marked event but is recognized by the cohabitation of a (...)
  • 6 Adoption among the Kensiw is a crisis type adoption, in which orphaned children are adopted by near (...)

16The fear of cəmam is the basis for the rules regulating relations among certain kin. Kensiw kinship is cognatic and its terminology mostly classificatory (White 1958; Benjamin 1980: 9, 2004: 16), differentiated by the components of gender, generation and relative age (see Appendix II for a complete list of Kesiw kin terms). In the first ascending generation, however, the terms “father” (ε) and “mother” (naˀ) are not applied to collateral relatives of the first ascending generation. Thus there are separate terms for parent’s siblings that may be translated as uncles (bεˀ) or aunts ( or moˀ). These terms apply to the parent’s cousins, i.e., parent’s parents’ sibling’s children. In ego’s and first descending generations, the terms for the collateral relatives are merged with those for the lineal ones. All the descendants of a great grandparent (ɲang) are tabooed for sexual relations. They are called “one blood” (məhəm nay). However, some claim if it is “a genealogically distant relative” (ujong təbuˀ), it is all right to cohabit without fear of cəmam. Although kin terms are classificatory and there are no terms for such collateral kin as cousins or nephew and niece, they can be marked by the addition of the word, kəmεn (Nagata 1999: 44, 52), as against nakil, like in wɔŋ kəmεn (nephew or niece4) as against wɔŋ nakil (own child). Kəmεn is also used to refer to “step” relations such as step-parent who comes to cohabit with a man or woman due to the death of the previous partner, and who will call the children of the previous marriage5 wɔŋ kəmεn. The children will call the step-parent naˀ or εyˀ kəmεn6. In daily discourse, kəmεn is often dropped, thus making it unclear whether a person is a step or consanguine relative or lineal or collateral ones.

17Under certain circumstances, kinship relations may be fictive. The father of a young man led him and three others from Tanjong Mas, Narathiwat, Thailand, to Malaysia, in the seventies but they were intercepted at the border by the Malaysian army, who confined them in Gurun, Kedah, and contacted the settlement caretaker and, at the caretaker’s promise to look after them, released them. Since then the young man calls the caretaker bεˀ (“uncle”). As among the Malays, the patronage relation is expressed in fictive kinship terms (J. A. Nagata 1976: 402-3), qualified with the addition of kəmεn. The use of fictive kinship sometimes creates disagreements among the residents when attributing cəmam sanction.

18As mentioned above, the primary set of cəmam prohibition refers to relatives by marriage, who are terminologically distinct. One’s parent-in-law and his or her consanguine relatives (kənaj), and their reciprocal, child-in-law and his or her consanguine relatives (wɔŋ pεsaw) avoid each other. In-laws of own generations, older than ego (kənaj) and their reciprocal, in-laws of own generation, younger than ego (mənuy for female and bahuˀ for male), are also to avoid each other. Avoidance is strictly observed when the in-laws are of different sex but it is relaxed if they are of the same sex.

19Ambiguity due to the use of kəmεn, however, has no bearing on the cəmam prohibition as it applies to both kemεn and nakil relatives. Conflict of interpretations of cəmam violation arises not out of the use of kəmεn but of the extensive use of classificatory kin terms. Thus the people sometimes do not agree whether there was cəmam violation or not in a particular death due to the ambiguity in kinship relations.

20Sometimes cəmam is imputed by inference from one’s relationships to the parties concerned. For example, a man who is an uncle (bεˀ) to a resident of the settlement is living with a woman who is presumed to be a daughter of the resident’s mother’s sister and hence the resident’s classificatory sister (bεh). The resident claims there is therefore cəmam violation (cəmam wεˀ) in the cohabitation of the resident’s uncle with the resident’s classificatory sister. The resident claims that his classificatory sister’s mother died because of this relationship (see diagram below).

  • 7 His genealogical relationship to her is “his father’s brother’s wife’s collateral [kəmεn] younger s (...)
  • 8 Her genealogical relationship to the man is that she is his father’s brother’s wife’s collateral [k(...)
  • 9 Or her mother’s collateral [kəmεn] sister’s husband’s brother, which is bεˀ kəmεn.

21Another similar instance is a man living with a woman whose mother he calls naˀ (“mother”7 ), and the woman bεh (“younger sister”8). The woman calls the man’s father bεˀ (“uncle”9). Hence they are siblings (mənikε). The settlement people know this is a cəmam offence and claim the woman’s mother died because of cəmam. Endicott & Endicott mention two cases of incest, in one of which a girl who married her uncle died but, in another case, it was not either of the couple but the couple’s children who died (2008: 56). These cases show that the offending sexual partners may go on without punishment, although the offence may be known to the people in the settlement. The victims of cəmam are sometimes not offenders themselves but their close relatives, as in the following case.

22In cases of illness or death it may not be immediately apparent whether the cause is cəmam. People may decide that the cause is cəmam after examining the kinship relationships of the parties concerned but there may be disagreements. Some residents in the settlement claim that the late headman (penghulu [Malay]) of Lubuk Legong, died, after suffering from paralysis of one side of the body, because cəmam seized him. Cəmam killed him not because he violated cəmam rules himself but his daughter did by living with a man who called the headman bεˀ (uncle), as the headman and the man’s own father were brothers. The headman called the man wɔŋ kəmεn (nephew) while the man called the woman adik (younger sister [Malay]). The residents claim it was cəmam and the headman was furious (marah [Malay]), but the couple followed their hearts’ desire (ikut hati [Malay]) and lived together. Other residents, however, say the headman had no sibling and the man who called the headman “uncle” was no relation to the headman (məhəm asing [asing is Malay]). The actuality is difficult to reconstruct. The man’s father is said to be a Kensiw from Legong but due to the difficulty of finding a mate, moved to Tanjong Mas, Narathiwat, Thailand, a Jahay Tehedeh country, where he sired the man in question. So the man is a Jahay, when he returned to Legong, and start living with the daughter of the headman, who is a Kintak. The man may have begun to call the headman bεˀ in the same manner of fiction as in the case of the man who fled from Tanjong Mas, mentioned previously.

Avoidance of cəmam punishment

23The concern about cəmam is shown on innumerable occasions – in seating in buses and taxis, while getting loaded on a pick-up truck for work in the forests, and in sleeping arrangements in the settlement. Like the sexual division of labour, fear of cəmam is a major factor that leads to gender segregation in the settlement.

24Kənaj and pεsaw avoid not only physical contact with each other but with their shadows as well. A man was seen walking past the house of his classificatory mother-in-law, and when he noticed the door was left open, he carefully peeked inside, making sure his in-law was not to be seen, and then jumped across the doorway to proceed on his path. A young man refused to accept our invitation to join us in a Chinese eatery in town but hovered outside because he saw his kənaj inside and decided to eat in a shop opposite the street. On another occasion, a man wanted to go home but noticed a group of women in his path, and he decided to make a detour to avoid walking through the group for fear of passing near his in-law who may or may not be there. At that time, a Ple-Temiar man, whose sister was married to a Kensiw resident, happened to be visiting the settlement and was entertaining the women, including some in-laws, who surrounded him with loquacious jokes, to the horror of the Kensiw men (cf. Benjamin 1980: 16, 2002: 37).

25Staying apart from each other to avoid physical contact or stepping on others’ shadows is difficult when a whole family goes to stay in a small accommodation provided by employers unconcerned with the customs of employees. In such a case, a barrier in the form of a screen or a shutter, is constructed, separating the sleeping quarters of a man’s immediate family from, for instance, his wife’s mother. A similar problem arises in hospitals, where a patient and the patient’s whole family are often allowed to stay together, procedure which seems to be accepted at the Orang Asli hospital in Gombak.

26I was once asked by a man to accompany him, his wife and child to Gombak, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian capital, for the treatment of his wife. He mentioned that his kənaj, his wife’s older sister, wanted to accompany his wife to Gombak and to receive treatment for her pains in the chest, but he could not sit in a bus with his family and kənaj. An abbreviated account of the journey below illustrates how difficult it is to avoid cəmam:

When boarding a taxi at the settlement, I sat next to the driver but the man suddenly asked me to move to the back with two women and the children.
While waiting for the bus to Kuala Lumpur, the man took all of us to a Chinese eating shop but his
kənaj was standing far behind us and refused to come to join us in the shop in the man’s presence. We then walked to the bus station, kənaj following far behind. When we took seats on the bench, kənaj hid herself behind the building and squatted there.
When our bus finally arrived,
kənaj had to remain behind and we had to make sure the man gets seated first by the window, next to me, and then his wife, by the aisle and kənaj by the window opposite to us. The children sat between us and between their mothers.
In the following day, in Kuala Lumpur, while waiting for another bus,
kənaj hid herself at a spot distant from us and squated on the ground, not using any bench.
At the hospital, while the man and his wife were dealing with registration details,
kənaj was again standing or squatting at the edge of the building with her daughter flitting between the man and his wife on the one hand and her mother on the other.
In the sleeping quarters, the man and his wife were assigned to a large double bed. I was told the place is for both men and women. And how then was the
kənaj to be accommodated? I first thought she was to be given a place in different quarters but a Chinese female nurse who spoke English, said no, she was going to be in the same house. So I went back to the man and told him kənaj was to be in the same room. Then the man said as long as she was in a different bed, fine. When I asked him if he was not afraid of cəmam, he said his wife wanted kənaj to stay in the same place. When I reported this back to the nurse, she pointed to a bed on the other side of the quarters. Once again, while all this moving and negotiation were going on, kənaj was standing outside the building by herself alone.

Functions of Cəmam Sanction

Autonomy of Conjugal Pair

  • 10 The families of siblings and their children are said to form torugaˀ (Nagata 1999: 54-55) and expec (...)

27The cəmam complex singles out and liberates a conjugal pair (kεlamin [Malay, Kensiw, Nagata 1999: 54], kəmam [Batek, Endicott 1974: 213]) from the web of consanguineal and affinal relations (Schebesta 1957: 97), ensuring its autonomy and freedom of movement. Since the conjugal bond is primary, even one’s own parents must be avoided. There is no extended family household10, and when a man’s old mother is to stay with his family, she has to be placed in a partitioned space separate from the main areas of the house, where her son and his wife and their family stay. The parents and their children’s families do not share the fireplace or cooking facilities. A woman complained about having to look after the baby of her daughter-in-law, because she should not be close to them.

28Same sex siblings, if unmarried, may stay close in a house together, for instance, brothers going to rattan collection in the forest, sharing foods and earnings. Once one of the siblings marries, their solidarity is broken and the relationship becomes distant and no sharing of food or money seems to occur. A man remembered that when he went to school near the settlement, he was given only a ten cent coin every two days and was always hungry when he returned. Occasionally he ate at his married brother’s place but only occasionally. Eventually he gave up eating there and began working for a Chinese boss. Married sisters are somewhat easier and they do visit each other and exchange gifts and purchases occasionally. The absence of sibling solidarity in adult life results in the absence of extended family household and large kinship groups.

Expansion of Kinship Network

29The cəmam complex, makes it difficult to find mates. A young bachelor boasted that he has many relatives in both Kintak settlement of Tanah Hitam and Kensiw settlement in Thailand. When I said to him that it would make it difficult for him to find a virgin maiden (kiadah), he said if it is a distant relative (ujon or ujong təbuˀ), it is all right. The prohibition of sexual relations applies not only to cross-sex in-laws but also to those in-laws derived from current and previous marriages (Schebesta 1928: 244). One’s and one’s parents’ siblings are similarly excluded from cohabitation. When one marries, the relatives of one’s partner are classified as in-laws and excluded from future marriage of one’s own relatives. They form one’s expanded sphere of kin. “This gives the Semang mating world a rather ‘looping’ quality – as if casting a loop or a noose: my spouse is a stranger, but by virtue of becoming a stranger, her conjugal relatives are drawn into my circle and become my conjugal relatives” (Dallos 2009). These are features of what Benjamin calls “‘inclusive’ reckoning of kin,... (a result of which is) one has to search for a spouse in those parts of one’s kinship web to which one cannot trace genealogy” (1980: 14). In a small community, where practically everyone is related to each other one way or other, it becomes practically impossible to find a partner free of the cəmam prohibition. The easiest way to find a mate is to search outside one’s community, for a “foreign” məniˀ (məniˀ luεˀ). Benjamin writes:

Most Semang camps contain members of several different locality- or ethnicity based subgroups, and each individual appears to draw on a slightly different lexicon than everyone else. (1980: 5.)

30Finding a mate, however, was made more difficult in recent years due to sociopolitical changes in the country. During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), in order to control the communist insurgency, the Malaysian government embarked on a vigorous resettlement programme, consolidating a number of settlements in the forested area into jungle forts and new villages in the plains. Resettlement programme continued even after the Malayan Emergency. Further, economic developments have been converting the forested area into monocrop plantations and industrial estates. These changes have radically reduced the number of Orang Asli settlements, aggravating the difficulty of finding a partner to form a couple (kεlamin).

31In Lubuk Legong, there was a Ten’en woman from Thailand, married to a Kensiw. She was not familiar with the Kensiw language and the residents used to teach her expressions in Kensiw. Sometimes, while working in the forest, the people make fun of each other for their different words and phrases, much like people tease others about dialect differences.

  • 11 paksaˀ Tεg adεkbəradεk dεˀ, macam bɔˀ paksaˀ Tεg dεˀ bεh bɔˀ  ... tapi pənyakit bɔˀ kətɔ? jεˀ bya (...)

32The difficulty of finding cəmam-free mates is acknowledged by the people and some say they might eventually be compelled to mate even with brother or sister. In such circumstances, one cannot know, a resident said, whether cəmam sickness would afflict oneself or one’s mate. But if one mates with a second cousin or more distant kin, who is genealogically twice or three degrees removed, one can safely live together. In fact, even həmiˀ (Malay, see below) can become one’s mate and nothing may happen.11

33In the settlement of Lubuk Legong, there are middle-aged “never-married” bachelors and single fathers, who care for their children without the help of cohabiting women. A number of these men were married when young but divorced before having children, or whose wives were deceased after having children, leaving the men unable to remarry. The difference in age between cohabiting partners is thus sometimes more than ten years (Nagata 1999: 48).

34Marriage with a known relative is also prohibited among the Semai (Fix 1982: 184). The prohibition, along with the skewed sex ratio in favour of men, results in “many men either failing to find a mate or marrying a woman much younger or older than themselves (and) the failure of some men to have any child due to lack of a wife” (Fix 1982: 185). Nobuta notes that one of the consequences of the difficulty in finding a mate among the Temuan of Negeri Selangor is the commission of incest (2008: 168).

Kensiw-Malay relations

Muslim Malay Partners

35The cəmam complex encourages one to search for a spouse outside one’s kin and community. The ideal of məniˀ luεˀ (outside or “stranger” məniˀ) shows this preference and the ethnic mix of spouses in Kensiw settlement reflects this tendency. So far, however, non-Kensiw partners in the settlement are mostly from other Semang (Jahay, Kintak, Tehedeh, Te’ne-en) and non-Semang Orang Asli groups (Lanoh/Semnam, Ple-Temiar, and Semai). In Thailand, two Semang women were married to Thai men. Schebesta reported a Semang woman married to a Chinese (1954: Tafel XL, Bild 99).

36Muslim spouses are rare. In my Kensiw census, there were three cases of Muslim women married to Kensiw and part-Kensiw men but no Kensiw woman married to a Malay. One is an Indonesian woman, who was brought to the settlement by a young man who, while working as a guard in a Penang shopping complex with his friends from the settlement, happened to meet her in the complex. She had been working as a house maid in a household in a suburb of Penang island and used to come to this shopping centre on weekends. She was an immigrant labourer from Surabaya, Indonesia, and had been in Malaysia more than five years when she married the Kensiw husband. They had two children. Then the husband died in a traffic accident. After the husband’s death, she remained in the settlement with the children, and continued to run a store that was started by the husband. A year or so after the husband’s death, a young man from the settlement moved in and began helping to run the household and the business.

37In the late nineties, the Orang Asli Department built a prayer house (surau [Malay]) in the settlement, where the Indonesian woman prayed with Malay women from a neighboring Malay village. There was a kindergarten school (tadika [Malay]) in the settlement, managed by Malay women, where she took her children. No Orang Asli children attended the kindergarten there.

38Before he took the Indonesian woman to Legong settlement, the deceased husband had difficulty finding a spouse. When he was working in Temiar country in Kelantan, he said he was offered a daughter of a penghulu but declined as it was too far from his home in Baling. He also courted a girl from the Kensiw settlement in Thailand and another girl in Sik, a neighboring town, who he said was his step-sister (adik tiri [Malay]) but distant (jauh [Malay]) enough he could cohabit with. In either case, it didn’t work out because, he said, he didn’t have a steady job. He even considered settling with an Indian girl in a rubber estate, who was introduced to him by his friend but did not pursue this possibility, he said, due to his concern with the Hindu religion.

39Once when he was working in Upper Perak, he was told to meet a Malay official, who encouraged him to become a Muslim. He was told that if he became a Muslim, a lot of women would be available for him to choose. He had told the official, he said, that he would have to give up eating pork but then was told he could eat beef.

  • 12 Kensiw name of the site of the Kintak settlement in Ulu Perak, called Tanah Hitam in Malay.
  • 13 Colin Nicholas (COAC) referred me to OECD (Azizah Kassim 2002: 239, n. 3) and media reports (the St (...)

40When I knew him, he was vehemently against accepting Islam and becoming Malay and used to tell me that Baling and Cəbatεk12 are the only places where məniˀ still hold out as məniˀ, and everywhere else, all are becoming Muslims. Given his antipathy to Islam, I find it extraordinary for him to settle with an Indonesian woman, who is a born Muslim.13 I am unable to find out if he was converted; he was not interred in the Orang Asli cemetery attached to the settlement.

  • 14 An Orang Asli, converted to Islam, is buried in a cemetery for the Orang Asli converts, which is se (...)

41The second and third cases are the couples in which the husbands are Kensiw-Malay mixed blood and their wives are Malay. The wives are half-sisters, having the same mother but different, now deceased, fathers. Their mother used to frequent the settlement, sometimes selling sticks of sugar canes or home-made cookies, sometimes working as a tapper for rubber small holders in a neighboring Malay village. One of the daughters of the woman is married to a Kensiw-Malay mixed blood. Their son is married to the half-sister of his mother. Although the people in the settlement do not say it, their cohabitation violates cəmam injunction according to the Kensiw custom and probably incest (sumbang [Malay]) by the Malay custom as well. The son’s father and his wife used to live between the boundaries of Legong settlement and a neighboring Malay village and seldom interacted with the people of Lubuk Legong. Even when working to harvest rattan in the forest, the couple worked alone, separate from Legong residents working in the vicinity. This man’s father, i.e., the son’s grandfather, was a Kensiw, who became a Muslim and married a Malay woman in Sik before these men were born. It is said there were other Kensiw people in Sik, called Kensiw Mos, who became Muslim but when they moved to Legong, resumed the Orang Asli life (masuk-keluar [Malay]).14

42The son’s young Malay wife used to play in the settlement ground with Legong children before marriage and never played with Malay children from the nearby Malay village. She does not speak Kensiw. About the time they had a child in 2000, the prayer house was built in the settlement, with a large foot cleaning basin and a loudspeaker, blaring the call to prayer, and the son began to lead the evening prayers, with the help of a resident Malay Muslim teacher (ustaz [Malay]). Only half a dozen people from Legong took part in prayer sessions and they were all women, including the Indonesian wife. As for men, apart from the prayer leader, only one man, recently married in from Kintak settlement of Tanah Hitam, Ulu Perak, attended the prayer when he was in Legong.

43In 2001, much to the consternation of older, established Legong residents, the Orang Asli Department in Grik demoted the old penghulu and appointed, without consultation with the residents, the mixed-blood son instead. The people say that the penghulu of the settlement is now a half memiˀ (Orang Asli). Meanwhile the old penghulu and others who refused to become Malay (masuk melayu [Malay]) were excluded from the move to new houses that were being built in the settlement.

Məniˀ versus Həmiˀ

44In discussing the mating pattern of the Semai, Fix writes:

  • 15 One of the seven Semai settlements chosen for comparison (Fix 1982: 194-5).

45Another factor to be taken into account (in structuring Semai mating patterns) is cultural; even though there are many Malays now living within twelve miles of SA15 none have married Semai. “Ethnic” boundaries are not absolutely adhered to by Semai as the large number of Chinese grandfathers among the western Semai attests. Still a sharp cultural boundary isolates the Semai mating pool from the Malay. (1982: 197.)

  • 16 Orang Asli, “Sakai” in southern Thailand, and Sarawak natives may be called məniˀ. The people debat (...)

46Cultural difference between Malays and the Kensiw is encoded in the oppositional pair of terms, məniˀ versus həmiˀ. The term, məniˀ, is often translated as aboriginal peoples or Orang Asli but it may simply mean “own people” in contrast to “outsiders” or “strangers”, who are həmiˀ. Blagden gives both məniˀ and həmiˀ as “man” in an extensive listing of various aboriginal dialects (1906/66, vol. 2: 653-654). An intriguing interpretation of məniˀ is by Albert Gruenwedel, who cites a work by “Kuhn” who maintains the vocables for “man” in Mon (“minh,” Martin 1905: 194; Nagata 2006: 46) and Khmer (“mnus, mnis”), both of which are related to Semang dialect, are loan words from Sanskrit (“Manushya”) and Pali (“Manussa”) (Stevens 1894: 95, n. 3). These latter words sound closely similar to Malay manusia (mankind, man).16

47Məniˀ versus həmiˀ contrast is similar to Temiar contrast of sεŋrɔk (Aborigine) versus gɔb (stranger, non-Aborigine) (Benjamin 1966: 4-5). As “(T)he prime referent of gɔb or at least its meaning when used without further qualification, is ‘Malay’” (Benjamin 1966: 5), so is the meaning of həmiˀ Malay, who is a Muslim, as defined in the Malaysian constitution (Benjamin 2002: 43-44).

48Həmiˀ carries highly negative connotations among the people of the settlement. It points to Muslim Malays out to circumcise them and convert them into Muslim. In the early seventies, when an outsider approached the settlement, women and children fled and hid themselves, crying “həmiˀ!” People are fearful of the violence of the Malays. In one case of a missing man, his death is attributed to murder by Malays. On several occasions, I was told to avoid going to bathe in a river distant from the settlement for fear of Malay violence. On other occasions, I was asked to accompany the people for rattan collection as the spots where they worked were in the midst of Malay villages. In the past, the people, hearing the rumour of forced conversion, evacuated the settlement and took refuge in a settlement in Upper Perak (Nagata 1997: 92). Cabut lari (flight [Malay]) is a well-known strategy to escape from the threats of outsiders. There was an attempt to cabut lari in 1991 hearing the rumor that the Malays in a neighboring village were about to slaughter them (Nagata 1995: 103, 2004: 115).

49Distrust of the Malays (həmiˀ) is ingrained even among the children. Once I offered Malay cookies to a child in the settlement but he refused to take them, saying he does not like to eat Malay cookies (Nagata 1995: 103). Neighboring Malay peasants occasionally tease children by simulating circumcision.

50Islamic dietary restrictions on pork, tortoise, monkey, and other wild animals, are against their practice. Once, in Baling, two Kensiw friends and I got on to a taxi carrying a bagful of tortoises we caught, some to eat back at the settlement and the rest to sell to a Chinese dealer. In the front seat of the taxi, a Malay girl with a head-scarf sat, and three of us with the bag of tortoises between us in the back. As the taxi started, one of the Kensiw friends suddenly blurted out loud that we just bought bundles of jagon (maize [Malay]) at the market. He was trying to divert the attention of Malay riders from the smell of tortoises, haram (forbidden [Malay]) food to Muslims, and I had to wink at him. On another occasion, an old man wanted to bring home his left-over pork in a plastic bag from a Chinese eatery in Kroh, Upper Perak. When the bag with the left-over pork was brought to him, he objected that the people could see the inside of the bag and insisted to have the bag changed to a black-coloured one.

Traditional authority and islamic bureaucracy

51The people in the settlement deal with the Kedah Sultanate and the Malaysian federal agency of the Department of Aborigines (JHEOA) that the people simply call Jabatan (Malay). They are endowed with an Orang Asli reserve, originally granted by the Sultanate (Nagata 1997: 93). In the past, the royalty maintained a place of temporary sojourn (rumah persingahan [Malay]) near the settlement and exchanged clothes and forest products with the people (Nagata 1997: 90). Occasionally the people were asked to sing and dance in Alor Setar, the seat of Sultanate. An old woman of the settlement said the Sultan came to Legong three times during her life-time.

52The people say that although the Malays are not aware, it is taboo (pantang [Malay]) for məniˀ to speak in their own language in Alor Setar, but must speak Malay or any other language like English, Chinese or Tamil and if those above (yang atas [Malay]) find out they are speaking their own language, there will be flood of water gushing out from the sky and the ground. One man said that the Orang Asli used to be all over Malaysia and the museum in Alor Setar had things that used to belong to the Orang Asli and the Sultan is afraid (takut [Malay]) the Orang Asli may come back and claim them. If the Orang Asli go there and speak in their own language, the Sultan would know they came back to claim them and the chaos (kacauk < Malay) would ensue. That is why it is taboo (pantang) to speak Asli there. Another told me that in Alor Setar, an official (menteri [Malay]) guards an ancient clock, with its pendulum made of the bones (tulang [Malay]) of a turtle, which swings without sound but if it does produce sound, the whole world will become an ocean; there is also a cannon (meriam [Malay]) and if it strikes against the enemy (musuh [Malay]), the same consequence would follow. These experiences and beliefs point not to the complete separation and alienation of the people from the traditional authority but rather to the ambiguous interconnectedness to the traditional authority.

53On the other hand, the people consider the Aborigines Department of Malaysian federal government in purely instrumental terms, as provider of such development projects as installation of water supply, electricity, and the issuance of identity cards, etc. With the construction of a prayer house, replacing the Department office, a meeting place now used as kindergarten, the people began to consider the Department as a tool of Islamisation (Endicott & Dentan 2004). With the new penghulu who is a Muslim, the people are chastised by the resident ustaz for not observing the Islamic injunctions. Some people voice their objection to the “forced” conversion promoted by Jabatan. The people consider Jabatan as hemiˀ, intent on changing their way of life and destroying them as meniˀ. Against these perceptions of the government, the people appear to regard the traditional authority of the Sultanate as benign and less threatening.

  • 17 Pelang, pelan dulu. Lama, lama ikut, no. Pelan is perlahan (Malay) in Kedah dialect.

54Sometime in 2000, Jabatan organized the visit of the Sultan to celebrate the success of the conversion programme in the settlement. The people from the neighboring Malay village and Orang Asli of Legong all dressed in fineries for the occasion, lined up to greet the Sultan. An old Orang Asli, however, was hesitant since he refused to be converted and was not dressed properly. Nonetheless he decided to greet the Sultan since he thought the Sultan was fifth in the order of ascendancy to the position of King (Agong [Malay]). So he went up to the Sultan and told him he was yet to become a Muslim. To which the Sultan responded: “Slowly, later you will follow, no?”17

  • 18 Dentan writes “But traditionally Islam among Malay peasants is a tolerant and easy-going religion w (...)

55As this episode shows, even in the midst of the forced assimilation policy, the traditional authority continues to be perceived as tolerant and flexible in the relationship with the Orang Asli18. The people see the difference between the Sultanate and Jabatan in pursuit of assimilation to Muslim Malay. The differing perception reflects the resistance of the people against the absorption by the modern nation-state (cf. Benjamin 2002: 46, 52). Unfortunately, in the present context, the authority of the Sultan is not powerful enough to counter the force of Islamisation backed up by the bureaucratic machinery of the nation-state and the people appear to be resigned to the demise of their culture.

Həmiˀ as cəmam and the fate of the məniˀ

56In some contexts cəmam is said to look like a Malay. Once I was on a bus with two Kensiw men on the way back from Baling to the settlement. The bus was practically empty and we were sitting at the back of the bus. Apart from ourselves, there were only two other passengers, older Malay men, wearing white skull caps in a front seat. While on the bus, one of my Kensiw friends wanted a cigarette from me. As I saw a Dilarang Merokok (No-Smoking [Malay]) sign by the driver’s seat, I pointed to the sign. Then he grinned, saying cəmam dεˀ. Back at the settlement, he told me he had thought I was pointing to a haji (Muslim who has made pilgrimage to Mecca). Endicott notes “Evans adds some interesting details concerning Chemam: ‘Chemam, who looks like a gibbon (mawah), makes thunder with his mouth,... but when he gives sickness he looks like a Malay’” (Evans 1937/68:184 as quoted in Schebesta 1957:21, Endicott 1979:181).

57Below is a story of cəmam that I synthesized mainly from the accounts of three people in the settlement, a sing leader (caoˀ [Thai] negεs), the former headman (penghulu) and a son of medicinal herb collector. It tells the origin of the incest taboo:

  • 19 Masa [Malay] ləntaˀ (< letak, Malay) tεh, “when the earth was laid.”
  • 20 Like a pomegranate but the specific name, unknown to me. Another account says it is the fruit of a (...)
  • 21 Cəmam’s guarantee.
  • 22 Ey taŋgon dosa dεˀ, bayar utεng bεrεs. The formulaic call to the Thunder God at blood sacrifice amo (...)
  • 23 Kəbis-gɔs, literally “dead-alive”.
  • 24 Matiˀ pagiˀ, matahariˀ pətaŋ, ujan panas [all the words here in Malay], hεˀ gɔs wig. Ujan panas is (...)
  • 25 Məniˀ, antonym of həmiˀ, meaning “other” as against “us,” but in the context of this story, “people (...)
  • 26 Takob.
  • 27 Cεnɔy.
  • 28 Pənlɔɲ. For “singing” ritual, see Nagata (2004).
  • 29 Pεk biεk.
  • 30 Nay pεtaˀ. Pεtaˀ refers to region, sometimes territory, map.
  • 31 A conical structure constructed with coconut leaves in and around which rituals take place (Schebes (...)
  • 32 Wεˀ wɔŋ həmiˀ blεˀ klεm panɔˀ dεˀ. Həmiˀ (“non-Aboroginal person” [Benjamin 2002: 34], but in the c (...)
  • 33 Lamaˀlamaˀ bakεs, uˀ kədəˀ bəgiˀ əŋ pantεŋ.
  • 34 Kənaj.
  • 35 Smlεh.
  • 36 Pεsaw.
  • 37 Həmˀi ɔŋ halaʔ cəmam dεˀ.
  • 38 Janji.
  • 39 Gin kacauˀ dεˀ. Literally, “people are mixed up.”
  • 40 Kalaw macam nay məniˀ, bya lɔw mawεˀ.
  • 41 Kəbis tərus tərus. Dentan says tərus tərus may mean “to the last man,” hence “People died to the la (...)
  • 42 Esauˀ sah.
  • 43 Yəmbuˀ.
  • 44 Yak dεˀ.

In primordial times19, there was no incest taboo and a primordial couple had children from piagoˀ20 fruit. A son and a daughter born out of this fruit married without fear of cəmam, for their father had jaminˀ [Malay] cəmam21, giving gifts (a ring, a keris [Malay dagger], and other items) to cəmam, not to strike them with cəmam disease. The father assumed the sin and cleared the debt by paying to cəmam22.
In those days, the earth was clean, no cattle, no water-buffalo, no corpse to soil the ground. If a person dies in the morning, he will come back to life
23, in the rain during afternoon sunshine in which the shadow of the deceased shows like mirage24. The sun was near the horizon, so near that man could touch it and it was cool. All the animals were people25 and the people did not eat them but lived on yam26. There were many halaˀ and sky spirits27. When the people sang28 at night, sky spirits would come down, and though invisible, lightning flashed all over the sky.
People increased exponentially in number
29. They were living as one group30 and made a panɔˀ31. There was a Malay boy who sneaked into the panɔˀ32 and rose with məniˀ. As the boy grew up, he said this (i.e., mother and child sleeping together) was now prohibited33. If one speaks to one’s mother-in-law34, one gets killed35, if one speaks to one’s daughter-in-law36, one gets killed. The boy is halaˀ cəmam37. He did not honour the agreement38. It was a mistake to mix məniˀ and həmiˀ39 If there were məniˀ alone, no problem there40.
Now the earth is dirty, the sun distant, sky spirits are reluctant to come down during the sing, and the people died through41, ceasing to revive.
When the məniˀ decided to descend to the earth, həmiˀ refused to come down42 with them and since then he stayed on there. Now the cəmam is a turban-wearing old man with a cow43 tethered to a stake and is waiting for the occasion to slaughter it with his parang as the Malays do on Hari Raya (day of celebration at the end of fasting month). The day he does this, all the məniˀ will be finished44.

58I asked why the Malay child entered the panɔ but the answer was byaˀ hjub (“don’t know”).

59The story links cəmam prohibition to the intrusion of Muslim Malay into the life of the Orang Asli and their extinction as a people due to his action. Although the cəmam prohibition is, as Benjamin says, a means to preserve their identity as a nomadic foragers, the story seems to say it is antithetic to this life way.

60Cəmam demands the Kensiw to search for mates outside the circle of kin, thus creating the ever-widening sphere of kinship over an extensive landscape to support the foraging way of life. This mode of life is encountering irremediable contradiction in the changing condition of the country. Recent Islamisation policy is actively discouraging this way of life from the dietary custom to mate selection and to change of personal identity by adoption of Islamic names. Some people fear the Kensiw may be destined to extinction by the intrusion of Muslim Malay who is cəmam. Cəmam is an ethnocide to them. In the present condition, cəmam may be “counter-final” (Sartre 1968: 164) to Kensiw and Semang identity.


61A few years after he “invented” the word “ethnocide” to refer to the Diem policies toward the Mongagnards of Vietnam (1965: 469), Condominas wrote that he “had not yet realized the depth of its content: it almost always ends in genocide” (1973: 14). But Schwidetzky writes:

(T)here is no straightforward biological disappearance of a people, that the death of a people exists only in the sense that there comes a time when no individual recognizes as belonging to a once common people-hood, and that if one means by the death of a people all the genetic resources that once formed a reproductive community, are eliminated from the course of human population biology, no such case can be found. (1954: 154, my translation.)

62The survival crisis of minority ethnic groups and the danger of their extinction were analysed in detail about the Batak in Palawan (Eder 1987) and the San Ildefonso Agta in Luzon, Philippines (Early & Headland 1998) but all of these cases show, not the erasure of the genetic stock of the peoples but the change, radical though it may be, in the lives of the people as they are dispersed and absorbed through migration, intermarriage and adoption, as lowland Filipinos. These are cases of forced assimilation due to the socio-economic changes in the Philippines. They are not cases of the “genocide” into which Condominas feared ethnocide may deteriorate.

63Islamisation is the instance of forced assimilation and conversion by the state power (Stavenhagen 1990: 89, 113). It aims culturally to assimilate (Weiss 1988: 128) the Orang Asli into the Malays of Malaysia, so that the status of “Original People” (orang asli) may be appropriated by the Malays who claim themselves to be “Sons of the Soil” (bumiputra). It does not try physically to eliminate them. The history and actuality of Islamisation (Islamisasi) were discussed in detail by Endicott and Dentan (2004). Although the word, “ethnocide,” appears in the title of the version uploaded in Magickriver Net, it is neither in the original title of the 2004 article nor in the original text. Dentan (1993) uses “ethnicide” in an earlier article. To the best of my knowledge, these are the only instances of the use of the word/s in the literature of the Orang Asli. It may reflect a certain hesitancy about the word that contains the suffix “-cide” but there is little doubt that Islamisation is attempting an ethnic change of the Orang Asli into Malays.

64Meanwhile the Orang Asli are countering Islamisation by creating an awareness of themselves beyond the discrete ethno-linguistic identity of Kensiw, Jahay, Temiar, and so on, as the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia. Conventional ethno-linguistic identity is sublated as subethnicity into a higher and more inclusive order of identity, Orang Asli. The emergence of Orang Asli as an incipient political force in the country is closely associated with the formation of POASM (Persatunan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia [Malay]), first registered in 1973. Together, various Orang Asli groups have engaged in social resistance and legal challenges for their common interest (Nagata & Dallos 2001: 101-2; Endicott & Dentan 2004: 48). Cəmam, upholder of Kensiw Semang identity, has been transformed as agent of ethnocide by Islamisation, which destroys this identity, and now emerges as a demiurge of ethnodevelopment (Stavenenhagen 1990: 90). It may be a prelude to self-determination, autonomy and a new and more inclusive identity for the aboriginal peoples of Malaysia as a whole.











eB, eZ, MeBC, MeZC, FeBC, FeZC, all other 0 generation level, older than ego



yB, yZ, MyBC, MyZC, FyBC, FyZC, all other 0 gener level, younger than ego



C, WC, HC, BC, ZC, all other -1 gener level



FB, MB, FZH, MZH, MH (if not the father), all other +1 gener level male



FZ, MZ, FBW, MBW, FW (if not the mother), all other +1 gener level female



all +2 gener level male



all +2 gener level female









HF, WF, HM, WM, all parents of former H and W



CH, CW, all former H and W of C



WeZ, WeB, HeB, HeZ



WyZ, HyZ, BW


bahuˀ or bəmihuˀ, bəmihəˀ, məmihəˀ

WyB, HyB, ZH


bəmisεn, bəmisen, məmiˀ mey, məmiˀ sεn

DHP, SWP, ZHP, BWP (these four are < Malay “berbesan”), SWB, DHB, SWZ, DHZ (can’t marry)



all +3 gener level



all -2 gener level








məhem nay

[lit.] “one blood,” blood relative


kɔlgaˀ, torugaˀ

< Malay “keluarga,” families of siblings and their children

Haut de page


ASMAH, Haji Omar, 1963, Bahasa Semang – Dialek Kentakbong, Laporan Penyelidikan Pengajian Melayu, University Malaya.

Azizah, Kassim, 2002, “Malaysia”, in Migration and the Labour Market in Asia: Recent Trends and Policies, Japan Institute of Labour for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (ed.), Paris: OECD Publications, p. 231-255.

BENJAMIN, Geoffrey, 1966, “Temiar social groupings”, Federation Museums Journal, 11 (n.s): 1-25.

BENJAMIN, Geoffrey, 1980, Semang, Senoi, Malay: Culture History, Kinship and Consciousness in the Malay Peninsul, unpublished Ms.

BENJAMIN, Geoffrey, 1999, “Temiar kinship terminology: a linguistic and formal analysis”, Occasional paper, No 1, Academy of Social Sciences, Penang: AKASS heritage paper series.

BENJAMIN, Geoffrey, 2002, “On being tribal in the Malay world”, in Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Social and Cultural Perspectives, Geoffrey Benjamin & Cynthia Chou (eds.), Leiden and Singapore: International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), p. 7-76.

BENJAMIN, Geoffrey, 2004, “The Malay world as a regional array”, paper presented to the Workshop on Scholarship in Malay World Studies, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, Netherlands, 26-28 August 2004.

BISHOP, Nancy, 1996, “Who’s who in Kensiw?: Terms of reference and address in Kensiw”, Mon-Khmer Studies, 26: 245-253.

BLAGDEN, Charles O., 1906/66, “Language”, in Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, W. W. Skeat & Charles O. Blagden (eds.), vol. 2 (1966 Frank Cass & Co. reprint. London: Macmillan), p. 481- 768.

CAREY, Iskandar, 1976, Orang Asli: the Aboriginal Tribes of Peninsula Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

CONDOMINAS, Georges, 1965, L’Exotique est quotidien, Paris: Librairie Plon.

CONDOMINAS, Georges, 1973, “Ethics and comfort: an ethnographer’s view of his profession (Distinguished Lecture 1972)”, Annual Report of the American Anthropological Association 1972: 1-17.

DALLOS, Csilla, 2009, Personal communication, August 15.

DENTAN, R. K., 1993, “A genial sort of ethnicide”, Daybreak, Autumn: 18-19, 13.

DENTAN, R. K., 2002, “Ideas redeem, but political memories do run short: Islamicization among Malaysia’s Orang Asli”, Social Justice: Anthropology, Peace and Human Rights, 3: 153-189.

EARLY, John D. & Thomas N. Headland, 1998, Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rain Forest People: the San Ildefonso Agta, Gainsville & Miami: University Press of Florida.

EDER, James F., 1987, On the Road to Tribal Extinction: Population, Deculturation, and Adaptive Well-Being among the Batak of the Philippines, Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

ENDICOTT, K. M., 1974, “Batek Negrito Economy and Social Organization”, Ph.D dissertation.

ENDICOTT, K. M., 1979, Batek Negrito Religion, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

ENDICOTT, K. M. & R. K. DENTAN, 2004, “Into the mainstream or into the backwater? Malaysian assimilation of Orang Asli”, in Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, Christopher R. Duncan (ed.), Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, p. 24-55.

ENDICOTT, K. M. & Karen Endicott, 2008, The Headman was a Woman, Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Presss.

EVANS, I. H. N., 1937/68, The Negritos of Malaya, second impression, London: Frank Cass.

FIX, A., 1982, “Genetic structure of the Semai”, in Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics, M. H. Crawford & J. H. Mielke (eds.), Vol. 2 (Ecological and Population Structures) New York: Plenum, p. 179-204

MARTIN, Rudolf, 1905, Die Inlandstämme der Malayischen Halbinsel, Jena: Gustav Fischer.

NAGATA, J. A., 1976, “Kinship and social mobility among the Malays”, Man, 11: 86-108.

NAGATA, Schuichi, 1995, “Education and socialization in a Semang resettlement community of Kedah, Malaysia: the case of the Kensiw, the Kintak Bogn and the Kintak Nakil”, in Indigenous Minorities of Peninsular Malaysia: Selected Issues and Ethnographies, Razha Rashid (ed.), Kuala Lumpur: Intersocietal and Scientific Sdn. Bhd. (INAS), p. 86-108.

NAGATA, Schuichi, 1997, “The origin of an Orang Asli reserve in Kedah”, in Indigenous Peoples and the State Politics, Land, and Ethnicity in the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo, Robert L.Winzelar (ed.), Series: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Vol. 46, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, p. 84-97.

NAGATA, Schuichi, 1999, “Conjugal families and the non-circulation of children in a resettlement community of foragers in West Malaysia”, in Structuralism’s Transformations: Order and Revision in Indonesian and Malaysian Societies (Papers Written in Honour of Clark E. Cunningham), L. V. Aragon & S. D. Russel (eds.), Tempe: Arizona State University Program for Southeast Asian Studies, p. 37-67.

NAGATA, Schuichi, 2004, “Leadership in a resettlement village of the Orang Asli, Kedah, Malaysia”, Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography, 12 (“Leadership, justice and politics at the grassroots,” edited by Anthony R. Walker): 95-126.

NAGATA, Schuichi, 2006, “Subgroup ‘names’ of the Sakai (Thailand) and the Semang (Malaysia): a literature survey”, Anthropological Science, 114: 45-57.

NAGATA, Schuichi & Csilla Dallos, 2001, “The Orang Asli of West Malaysia: an update”, Moussons, 4: 97-112.

NOBUTA, Toshihiro, 2008, Living on the Periphery: Development and Islamization among the Orang Asli, series: Kyoto Area Studies on Asia (Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University), 14, Kyoto & Melbourne: Kyoto University Press & Trans Pacific Press.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul, 1968, Search for a Method, New York: Vintage Books.

SCHEBESTA, Paul R., 1926, “Religiösse Anschauunngen der Semang über die Orang hidop (die Unsterblichen)”, Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 24: 209-33.

SCHEBESTA, Paul R., 1928, “Gesellschaft und Familie bei den Semang af Melakka”, Anthropos, 23: 235-58.

SCHEBESTA, Paul R., 1954, Die Negrito Asiens II/1 (Wirtschaft und Soziologie), Wien-Mödling: St. Gabriel Verlag.

SCHEBESTA, Paul R., 1955, “Hroff Vaughan Stevens: Rehabilitierung des ersten Semangforschers”, Anthropos, 50: 882-98.

SCHEBESTA, Paul R., 1957, Die Negrito Asiens II/2 (Religion und Mythologie), Wien-Mödling: St. Gabriel Verlag.

SCHWIDETZKY, Ilse, 1954, Das Problem des Völkertodes: eine Studie zur historischen Bevölkerungsbiologie, Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.

STAVENHAGEN, Rodolfo, 1990, The Ethnic Question: Conflicts, Development, and Human Rights, Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

STEVENS, Hrolf Vaughan, 1892, “Materialien zur Kenntiniss der Wilden Stämme auf der Halbinsel Malaka”, Veröffentlichungen aus dem Königlichen Museum für Völerkunde, II, 3-4: 81-164

STEVENS, Hrolf Vaughan, 1894, “Materialien zur Kenntiniss der Wilden Stämme auf der Halbinsel Malaka”, Veröffentlichungen aus dem Königlichen Museum für Völerkunde, III, 3-4: 95-181.

WEISS, Gerald, 1988, “The tragedy of ethnocide: a reply to Hippler”, in Tribal Peoples and Development Issues: a Global Overview, John H. Bodley (ed.), Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publication Company, p. 124-133.

WHITE, Leslie A., 1958, “What is a classificatory kinship term?”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 14: 378-385.

Haut de page


Appendix I. Orthography

Below is a list of symbols used in the text. They approximate American English and French sounds of the vowels and a few consonants. Many of the items in the list are borrowed from Endicott & Endicott (2008: xi). The fonts are Times New Austric created by Geoffrey Benjamin. I herein acknowledge with thanks their support.

a pronounced like “a” in “car”

ε pronounced like “e” in “desk”

ə epenthetic schwa

i pronounced like “i” in “kit”

u pronounced like “u” in “foot”

o pronounced like “o” in “oak”

ɔ pronounced like “o” in “hot”

w pronounced like “w” in “wait”

y pronounced like “y” in “yes”

c pronounced like “ch” in “chew”

j pronounced like “j” in “jet”

ŋ pronounced like “ng” as in “sing”

ɲ pronounced like French “gn” in “agneau

ˀ glottal stop

Appendix II. Kensiw Kin Terms of Reference

Abbreviations: F = father, M = mother, B = brother, Z = sister, C = child, S = son, D = daughter, H = husband, W = wife, e = older, y = younger.

Examples: MyZC = mother’s younger sister’s child; HeB = husband’s older brother; BW = brother’s wife

Haut de page


1 See Appendix I for the transcription of cəmam and other Kensiw words used in the text. I am unable to find the word, cəmam, in Blagden’s Comparative Vocabulary of Aboriginal Dialects (1906/66). Neither could I find it in Vaughan Stevens’ work (1892, 1894). In his comments on Vaughan Stevens’ interpretation of bamboo engravings, Schebesta writes that Stevens’ Senai, disciplinarian of the rebellious wind, may be Cemam (1955: 889, 1957: 108). Schebesta and Evans may thus be the first to introduce cəmam in Semang ethnography. Evans writes cəmam, when referring to the prohibition and Chemam when referring to personified cemam (1937: 183: 7).

2 Ujong (< Malay, hujung, end or extremity) or mənji meaning “distant” or “far” and təbu means “big,” or “fat”. Ujong təbu means jauh sekali (very far) in Malay and appears to refer to second cousins and more distant relations.

3 Bishop gives ‘wy from the Kensiw of Yala province, Thailand (1996: 250).

4 Kamεn in Kintak Bong is translated as Malay kemanakan (sibling’s child, anak saudara) (Asmah 1963: 34). Bishop discusses Yala Kensiw kamen in a more restrictive sense of “step” relationship than in our case (1996: 250).

5 Marriage among the Kensiw is not a ritually marked event but is recognized by the cohabitation of a man and a woman. Tεg (“to sleep with”) is the expression used to refer to a married person. A married couple is referred to as kεlamin (Malay), meaning “pair.”

6 Adoption among the Kensiw is a crisis type adoption, in which orphaned children are adopted by near kin. There is no transfer of a child if its conception parent is still alive (Nagata 1999).

7 His genealogical relationship to her is “his father’s brother’s wife’s collateral [kəmεn] younger sister,” which should be moˀ (aunt) kəmεn. It is unclear to me why it is naˀ. See diagram below and Appendix II for genealogical references of Kensiw kin terms.

Image 3.png

8 Her genealogical relationship to the man is that she is his father’s brother’s wife’s collateral [kəmεn] younger sister’s daughter,” which is bεh kəmεn.

9 Or her mother’s collateral [kəmεn] sister’s husband’s brother, which is bεˀ kəmεn.

10 The families of siblings and their children are said to form torugaˀ (Nagata 1999: 54-55) and expected to provide meals and temporary accommodations. This seems to be the transfer of Malay idea of family (keluarga [Malay]), which became kəˀalgaˀ and then kɔlgaˀ or torugaˀ.

tapi pənyakit bɔˀ kətɔ? jεˀ bya hyub, cəmam kεn bɔˀ bəlah kah, cəmam kεn mabεˀ byaˀ hyub dεˀ ... kεraˀ macam biεˀ kaliˀ tigaˀ kaliˀ dəpaˀ dεˀ, bɔlεh ujɔŋ təbuˀ dεˀ bɔlεh, həmiˀ pən bɔlεˀ, ... byaˀ maˀjadiˀ lɔwlɔw

11 paksaˀ Tεg adεkbəradεk dεˀ, macam bɔˀ paksaˀ Tεg dεˀ bεh bɔˀ  ... tapi pənyakit bɔˀ kətɔ? jεˀ bya hyub, cəmam kεn bɔˀ bəlah kah, cəmam kεn mabεˀ byaˀ hyub dεˀ ... kεraˀ macam biεˀ kaliˀ tigaˀ kaliˀ dəpaˀ dεˀ, bɔlεh ujɔŋ təbuˀ dεˀ bɔlεh, həmiˀ pən bɔlεˀ, ... byaˀ maˀjadiˀ lɔwlɔw (“Compelled to sleep with siblings like you are compelled to sleep with your younger sister ... but I don’t know about your illness if cəmam seizes you alone or cəmam seizes the woman, I don’t know ... if like two or three degrees distant relatives or far distant relatives it may be all right (to sleep with), even Malays may, ... nothing may happen” [the words are mixture of Kensiw and Malay, which is normal in daily speech; I have not indicated which is which])

12 Kensiw name of the site of the Kintak settlement in Ulu Perak, called Tanah Hitam in Malay.

13 Colin Nicholas (COAC) referred me to OECD (Azizah Kassim 2002: 239, n. 3) and media reports (the Star 30 March, 1996, the Sun 20 July, 1996, New Sunday Times 23 May, 1999, Malay Mail 25 July, 2005) on the marriage mostly between the Orang Asli women and immigrant foreign labourers from Bangladesh and others. Immigrant fathers leave children on their departure from Malaysia, creating the problem of their birth status and support.

14 An Orang Asli, converted to Islam, is buried in a cemetery for the Orang Asli converts, which is separate from the Malay cemetery. Non-converts are buried in the traditional Orang Asli cemetery. Since the arrival of the Malay ustaz (religious teacher), to leave Islam after conversion is regarded as apostasy (murtad [Malay]), and there was a case of a man who refused to be buried in the cemetery for the converted. The ustaz condemned the man as murtad. Before the current Islamisation policy began, it was not unusual for a person to quit being Muslim, a process called masuk-keluar (enter-exit [Malay]), which appears to have been common in Satun province of Thailand without the Sharia court to sanction Muslim marriage.

15 One of the seven Semai settlements chosen for comparison (Fix 1982: 194-5).

16 Orang Asli, “Sakai” in southern Thailand, and Sarawak natives may be called məniˀ. The people debated if the Australian Aborigines they saw on television, or Dr. Edward L. Powe, American black linguist (Ph.D. Wisconsin, 1984), who visited the settlement in 1980 and impressed the people with his knowledge of Arabic, were məniˀ. To the best of my knowledge, these are the only cases of non-Orang Asli being considered as məniˀ.

17 Pelang, pelan dulu. Lama, lama ikut, no. Pelan is perlahan (Malay) in Kedah dialect.

18 Dentan writes “But traditionally Islam among Malay peasants is a tolerant and easy-going religion which concentrates on spiritual matters, and tends towards heretical Sufi mysticism” (2002: 161).

19 Masa [Malay] ləntaˀ (< letak, Malay) tεh, “when the earth was laid.”

20 Like a pomegranate but the specific name, unknown to me. Another account says it is the fruit of a thick rattan (rotan manau).

21 Cəmam’s guarantee.

22 Ey taŋgon dosa dεˀ, bayar utεng bεrεs. The formulaic call to the Thunder God at blood sacrifice among the Kintak Bong contains a phrase, ie bayar dos [sic] (I pay for the sin) (Schebesta 1957: 81).

23 Kəbis-gɔs, literally “dead-alive”.

24 Matiˀ pagiˀ, matahariˀ pətaŋ, ujan panas [all the words here in Malay], hεˀ gɔs wig. Ujan panas is the rain that falls in a clear day, often in the afternoon.

25 Məniˀ, antonym of həmiˀ, meaning “other” as against “us,” but in the context of this story, “people.”

26 Takob.

27 Cεnɔy.

28 Pənlɔɲ. For “singing” ritual, see Nagata (2004).

29 Pεk biεk.

30 Nay pεtaˀ. Pεtaˀ refers to region, sometimes territory, map.

31 A conical structure constructed with coconut leaves in and around which rituals take place (Schebesta 1957: 136f., 336), enabling the shaman to ascend to heaven (kεpiŋ). For its photo, see Schebesta (1957: Tafel IV: 7).

32 Wεˀ wɔŋ həmiˀ blεˀ klεm panɔˀ dεˀ. Həmiˀ (“non-Aboroginal person” [Benjamin 2002: 34], but in the context of this story and elsewhere in this paper, it refers to Muslim Malay).

33 Lamaˀlamaˀ bakεs, uˀ kədəˀ bəgiˀ əŋ pantεŋ.

34 Kənaj.

35 Smlεh.

36 Pεsaw.

37 Həmˀi ɔŋ halaʔ cəmam dεˀ.

38 Janji.

39 Gin kacauˀ dεˀ. Literally, “people are mixed up.”

40 Kalaw macam nay məniˀ, bya lɔw mawεˀ.

41 Kəbis tərus tərus. Dentan says tərus tərus may mean “to the last man,” hence “People died to the last man” (Personal Communication July 31, 2009).

42 Esauˀ sah.

43 Yəmbuˀ.

44 Yak dεˀ.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Shuichi Nagata, « Cəmam or Sexual Prohibition among the Kensiw of Kedah, Malaysia »Moussons, 16 | 2010, 133-155.

Référence électronique

Shuichi Nagata, « Cəmam or Sexual Prohibition among the Kensiw of Kedah, Malaysia »Moussons [En ligne], 16 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2012, consulté le 15 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Shuichi Nagata

Shuichi Nagata, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto (Anthropology), studied the life of Hopi Indians of the United States in the 1960s and the Kensiw, an Orang Asli group of Malaysia, since 1970.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses Universitaires de Provence
  • Logo Irasia – Institut de recherches asiatiques
  • Logo Aix Marseille Université
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Revue soutenue par l’Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
    CNRS - Institut national des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search