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This is Passion, and Where it Goes: Despair and Suicide among Semai, A Nonviolent People of West Malaysia

Adieu, du monde la personne dont plus me loue et plus me deuille*
Désespoir et suicide chez les Semai, un peuple non violent de Malaysia [*François Villon]
Robert Knox Dentan
p. 31-56


This paper, the only one about despair and suicide among Orang Asli (indigenous) groups of peninsular Malaysia, focuses on Sen(g)oi Semai, a Mon-Khmer-speaking group of about 30,000, famous for avoiding violence. The paper examines two empirical correlations, firstly, between suicide and “learned helplessness” and, secondly, between suicide and “modernization,” especially in terms of increasing gender disjunction and familial patriarchy. Issues ­addressed include nonviolence, gender relations, learned helplessness, the case study method, the long-term effects of violence, the effects of modernization and development, the increase in morbidity of depression in the Western world and its supposed absence among “simpler” peoples.

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Juni: Happens all the time. They drink poison. My younger cousin killed herself. Her thoughts were susah, hard [to bear]. She wanted this guy, and she was quarrelling with her tnee’-mnang, siblings. Ngah Hari: There was a woman, the mnang, younger sister, of Bah Yusop [a half-Chinese man at Mncaak]. Both men and women kill themselves, usually by drinking rubber poison, pnglaay cbuur [pesticides or the acid used to “cure” rubber latex]. Juni: Bah Jasin from Kniik. A litaw [young man]. He drank rubber ­poison in the evening, after hanging out [drinking] all day with his buddies in [the lowland town of] Kampar. Worked for Guan Yu Co. It’s always mnaleeh or litaw [immature young women or men]. Lots of cases on the Cameron Highlands, Tapah Road, up as far as the 19th milestone, no further. They drink rook, poison [usually pesticides like Round-Up]. Ngah Hari: It’s because they are entered by a Satan [demon]. (Discussion at Pangkaad, Teiw R’eeis, 13 April 1992).

Headman: I don’t remember any names, but I have heard of Semai killing themselves. I guess they do it because susah i’ nuus, their hearts are troubled. Maybe because they’re afraid of maay [non-Semai people, strangers]. Saad: It’s a woman’s way when bi-dndaam, she’s treated with disrespect, by maay. Headman: [Or] she’s got a rival. Saad: The man goes tomcatting around and shames her. Sometimes a man’s wife sleeps around and he kills himself. It’s always a man-woman thing. Headman: That’s right. Saad: It’s a sign that [the person found the decision of] a bicaraa’[town meeting] trial unsatisfactory. Usually people use pnglaay cbuur, the poison you spray on rubber trees. I remember this man who drank pnglaay cbuur, just a little bit of it, when he was having trouble setting up a marriage with his girl friend [smiles wryly]. (Discussion at Pangkaad, Teiw R’eeis, 4 May 1992).

[Y]ou found a lot of suicide over love affairs. That was exactly what I expected based on the limited sample that I had. There is an incredible amount of anxiety surrounding the relationship between not only lovers, but also husbands and wives… I expect that the intense emotions generated by jealousy can exceed their capacities for control. Given the socialization at every level against the externalization of anger, I suspect that in at least some people it is introjected, resulting in the depressive state associated with sasoo [sasaaw] and in suicide. (C. Robarchek, pers. comm., 1992).


[T]he attempt to understand the relation between emotion and culture lies in the ­ethnographic description of the emotional lives of persons in their social contexts… begin[ning] with a set of problems of social relation or existential meaning that cultural systems often appear to present in emotional terms. (Lutz & White 1986: 429)

  • 1 The Sen(g)oi Semai are about 30,000 Mon-Khmer-speaking indigenes. Most Semai live in the middle of (...)
  • 2 The Semai infix -n- nominalizes root words; thus snasaaw comes from the verb -sasaaw. The prefix pr (...)

1This paper concerns how Semai of Malaysia discuss the effects of bereavement and deep grieving.1 The opening sections stress case studies, so that readers can “see” for themselves the raw materials to be explained. The accounts cover two topics, suicide, prndaad luuy, and denial-based delusions, snasaaw.2 The grieving that Semai say underlies these two responses seems connected with the people’s well-known nonviolence, by way of an attitude like what psychologists call “learned helplessness”. But an apparent increase in suicide seems to result from increasing immiseration in the guise of “economic development” and from gender disjunction, most clearly through increasing familial patriarchy, which allows fathers to veto their children’s choice of partners.

2The focus is thus on 1) social conditions conducive to suicide and deep grief; 2) social construction of “depression”-like phenomena; and 3) applying psychiatric models of “depression” cross-culturally. Ethnographically, it is the first study of suicide among West Malaysian indigenes (Orang Asli) and fleshes out an earlier study of Semai psychoses (Dentan 1968). It also undercuts popular stereotypes of Semai as people whose famous peaceability stems from an absence of psychological distress (Domhoff 1985: 1-34).

  • 3 Western psychologists feel that they can identify situations in which the response is “inappropriat (...)

3For much of their history, Semai (especially children) were targets of slave raids by Malays, the dominant people of the area. Under this terrorism Semai created an inward-looking culture in which the security that comes solely from mutual respect and dependency could flourish (Dentan 1979). This history, students of Semai life agree (Dentan 1992, 1994; Robarchek 1986), resulted in the institutionalization of an attitude resembling “learned helplessness”, a syndrome that is 1) characterized by ­passivity and nonaggression, 2) resulting from an experience of powerlessness in the face of uncontrollable traumatic events, and 3) generalized to other situations in which this response may be inappropriate. This essay uses the term “learned helplessness” as students of spousal abuse do (e.g., Gelles & Straus 1988: 141-146, 156-159; Walker 1979), more loosely than do the lab psychologists who coined it.3 Semai “learned helplessness” is in part a rational cognitive assessment of their disempowerment.

Love and Grief

4The relationship between “learned helplessness” and grieving is complex. “Learned helplessness” predisposes people to depression, e.g., when rejected by a beloved ­person (Peterson et al. 1993: 169-170, 186-188, 240-243, 254-258). The centrality of mutual affection and dependency in traditional Semai imagination can also make the experience of loss particularly poignant (Dentan 2000b). Love and the need to foster each other are recurrent themes in speeches that community leaders make at the town meetings through which some west Semai communities resolve disputes (Robarchek 1979, 1997; see Gardner 2000: 218-219). In the old days, when the world outside Semai society was just a threat, loving each other was easier, perhaps. People made the things they needed. Few people had anything other people lacked. Men exchanged blowpipes, for example, not to get a better blowpipe, but just as a sign of friendship. Most exchanges worked that way.

  • 4 The term ryaak may be cognate with Sanskrit viraha, the pain of estrangement, but the underlying id (...)
  • 5 Overwhelmed by grief, e.g., at a funeral, Semai may express their feelings, although they would pre (...)

5But love itself is dangerous, Semai say. You yearn for your beloved person or for home. And places and people are vulnerable. Developers may destroy your home, government officials “regroup” you to a place you have never been. Your parents may die, the one you love may not love you. Semai see frustration in love, like frustration in anything else, as dangerous, particularly to the one who loves (Dentan 2000b). Unrequited love causes rnyaak.4 When rnyaak settles in, people explain, you feel your grief hollow out your stomach just in front of your solar plexus, almost like nausea, almost like the hollowness that precedes demonic possession, a sign of spiritual distress far more dangerous than mere sorrow (e.g., Dentan 1995). Your consciousness, your sngii’, drowns in obsessive images of what you’ve lost, broken hopes and chances wasted; it becomes so painful that all you want to do is sleep. But the sleep is restless. Your grief destroys your appetite, your capacity for pleasure. You are always tired, as children are tired when demons seize their soft little head-souls, and turn pale and listless, and die. And, Semai say, no one can feel your grief, your loss, your rnyaak. When the people you love are gone, your consciousness become a burden, you are utterly alone. Ng-ryaak, you say, inconsolably, I miss them – my lover, my mother, my child. Years later you weep, remembering how your child used to go down the house ladder to play in the yard. Your aloneness and grief are absolute.5

  • 6 As soon as people met my little girl Elizabeth, 6, they began talking about how they would -ryaak, (...)

6Rehearsing the pain of bereavement before it occurs is one way Semai deal with it.6 More drastically, one can end such pain by killing oneself or by compulsive denial that the loss has occurred.

Suicide Narratives

  • 7 There are a few historical records. In the 1950s, British counterinsurgency tactics uprooted Semai (...)

7There are no reliable statistics on Semai suicide. Survivors fear punishment by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) or the police. Indeed, JHEOA officials may tell Semai not to report a suicide to the police. JHEOA statistics are, in any case, often unreliable and self-serving (Dentan 2000a: 209, 219, 223; Dentan et al. 1997; Nicholas 1992, 2000: 25). Fearing the police is reasonable: every time they go to the police station, Semai say, the police beat them up (Dentan 1999a). Malaysian police are pretty brutal, as recent trials have illuminated (e.g., Harun 2000, Ong 2000). Biomedical surveys often omit suicide (Baer 1999). Moreover, ethnographers generally ignore suicide or depression among Malaysian indigenes.7

8Perforce, therefore, like my earlier work, this essay is an “interpretivist” and “ethnopsychological” treatment of mostly second-hand accounts of suicide and systematized delusions (Lutz & White 1986: 420; Dentan 1967, 1968; Nowak & Dentan 1984). Given the personal editing that affects word of mouth, it was sometimes hard to tell whether two accounts referred to two cases or two versions of the same case. But such case studies also have their strengths: “ethnographic writing has its greatest integrity when it stays close to the small slices of social interaction that provide its data…” (Brown 1991: 17). The case study method

occupies an accepted but still somewhat dubious methodological status. Questions are invariably raised by those who use universalistic methods of survey research and ecological analysis concerning the representative character of the cases selected. If they are not “representative” of the broader society demographically, economically, and politically, it is usually argued that no sustainable generalizations can be drawn from them… [But the cases] are bound by the presence… of a set of interrelated narrative frameworks for the interpretation of the meaning of violence. The cases, therefore, are most interesting not because they are representative, but because, though each is virtually unique…, they are linked by discourse (Brass 1997: 30-31).

This linkage shows up in Semai narratives, which I therefore quote in detail. Sometimes the empirical accuracy of these accounts is questionable. But they express how Semai say suicides normally happen and how they interpret them.

Semai Theories of Suicide

9“I’d be afraid to kill myself. I guess the only reason you’d do something as scary as that’d be your husband or wife was fooling around or you wanted to marry somebody and your father wouldn’t let you,” said Alang, a twenty-year-old woman from Tiduk, Mile 8. Killing oneself in Semai is prndaad luuy, from pr-daad, cause to be daad, limp and unconscious, dead. But Semai often say “kill one’s nyawa” or “discard one’s nyawa,” using from Malay nyawa, literally “breath,” by extension “life” in the narrow sense of not being dead (as opposed to being conscious or animated). Semai usage usually lacks the Malay connotations of “soul” or “divine emanation” except in narratives drawn from Malay originals (Rawski 1998; but see Endicott 1970: 47-93).

10Both in remote settlements like those along the Tluup and in marginal areas like Mncaak Semai usually attribute suicide to bereavement and grief. In 1991, two Waar men, an old headman and a younger man named Tambang, told me about Tma’, from Cba’ Tnlop, on the middle Waar:

  • 8 Semai suicides prefer poisoning to other methods. Strictly, dook is poison from the sap of the ipoh (...)

He killed himself after his wife died. She fell sick, her arms and legs swelled up. He -jaap, cried, after she died [an unusual display of emotion]. They buried her. He dreamed of her after six days [the time one needs to “close” the grave ritually, so that the ghost, kcmooc, doesn’t come back to haunt one’s dreams. In the dreams] she wanted tobacco and matches [tokens of love]. She stayed on his mind, his sngii’, for a long time. [Tma’ began to] think she was still alive [he -sasaaw, suffered denial-based delusions, see below], went from settlement to settlement looking for her. He asked Tambang’s father to caaw, asperge, him [with magical neutralizing paste, to cool his body and drive off the demon, his wife’s kcmooc], saying his wife had been on his mind a long time. People said don’t [kill yourself], but finally, in 1976, he drank dook dart poison.8 The JHEOA said not to report the suicide to the police. He -pr-daad i’ nyawa’ pasal cruuk i’ sngii’ bi-rugi’ i knaah, killed his life because for [a] long [time] his mind obsessed over losing his wife.

  • 9 It would be “crazy,” a form of snasaaw, as Robarchek describes the case of Bah Mem’s former girlfri (...)

11The idea of suicide as a dramatic gesture, a prnhool of anger or hurt, seems alien to people as given to emotional privacy as Semai.9 They hardly ever interpret suicide as a way to communicate your unhappiness at being emotionally disconnected, perhaps because of their stress on individual autonomy (Dentan 1992). You killed yourself. No one else could make you do it.

12Similarly, no Semai I talked with attributed suicide to anger or to “anger turned inward” (Freud 1966: 45-47). Still, Semai say that breaches in interpersonal relations can cause physical injury (Dentan 2000b). And Semai suicide occurs in situations which can facilitate interpersonal violence. A Semai Methodist missionary from near Mncaak said that snabuuh knaah, suspicion of one’s wife, could lead to violence or ­suicide and that sexual “fooling around” was involved in most of the cases he knew about. A Waar River shaman said (Bei’ Aly, 29 Feb. 1992) : “If I suspected my wife [of fooling around], my sngii’ [mind] would be upset, I’d be angry. But if my sngii’ wasn’t upset, it’s her business, I’d just withdraw. The first time, I’d think it over: ‘Maybe it makes her happy.’ The second time, I’d -sa’guu’, go to the two of them and ask for gifts [a traditional response, which lets them show that they love and respect him and assuages his distress]. If I was still unhappy, I’d take them to the headman [for adjudication, perhaps at a public meeting, bicaraa’]. If it kept up, I’d get a divorce.”

  • 10 Sa’guu’, to be affected by saguu’, is the word for seeking compensation. Sagu is a Malay word for m (...)

13For Semai, gift-giving restores relationships upset by such slights, signaling mutual dependency and love, soothing wounded sngii’ (Dentan 1979: 56-57; 2000b). Tambang, who told Tma’’s story, said later that he would get “just a little” angry if he suspected his wife of “fooling around” with another man: “First time, I’d withdraw. Second time, I’d go to her kin and tell them to bawl her out: [They should warn] ‘Maybe he’ll kill himself’. Third time I’d ask for compensation at a town meeting, bicaraa’. [Paying] the fine’d show she was at fault. She’d realize she was upsetting her family and would fear more fines. If she kept it up, I’d try the police. Wouldn’t want to hit her. Never have.”10

14His wife said, if he was fooling around, she would keep her feelings to herself, not express them, though her sngii’, consciousness, was angry. Semai usually avoid expressing (prnhool, externalizing, exposing) emotions.

  • 11 For this distinction between types of suicide, see Flannery (1994: 76-77). Since gestural suicide i (...)

15Instead of openly expressing the despair which love can bring, especially to adolescent men and women, litaw and mnaleeh, Semai sometimes try to escape their pain by killing themselves.11 Most Semai say of suicide what they say of murder: “We’d be afraid to do it.” Love, they say, is the chief cause of interpersonal violence, and abandonment by one’s beloved may lead to suicide. Bah Sudeew, an old friend from Mncaak, says that people having trouble with their family or lover feel rejected, unloved, lonely. Normally rejection simply produces withdrawal (-kra’dii’, from kadii’, “time out”). But sometimes “We can’t stand the pressure,” he says, using the English word, “It makes us kill ourselves.” Suicide, in other words, seems to be primarily to relieve psychic pain.

16Semai recall suicides when they want to be unkind. It makes them refrain, sometimes, from cruelty. They are not kinder than other peoples, but they understand spiritual wounds better, I think. At least, they understand them differently. To want to kill yourself, “you would have to feel alone,” they say. What would being alone, that badly, be like? You need to understand that for Semai the love of people close to them is all the security they have, the ground of any happiness they have.

  • 12 Ngah Hari of Mncaak told of a mnaleeh, nubile woman from Gn. Batu in central Perak who drank “rubbe (...)

17Whatever the causes of bereavement, it often feels like betrayal (Freyd 1996). Betrayal, say the Semai, can in and of itself be fatal (Dentan 2000b). Similarly, learned helplessness (“feelings of uncontrollability”) and loss of social connections are significantly involved in most “Western” suicides (Williams 1997: 63-65).12

The Effects of Contact with the Outside

18Deep grieving seems to result in suicide oftener among Semai exposed to outside influences than among Semai in isolated upland settlements. Cubun, a sixty-year-old woman from the middle Waar, said (1991): “[L]owland people kill themselves because susah i sngii’, their minds are troubled. If they quarrel with their wives, they kill themselves. We quarrel, we bl’aal, get angry, but the next day we’ve got over it.”

19The headman of a settlement a little farther upriver added: “I’ve heard lowland people do that [kill themselves] and people in Pahang, but I don’t know any names. In the lowlands it’s because susah i sngii’, like a woman can’t get a wife [sic], gets chewed out by her father and mother. They drink poison, I hear.”

  • 13 Modernity provides other occasions for shame, which in at least one case drove a man to suicide: Mu (...)

20By contrast, most lowlanders I talked with had heard of several suicides, confirming the highlanders’ impression. For example, half a dozen lower Waar men had heard of the stereotypical 1989 suicide of a mnaleeh from Tiduk (Mile 8). “Her father was in the Senoi Praak [paramilitary Orang Asli police force]. I don’t know why she killed ­herself. She had no husband. Maybe she was forbidden by her father,” guessed Bei’ Aly, the shaman. A litaw, 21, newly married but childless, said: “She wanted to get a husband but her father laid down the law. He coerced her sngii’, so she killed her life… By drinking poison.” Another man explained that “Her father didn’t look after her.” But you can’t blame the parents, added a litaw from Tiduk: “It was she [who] ­sucked up the poison.”13

21Similarly, two men and a woman from Mncaak knew about a mnaleeh at Mndang on the Perak flatlands. Her elder cousin confirmed their story: Communist terrorists had killed her father during the Emergency [an uprising in the 1950s]. A Mncaak man adopted her younger brother, but not her. Still, her cousin says she was a knoon prncaa’, foster child (lit., “fed child”). Any Semai orphan would be fostered. She worked “like a man” for Chinese, hoeing their cash crop taro garden, and used her wages to buy things, her father being dead. “Maybe she felt neglected,” speculates her cousin. But then, at 17, she got pregnant. Her mnah, parent’s younger brother, bawled her out because he -sl-siil, was embarrassed that she was pregnant and unmarried, and by a Chinese man at that. The girl harangued (-lees) him [about lecturing her]. She came home from work one day, bathed, went to the Wednesday market, bought herself shoes and clothes, came home and drank pnglaay cbuur, “rubber poison,” in this case the powerful pesticide Round-Up [banned in the United States].

Grieving, Melancholy, and Delusional Disorder (snasaaw)

*bereavement… : It is usual for survivors to go through a period of grief. Grief may be ­expressed physically (by a lack of energy), cognitively (through confusion and disbelief), emotionally (with guilt and depression) and behaviorally…; *delusional disorder: a psychotic disorder which is not part of a schizophrenic diagnosis, yet is also characterized by the presence of one or more delusions…; *denial: a defense mechanism in which a person may deny some aspect of reality. For example, someone who cannot come to terms with the death of a loved one may still talk to them, set a place at the table for them and even wash and iron their clothes (Cardwell 1996: 30, 67, 68).

The intense love that afflicts Semai adolescents or parents is dangerous in other ways. Infatuation comes easily, and can lead to pain. For instance, in 1962 an American woman once arrived to visit us. The people put her up in the sleeping compartment of Cong, a teenaged litaw (the term refers to boys and men who are sexually mature but usually childless and always irresponsible). Cong fell desperately in love with her. After she left, he would come over to our house and sleep on our floor, day and night. He dreamed of her, often, back in the Marketplace, as Semai then called the society downriver. He lost his appetite and cheery good nature. It took him a month or two to recover. One of his neighbors, Bungsu’, the shaman, jilted and also afflicted with recurrent dreams of his beloved, managed to recover after a dream in which she gave him a melody with which to summon her headsoul during shamanic seances. Her current man had her body, he said, but Bungsu’ had her headsoul (Dentan 1979: 85). But some people do not cope.

Semai Accounts of Denial Delusional Disorder

  • 14 The word rawuuc connects longing, grief, danger and incoherence (Dentan 2000b). Among Malays, rawan(...)

22I first heard of s(n)asaaw at Mncaak in 1963, among “west Semai” (Dentan 1979). Means and Means (1986: 85 s.v. sasok, 118 s.v. crazy) translate the word as “crazy, insane, mentally ill,” and “ludicrous, zany.” The root sasaaw is cognate with Malay “sa[r]sar,” from Farsi/Hindi sarshar (Wilkinson 1901: II, 391-392). In some Malay ­dialects, the word is pronounced sasau, as in Semai. The proper Semai word is -yeek, “disoriented, muddle-headed, confused” (Dentan 1968: 140-141). But it also means to “wander around” or “stray away,” recalling a salient Semai metaphor, the path (Dentan 2000b). The Malay word may be cognate with cacaaw, a term which Semai also use for incoherent discourse, e.g., stuttering, stammering, or the echolalia (compulsive repetition of what people say to you) that characterizes echo-reaction ­syndrome, in which the sufferer repeats others’ words or gestures, lattah in English, from Malay latah. Wandering speech, cakap rawuuc, disturbs Semai, who strongly value order and tidiness.14

23S(n]asaaw is a disease of the sngii’, mind, probably caused by demons, nyanii’. It begins with susah nuus, troubled heart, and does not affect children. The cause is desertion or rejection: the death of one’s beloved child, the death or unfaithfulness of a spouse or lover, the violent death of a beloved relative. Sufferers become abstracted. The quality of their work deteriorates. Since traditional Semai tasks require little attention, work provides no relief. Indeed, walking or hauling water or cutting wood seem to “trouble the heart” even more.

  • 15 Robarchek adds (pers. comm., 1998) : “When you are abandoned like that, or when a girl or a boy pro (...)

24At this point, a demon enters the heart, “like a shadow.” Sufferers begin to hear voices, “as if on a telephone,” and to mishear what real people say. They have visual hallucinations and talk to people who are not there, e.g., to the spouse if the spouse’s “fooling around” is what first troubled the heart. Sometimes a sufferer plays both roles. A man may tell his departed wife to get up and cook, and then get up and cook himself; or will serve imaginary guests, only to eat the food himself. Social-emotional disconnection of this sort is a kind of srngloo’, literally “hunting down and killing,” the word in Semai closest to English “violence” (Dentan 2000b).15

25I suspect this generalized description is affected by the example of a Mncaak woman, whom I have known since 1963, when she was 32. She was a slim silent woman with a pleasant smile, a hollow-cheeked long face, and loose unkempt straight black hair that hung over her shoulders. Sometimes she carried a Coca-Cola bottle around in a sarong-sling around her neck and across her chest, the way you carry a baby. Her husband had deserted her, and she had evolved a loving fantasy family to take his place.

26Two people from Ayer Denak in the Perak lowlands told me a similar story about a man, Panda’, about forty years old in 1963, whose wife died of illness when Panda’ was still a litaw, young man, in his early twenties:

  • 16 Probably because the place was so alien and because Western-style psychiatric hospitals in Malaysia (...)

Panda’ transferred all his love for his wife to his little boy. He took the boy with him wherever he went and lived alone with his child. At the age of four, the little boy died. Panda’ refused to leave his house, though most people would have moved in with kinsmen or friends. He was waiting for the demon, nyanii’, which had killed his child, he said, so that he could attack it. He began to hear the little boy’s voice but, although he would search the house, he could not at first find the child. He cooked for the boy and hauled water for him, when he heard the child ask him to. He finally made a doll out of cloth, as Semai do for their children. The voice he heard, he said, came from this doll-child. Panda’ tells his imaginary little boy that he couldn’t have any cookies, then say Agoo’ jaap, “Don’t fret,” and pretends to feed the doll cookies, although eventually he will eat the cookies himself. He carries on conversations with the doll-child, which, like the Mncaak woman, he carries around in a sling. Also like her, he rarely enters other people’s houses to socialize. He thinks they are staring at his penis. Still, he never bothers other people [Dentan 1968: 149-151]. He is a good fisherman and has an income from his father’s rubber plantation. He spent a couple of years at the Tanjung Rambutan psychiatric hospital, without showing any improvement.16

27In 1963, Mncaak people said the mother of an elder, in her sixties, would -sasaaw, especially during the full moon. I noticed that she didn’t join in conversation much. People rarely talked to her, perhaps because she was pretty deaf. Her clothes were ragged, her movements slow and apparently painful. People said she often wept and wailed; that she wandered around the settlement at night and then returned home where she would sit weeping. One man thought a rejected lover might have said a Malay curse to make her -sasaaw. Mostly women were affected by snasaaw, he said, probably because, among Semai, only men knew the Malay black arts. That is, in this case, bereavement is only an indirect cause of snasaaw.

28He knew of only one other case, but I had heard of several similar ones on the River Tluup in Pahang the year before. Mrlooh, a young man just emerging from litaw status, told of a Temiar woman who married a Semai man and eventually fled back to her people in the adjacent state: “Her two children had left her, one to join the Senoi Praak [a parapolice unit for indigenous peoples like Semai and Temiar, with Malay officers], one to attend Malay boarding school. Every day she wept wordlessly, except to say that her children were dead, cut up with machetes or thrown into jail. She would chase her husband with a machete or pestle, cursing him or telling him to find the children’s graves or accusing him (wrongly) of sleeping around; and then she would burst into tears. She was sure that people in his settlement wanted to beat her up.”

29Mrlooh’s elder brother knew of another case: “After her husband died during the British ‘regroupment’ of Semai around a Jungle Fort, a mature woman, in her fifties, became papaa’. She would sit at her door waiting for people to pass by, and then pull up her sarong, exposing her genitals, and cry, ‘Look! Look!’ Her children, who looked after her, were greatly embarrassed but couldn’t stop her. She never left the house, even to defecate or urinate, and never said anything but ‘Look! Look!’”

30These women were papaa’, said Mrlooh, like the unmarried mnaleeh of around twenty-five, who would sit in a corner with folded arms, unspeaking. She refused food when people tried to give it to her but would steal it, so they would tell her not to come into their houses. The word papaa’ is from Sanskrit “unfortunate” or “destitute,” Malay papa (e.g., Kasimin 1991: 67). For Semai it has bad connotations, mostly involving aberrant sexual behavior, especially incest (Dentan 1968). Papaa’ people will have sex with their biological parents. The affliction needn’t involve emotional disconnection, though it often does. For example, Mrlooh said that his mother-in-law, a thin widow with a sharp face and tattooed forehead (two chevrons on a vertical line) became papaa’ whenever she fell sick, e.g., with headaches, coughs or malaria: “She stares at the hearth fire a while, then lets her sarong fall, exposing her vulva. She sits by the fire singing to herself, swaying and clapping as if dancing. After the fire goes out, she sneaks over to sleeping people, men or women, and embraces them, doesn’t care about incest taboos. When the people wake up, they run away. But normally she’s okay, a productive member of the community. The shamans held some seances for her. No use.” Although Mrlooh did not attribute her behavior to being widowed, trying to become intimate with sleeping people would be in line with felt bereavement.

  • 17 Not all Semai accounts of madness refer to bereavement (Dentan 1968). For instance, a thirtyish Tlu (...)
  • 18 Dentan (1968). Epilepsy seems fairly common among Semai (Dentan 1967, 1968) and other Orang Asli (B (...)
  • 19 A man from Mile 16 describes two other cases of snasaaw. In one, a woman went crazy because of snab (...)

31In general, whatever the madness, Semai suspect that disruption of social ties is the cause.17 For example: Jiis, a pudgy litaw in his twenties, -sasaaw. He visited us at ‘Icek along the Rias River in 1993, seeming shy and amiable. Neighbors said that since becoming a litaw he has wandered around mumbling to himself, but isn’t violent. One ‘Icek litaw, Jiis’s age, said that Jiis is really violently crazy, gilaa’, not just -sasaaw, and used to hit people. Ki-guuy ya nyanii’, he said, he is inhabited by a demon. Now, he continued, Jiis “eats medicine” (anti-psychotics) and is ok. When Jiis dropped by Ngah Hari’s house, the old man gave him an unprovoked but long and painfully ­reasonable lecture about not drinking or hanging around with evil people. Ngah Hari says that, back where Jiis comes from, he’s hit people, especially after boozing. In the old days they would grab him and tie him up when he got violent, as Tluup people used to do with violent epileptics.18 Finally they had to take him to the Tanjung Rambutan psychiatric hospital. His madness waxes and wanes with the moon, says Ngah Hari, but nowadays he doesn’t fight unless he is provoked: then he pushes you, hits with his fist or jabs with his elbow. He went mad because his “heart was difficult,” perhaps because he had a fight with his father, perhaps because he felt his poverty or his lack of a girlfriend.19


Experiencing Grief

32Talking about how other people experience emotion is tricky (Kleinman 1995; Kleinman & Good 1985; Lutz & White 1986). Translating -jaap is difficult; -ryaak, even harder. In many parts of the world, people seem to experience distress as a physical disorder, a process called “somatization” (e.g., Kleinman 1995: 101-119). Moreover, the connection between such personal pain and the social or political circumstances which affect sufferers makes it possible to treat such somatized suffering as a form of “resistance” to oppression. The question becomes whether people actually “feel emotions” like grief or simply experience physical distress.

33This problem stems from the Western Cartesian dichotomy between “mental” and “physical” phenomena (Lutz & White 1986: 406-407), a distinction less salient in Semai thought. For instance, although the core meaning of -jaap is behavioral, people use it when the subject is neither weeping nor wailing. Semai taboos, to take a more complex example, seem to rest on notions of the results of disrespect. These notions resemble Western notions of “stress,” in which “mental,” “social,” and “physical” factors interact (Dentan 1979: 55-64; 2000b). Stress empirically does raise the risk of deleterious physical changes. Saying that people treated with disrespect may be attacked by a tiger is one way of talking about this increased “danger to one’s ­physical and psychological self” (Lutz & White 1986: 427). But to say that Semai experience disrespect as being attacked by a tiger would go far beyond the evidence, confusing discourse with reality, the map with the terrain.

34Semai do talk about emotions in the abstract, although not in contrast with ­physical feelings. (What Semai refrain from discussing is their personal feelings.) The word ­sra’ngii’, “be affected by mental states,” from sngii’, “will, mind, feeling, consciousness, cognition” (Dentan 1979: 82), embraces most “mental” phenomena. “Heart” is the metaphor for sngii’, its location in the body. Luka’ sngii’, “mental wounds,” result from disrespect (Dentan 2000b). How is this terminology different from talking about “psychic trauma”? Southeast Asians in general seem not to “somatize” feelings as much as some other peoples (Pfeiffer 1968, Beiser 1985), like white Anglophone American men who apocryphally don’t know whether they are angry or have a headache. In the Semai case, suicide “somatizes” grief but only to eliminate it. So does the systematic denial in some cases of snasaaw. As far as feeling “mental” pain goes, Semai do not strike me as very different from the Americans I know, although the occasions for pain differ.

Grieving and “Depression”

35A related question is how Semai snasaaw resembles what psychiatrists used to call “depression.” It does fit a stripped-down definition: “the name given to behaviors that result from the loss of major sources of reinforcement… beyond the coping ­ability of the individual” (Akiskal & McKinney 1973, cited in Schieffelin 1985: 116).

36But the fit requires stripping away “culture specific” phrases. Semai deny that they reward grieving with “attention and sympathy.” Even snasaaw reaps benign neglect (Dentan 1968), not the “rewards of the sick role” other than a session or two of shamanic treatment.

37Moreover, although the cases of grieving described here seem extravagant to me, Semai never indicated that they would judge whether other people’s emotions were “appropriate.” How you feel is a private matter, not up for judgment; and almost all Semai feel that bereavement, like any disruption of social ties, can be catastrophic (Dentan 2000b). While snasaaw may involve a “disorder of the interpretive process” (Good et al. 1985: 381), the grief which it relieves is appropriate in Semai terms.

38Finally, although, cognitively, Semai “learned helplessness” shares many characteristics with “depression,” it lacks the distinctive ones: “thinking in an all-or-nothing manner,” “focus on the negative in the environment and… discount of the positive” and “overgeneralization and selective abstraction” (Good et al. 1985: 381-382). Even snasaaw fits rather badly with the usual definitions (Cardwell 1996: 69).

Traditional Suicide and Snasaaw

39These narratives suggest a “culturally normative dimension” to how Semai should respond under the social circumstance of bereavement. Bereavement “provide[s] an opportunity, a compulsion, and a program for feeling that way” (Schieffelin 1985: 106). Whether Semai reluctance to talk about feelings also leads to suicide and snasaaw is moot.

  • 20 Robarchek (pers. comm., 1998) writes: About that overwhelming fear of being abandoned that underlie (...)

40Growing up, Semai children go from a stage in which they are the focus of adult attention to one in which they are largely ignored, although allowed access to laps and so on (Dentan 1978: 116-127; 1979: 59-60, 64) The transition seems painful. Robarchek believes that it underlies the sense of betrayal and abandonment that haunts Semai, an emotional disconnecting always most painful for children, no matter what their “culture” (see Pollack 1998: 25-40).20

41I suspect this personal developmental trauma feeds into the historically based “learned helplessness” perpetuated by Semai abasement in a society in which more than four out of five of them remain termiskin, the poorest of the poor (Dentan 1997; Nicholas 2000: 17-39). “Learned helplessness” makes Semai particularly vulnerable to deep grieving after bereavement or rejection (Peterson et al. 1993: 186-188; Williams 1997: 60-64, 148-149). The chance one might “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them” must seem as exotic to Semai as it did to Hamlet when he was contemplating suicide. But everywhere people trying to understand what betrayal or abandonment means use the transition from infancy to childhood as an intellectual and emotional (“oretic”) model for the adult experiences which recall that first bereavement: “sometimes I feel just like a motherless child.”

42People sometimes forget that, besides his three sociocentric categories of suicide, Durkheim (1951: 63-67) recognized four sorts of egocentric psychiatric suicide. Of these, one, “melancholy suicide,” would embrace traditional Semai suicides and snasaaw. In Durkheim’s terms, traditional Semai suicide was “egoistic” in the sense that distressed people did not take advantage of the remedies for personal pain which the society offered, some of which appear in the narratives above – like taking ­another partner, calling for bicaraa’ or demanding gifts to soothe personal distress (Dentan 2000b). This felt isolation from nurturant others was the main reason for the suicide. The relatively rare suicides due to slniil, shame (see note12) are not different in kind: “Shame… begins… very early… Infants show the precursors to shame – physical responses such as painful blushing and “heat” – when their vocalizations for parental response or gestures for recognition go unacknowledged… I have come to believe –following Judy Jordan, my colleague at Harvard Medical School – that shame can also be described as the feeling state that accompanies an emotional disconnection” (Pollack 1998: 32).

43Emotional disconnection against one’s desire is traditionally dangerous for Semai. Any unassuaged desire, they say, threatens one’s physical health, even one’s survival (Dentan 2000b). But their stress on autonomy means that there is nothing that anyone else can do to assuage the pain of emotional disconnection. Autonomy and learned helplessness reinforce each other. Adult Semai rarely comfort each other (Dentan 1979: 64). “You feel grief, but it isn’t real grief. For you, it has to be like a movie.” There is no sense of being complicitous in the disconnection. People in distress must seek their own relief.

44Euroamerican adults are more inured to such emotional disconnections and felt betrayals than Semai adults are (Pollack 1998). Many pressures make Semai cling together: geography, xenophobia, an economic system based on sharing and reciprocity, public discourse that stresses loving each other. Conversely, many pressures pull Euroamericans apart: geographical mobility, often continental homelands, an ­economic system based on scattered opportunities for individual profit, a public discourse that stresses individual striving and reward.

“Modern” Suicides: A Social Psychological View

  • 21 A Semai headman from R’eiis blames the rising suicide rate on “mixing with other peoples [non-Semai (...)

45The Malaysian policy of assimilating Semai into the Malay “mainstream” (Dentan 1997, 2000c, 2000d; Dentan et al. 1997; Nicholas 2000) undercuts their traditional mutual support and dependency, which grew out of learned helplessness. Traditional conflict resolution loses its legitimacy. Supernatural sanctions become “superstition.” Life as termiskin, the poorest of the poor, at the very bottom of Malaysian society, often as plantation workers, exacerbates the sense of helplessness (Peterson et al. 1993: 251, 254-258; Williams 1997: 89, 148-149). This pattern of employment not only gives them access to pure poisons but also subjects them to socioeconomic conditions like those of rural Indian Malaysians, among whom suicide rates are extremely high.21

46More specifically, the apparent difference in suicide rates between traditional and “modern” Semai, which informants described and which seem to appear in these incomplete data, may connect with Semai success at assimilating to Malaysian lifestyles (see Baer 1999: 119). In Durkheim’s terms, the situation becomes “anomic”: there are no institutions from which distressed abandoned individuals can confidently seek help. Alienation from traditional institutions also exacerbates “learned helplessness” (Peterson et al. 1993: 169-170, 240-243). So it is not surprising that suicide seems commonest among Semai on the margins of their heartland, i.e., on the Perak flatlands and along the Tapah Road.

47A related factor may be increasing disparity between the genders. Among traditional Semai the division of labor by gender was vague and optional: “Unlike more advanced peoples there is no really clear cut distinction between male and female activities other than obvious ones such as nursing babies but even then I have seen fathers with a nursing bottle. Once I lived in a Semai ladang [settlement] for a month and tried to note down every day what tasks were done by men and what by women but I found so many tasks shared that my observations were relatively valueless” (Williams-Hunt 1952: 51; his punctuation).

  • 22 Globalization (and the concomitant dispossession and displacement), also put Semai in contact with (...)

48In terms of personal autonomy and ritual powers, men and women were roughly equal (Dentan 1988). Authority in general depended on one’s knowledge and skills, usually the product of personal experience and thus often of age. Gender and relative age made less of a difference than talent for the task at hand. The authority structure was a flexible egalitarian meritocracy, quite different from the ethnic-, status-, and gender-ridden “modern” hierarchies with which Semai come increasingly in contact.22

49The disjunction between the genders which “modernizing” brings seems as disruptive as the increased patriarchy. Young lowland Semai man now boast of being knoon kraal, “manchildren,” i.e., fearless and pugnacious, not traditional Semai values (Dentan 1999a). Against their parents’ express wishes, Semai boys occasionally try to fight back against Malay and Chinese bullies at school. By 1990, older lowland men were routinely eating apart from women and children, who clustered in the kitchen and sometimes even entered the houses by the back door. Unlike Tamil or Chinese girls, Semai schoolgirls often had to wear Malay/Arab style clothing and curb their normal witty ebullience to conform with Muslim ideas of feminine modesty (Dentan 2000c, 2000d). There seems to be an upsurge in transvestism among litaw and mnaleeh, and in concomitant homophobia (which I had never encountered before) among those not affected (for the relationship between these phenomena and patriarchy, see Erchak & Rosenfeld 1994).

50More concretely, on the Perak plains and along the road between the town of Tapah in Perak and the Cameron Highlands, weddings, jknuk, have become much more elaborate and expensive than in the old days, involving many kinsmen as contributors (see Dentan 1979: 73-76). The expense makes fathers reluctant to allow their daughters to marry lovers in the old-fashioned casual way and gives them the economic power to prevent marriages of which they disapprove. Women nowadays supposed to be chaste before marriage, in contrast to traditional Semai free love. Questions of legitimacy become important, and some people nowadays treat their foster children worse than their own biological children. The importance of having a flashy wedding – instead of a jknuk coo’, “dog wedding” – grows. This situation multiplies the occasions on which shame is an appropriate emotion for men: when the woman for whom a man is “responsible” gets pregnant, when a man’s wife is “fooling around.” It also increases the authority of parents, especially fathers, to coerce and frustrate their children, in order to avoid shame. Parental or paternal refusal to support a wedding is a novel occasion for suicide among dependent children of either sex. It would have been unthinkable among Semai on the Tluup in the 1960s. Thus empowering fathers increases potential obstacles to the relationships litaw and mnaleeh can develop and thereby increases the risk of bereavement.


51Semai expect that a case of suicide or snasaaw will involve losing beloved people. That is what they imagine happens, even if they don’t know the details. The depth of the love which binds Semai together, which “integrates” them in Durkheim’s terms (1951: 208), creates the context of traditional Semai suicide. The failure of these ties as Semai “modernize” leads to what he would call “anomic suicide” (Bohannan 1960: 8-10). In most Semai accounts of suicide the narrator either knows or imagines that somehow the bonds of love have been broken. Among a people who have no reason to think that things are going to get better, who have learned helplessness, such emotional disconnection can drive one mad, or to suicide.

52Increasing peaceful contact with the modern state and Malay culture introduces new stresses: familial patriarchy, enacted in the need for parental consent to defray the expenses of the conspicuous consumption required by Malay-style weddings; isolation from one’s family in boarding schools or away at jobs supervised by strangers who screw you and don’t love you; regroupment with strangers, whom you don’t love and with whom you must compete for inadequate resources. As the community collapses, the loneliness of traditional personal autonomy degenerates into the utter loneliness of capitalist individualism. Will anyone ever love you? No. Will things ever get better? No. Why live?

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Wavell, S., 1958, The Lost World of the East: An Adventurous Quest in the Malayan Hinterland, London: Souvenir Press.

Wilkinson, R.J., 1901, A Malay English Dictionary, Singapore: Kelly and Walsh.

Williams, M., 1997, Cry of Pain: Understanding Suicide and Self-Harm, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Williams-Hunt, P.D.R., 1952, An Introduction to the Malayan Aborigines, Kuala Lumpur: Government Printing Office.

Worthman, Carol M., 1999, “Emotions: You Can Feel the Difference,” in Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, A.L. Hinton (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 41-74.

Yoon Szu-mae, 2000, “On the margins,” Malaysiakini, <>, 31 August.

Zakaria, M., & Mustafa A.M., 1992, Tumbuhan dan Perubatan Tradisional, Petaling Jaya: Fajar Bakti.

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Note de fin

1 The Sen(g)oi Semai are about 30,000 Mon-Khmer-speaking indigenes. Most Semai live in the middle of peninsular Malaysia, in southern Perak State and northeast Pahang state. The two states are watersheds, separated by a chain of mountains. Until recently, Pahang (“east”) Semai along the Tluup River were isolated, compared with Perak Semai, especially people in lowland Perak like the settlements of Mncaak and Krikal (Dentan 1979, 1995). People along the R’eiis in the Perak foothills are more exposed to Malay lifestyles than people along the Waar on the mountain slopes (see map in Dentan, in press). The “Tapah Road” links Tapah city on the Perak plain with the highlands. Settlements along the road take their name from the nearest batu, milestone; e.g., Tiduk is also known as Mile 8. These settlements have integrated themselves into the national economy since the 1930s, often surmounting considerable obstacles to do so (Gomes 1990).
I lived on the Tluup in 1962; at Mncaak in 1963 and 1975; on the Waar in 1991-1992, on the R’eiis in 1992: two years in 1962-1963, a few months in 1975 and over a year in 1991-1992. The Department of Orang Asli Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, JHEOA) permitted me to do my work but provided no other ­support. The Ford and H.F. Guggenheim Foundations, the American, Peabody, and Field Museums of Natural History, and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology helped fund my work. My Malaysian sponsors are now in exile. Semai names here are all pseudonyms (for major collaborators, see Dentan 1993).
By “bereavement” I mean being left desolate after the loss of a loved person. “Grief” is a gloss of Semai jnaam, which refers primarily to weeping and wailing but sometimes to the underlying emotional state. When a child wanted something, Tluup people said it -jaap, was weeping,” i.e., yearning, for it. Sorrow and yearning, in other words, seem more closely related in Semai thinking than among Euroamericans. I use “grieving” instead of the contested term “depression,” which technically refers only to endogenous conditions and differs from the “prolonged grief” (Manson et al. 1985) I want to discuss. Besides, “grief” is pithier than “exogenous unipolar depression” or “adjustment disorder (with depressed mood).” The judgment that some grieving is “extravagant” is mine; Semai rarely judge the appropriateness of other people’s emotions, which they regard as private matters. Still, I hope this essay has some relevance to the question of whether clinical depression occurs among other swiddeners and other peaceable peoples (e.g., Schieffelin 1990; Egeland & Hostetter 1983; Peterson et al. 1993: 210-211). The rising tide of depression in the United States has become serious enough to begin to attract the attention of the mass media, e.g., in March, 2000, Time-Warner outlets CNN and Time noted that in the last five years antidepressant prescriptions for teenagers had risen eighty percent and a Sunday supplement (Kloepfer 2000) asked plaintively, “Why is no one happy any more?” (cf. Lasn & Grierson 2001).
Shuichi Nagata, Donald Pollock, Clayton Robarchek, Bernard Sellato and unidentified reviewers read and commented on an earlier version of this paper.

2 The Semai infix -n- nominalizes root words; thus snasaaw comes from the verb -sasaaw. The prefix pr- is causative; thus prndaad, comes from the predicate -daad, to be limp and unconscious, hence “dead.” Prndaad luuy is thus the “killing [of] oneself.”

3 Western psychologists feel that they can identify situations in which the response is “inappropriate.” Ethnographers must be less self-assured. Imagining different responses for Semai is easy; but I am reluctant to substitute my judgment for that of people as powerless as they usually are, and have been.
A well-known Buddhist psychoanalytic anthropologist alleges that the “learned helplessness” salient in Western notions of “depression” resembles the contemplative peace of Buddhism (Obeyesekere 1985). I have argued at length elsewhere (Dentan 1992, 1994) that, absent the trauma of bereavement, Semai “learned helplessness” resembles the “not-striving” (wu wei) of Daoism, the Gelassenheit of some German quietistic sects, or the acceptance of “powerlessness” required by the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (1976: 58-62, 103). Like those attitudinal states, it is central to the nonviolence these groups espouse.
That is, Semai “learned helplessness” is the background stress, not necessarily conscious. against which Semai experience plays itself out; part of the “affective-emotional landscape” that Bateson calls the eidos of a culture and not, in and of itself, a debilitating condition (Bateson 1958: 2, 32-33, 220; Worthman 1999: 43). Though Semai may seem “sullen” or “hostile” on first meeting, once an observer becomes familiar they seem “gay and cheerful, exchanging jokes and singing spontaneously. They [have], however, lost their economic independence and pride…” (Polunin 1953: 161).

4 The term ryaak may be cognate with Sanskrit viraha, the pain of estrangement, but the underlying idea seems indigenous to Malaysia. Many Semai words for feelings and desires seem to be of Sanskrit origin, referring to concepts that are akin to the Sanskrit but nonetheless also distinctively Semai (Dentan 1999b, 2000b). It would be an error to think that, because a people seems disreputable to outsiders, they are incapable of grasping ideas from outside, in this case from the Hindu-Buddhist coastal statelets that dominated coastal Perak for almost a millennium. The idiosyncratic Semai development of such “ethnopsychological” ideas, I have argued elsewhere, is extremely sophisticated (Dentan 2000b; see also Lye 1997: 13).
Semai are always aware of the immanence of rnyaak. Wherever my family and I stayed among them for more than a few weeks, people would begin to talk to us about how they would -ryaak when we were gone. It seemed almost funny to us then, how often they talked about it. It seems much less funny to me now, now that I too have felt it. Talking about it beforehand, obsessively, may be a way to moderate it a little. But anyone who loves someone else thoughtlessly and unconditionally, as Semai often love each other, risks rnyaak. And rnyaak hurts, badly.

5 Overwhelmed by grief, e.g., at a funeral, Semai may express their feelings, although they would prefer to weep or wail, -jaap, in seclusion. The expression is “venting” rather than “communication.” Sympathy is “dumb.” “Two people grieving instead of one? What’s the point?”

6 As soon as people met my little girl Elizabeth, 6, they began talking about how they would -ryaak, miss her, when she was gone. Similarly, in 1992 a Waar River girl, 11, was excited to get photos of her family: “When my mom and dad die I’ll still look at their pictures. If my little brother dies, I’ll still have his picture. If I die, people can look at my picture. We already have some pictures of people who are dead. When we -ryaak we look at the pictures and -jaap (‘weep, mourn, suffer’).”

7 There are a few historical records. In the 1950s, British counterinsurgency tactics uprooted Semai and “regrouped” them in concentration camps, under conditions which produced high death rates (Leary 1995: 42-49). Semai responded with behavior which reflected their helplessness: “many of those who survived found the confinement too much and lapsed into the trance-like behavior of the severely depressed” (Stubbs 1989: 179). At the Selayang concentration camp a man from Fort Telanok in Pahang tried to strangle himself with his belt and, when that failed, to force the belt buckle into his carotid artery; but failed.
In 1962-1963 I turned up no cases of suicide. Alan Fix (1977: 60-61) reports no suicides among 300 Semai deaths in Satak, Pahang, in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, Malcolm Bolton, then head of the Orang Asli hospital at Gombak, recalled only two instances, both by drinking “rubber poison” (pers. comm.), both by people working on British tea plantations. In the 1990s I heard of a lot. These cases seem to cluster in areas where Semai are in close contact with outsiders.
In terms of demography, economy, social structure and political relationships Semai resemble the Palawan people of the Philippines (Macdonald 1977, Veloro 1994). In one segment the suicide rate is high (Macdonald 1999). The three most salient differences are the following: 1) Semai invoke a mental state to explain suicide, Palawan never; 2) Semai don’t talk about suicide, at least with outsiders, Palawan often do; indeed, suicide is one of the commonest topics of conversation; and 3) Semai attribute suicide to a purely individual cause within the autonomous subject, whereas the Palawan are not so sure but think other external circumstances might explain it.

8 Semai suicides prefer poisoning to other methods. Strictly, dook is poison from the sap of the ipoh tree, Antiaris toxicaria (Williams-Hunt 1952: 59; photographs in the American Museum of Natural History and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris [35.1091, 35.1092]; Wavell 1958: 48-49). In typical Semai synecdoche, the term dook covers any traditional poison, e.g., the following (as well as anything that makes you sick when you eat it): Alocasia denudata, braak (tuber, as an irritant due to HCN); A. macrorrhiza, braak (tuber); Amorphophallus campanulatus and A. prainii, likir (root); Aralidium pinnatifidum, slbuat (may not be poisonous); Coptosapelta flavescens, pruaal; Coscinum fenestratum and C. wallichianum, kopah?; Derris elliptica, croo’, jnuu’ (tuber; croo’ is the generic term for fish poison); Dioscorea daemona, cook kduut (usually a fish poison); D. hispida and D. polyclades, kduut, taduut (tuber); Dyera costulata, bdo’ (red sap); Dysoxylum alliaceum and D. cauliflorum, laweek (seeds); Ervatamia malaccensis and E. coronaria, pracet; Eurycoma longifolia, jlaas (root); Hulletia dumosa, dkoh booy (seeds); Lophopetalum pallidum, krooy? (decoction); Myxopyrum nervosum, lguub; Pometia pinnata, kaseey (bark); Strychnos sp., lampong (root); S. quadriangularis and S. ovalifolia?, lguub; Strychnos sp.?, traac (peeled vine); unidentified, btiis kura’ (fungus); unidentified, riil (inner bark).
People also traditionally used ground cobra fangs, tarek sleei’; dried tails of giant millipedes, taluuk, including taluuk siwey, Glyphiulus sp.; and toad skin from tabek kngkiik, Bufo spp., and tabek karok, the giant Bufo asper, associated with kcmooc, ghosts. For traditional manufacture, see De Morgan (1993: 182-185).
The preference for poisoning over other techniques of suicide seems connected with Semai uneasiness about blatant acts of physical violence. My neighbor took over killing chickens for me because he “couldn’t stand” the “thunk” when I chopped off the birds’ heads. He sawed them off, slowly (Dentan 1976: 58). The elaboration of toxicology in Semai tradition, demonstrated by the list above, may also owe something to their abhorrence of overt violence.

9 It would be “crazy,” a form of snasaaw, as Robarchek describes the case of Bah Mem’s former girlfriend in the section on snasaaw.

10 Sa’guu’, to be affected by saguu’, is the word for seeking compensation. Sagu is a Malay word for money or other compensation given as a reparation or consolation for loss or damage. Semai who do not have the elaborate system of bicaraa’ (e.g., those on the Tluup or in extreme south Perak) will go directly to the offenders and “fine” them personally. The amount of the “fine” is subject to negotiation. In both cases, accepting the obligation to pay the fine, and thus acknowledging responsibility and regret, is more important than the amount of the fine or actually paying it. Fines are explicitly to relieve the emotional distress and frustration that resulted from failure to share or otherwise violating proper interpersonal behavior. Perak Semai in the 1930s apparently would fine people for srngloo’, willful failure to show up on time for an agreed-upon enterprise, in much the same way as Tluup people in the 1960s (Singam 1961: 79; Dentan 2000b). Dndaa’, the word for fine, like the word bicaraa’, is of Sanskrit origin, so the whole elaborate system found on the Waar and along the Cameron Highlands Road may be of extrapeninsular origin, reaching Semai via Malays.

11 For this distinction between types of suicide, see Flannery (1994: 76-77). Since gestural suicide is to communicate one’s misery, the distressed person need not actually die as long as the message gets through. But Semai rarely “fail” to die unless they try a method other than poisoning themselves, as in the Selayang camp incident mentioned in note 7.

12 Ngah Hari of Mncaak told of a mnaleeh, nubile woman from Gn. Batu in central Perak who drank “rubber poison,” pnglaay cbuur. Against her parents’ bidding, she “followed” a man who took her money and otherwise deceived her. He had heard of another mnaleeh from Mndang who drank herbicide. She worked every day for a Chinese man, who impregnated her. Her Semai husband said the baby was Chinese and rejected her. He had been shamed when he went to register the birth. She took him to a bicaraa’, and he had to pay her the fine for jealousy, snabuuh. But still she killed herself.
A married man of thirty-five, with three children, from R’eeis told of a litaw, nubile young man, from Gool (Tapah) who drank poison because his tnee’ (older sibling) wouldn’t share the income from their orchards.
Klip, a married Methodist man of fifty, with ten kids, from ‘Icek on the R’eeis had heard of of mnaleeh at Langkap in lowland Batang Padang district. Mnaleeh are always killing themselves, he says, though he doesn’t know any details. Maybe their fathers wouldn’t let them get married (see the Langkap case below]. Klip’s mnaleeh daughter, 16, who lives with him, has heard stories about it, like, a girl wants to get married and her mom won’t let her, so she takes “rubber poison” to kill herself, but she’s just heard the gossip, doesn’t know any details.
Another man from ‘Icek heard of a woman from Mile 9 who drank dook (traditional poison) but doesn’t know why, “maybe a quarrel.” He also knew of a man from Kniik, downriver, who drank poison because he was sboo’, crazy (Malay sibuk). He had also heard of a woman from Mile 10, probably the mnaleeh from Tiduk whose story is in the text], who drank rubber poison.
In 1980 a married shaman of forty, from the middle Waar, says he witnessed a married man from Sungkeey in lowland Perak kill himself. The man -byuul, was of unsound mind. Malarial fever had damaged his brain.
A childless fifty-year-old woman from Mncaak had heard of a lot of suicides, mostly litaw and mnaleeh, around Mndang in the lowlands, but knows no details. None around Mncaak. It’s not something mature people get involved with, just litaw and mnaleeh.
A forty-five-year-old Mncaak man, married with three kids, suspects a depressive man at Temboh Hangat in the lowlands may have poisoned himself. The man died suddenly, blood pouring out of his mouth. He also heard that a man in his thirties from Klubi’, in the flatlands, had drunk rubber poison because his family to’ ki-juuy ngroo’ ku’, wouldn’t do what he told them, so that hangat i’pikir, his thoughts were hot [he was full of resentment] and -sl-siil, was shamed. But that’s just gossip.
A R’eiis man of fifty-five, had heard of lowland mnaleeh from Redang Pungga and Langkap who drank poison; and a litaw from Kniik who drank poison by the waterfall in Mncaak. Another man in his forties from ‘Icek, in the same area, had also heard of a Langkap mnaleeh, perhaps the same one, who drank weed killer because a man rejected her. That man, who opined that problems with sexual love are the main cause of suicide, also knew of a man of thirty-four, at the Boh Tea Estates in the Cameron Highlands, who killed himself in April, 1992, because his wife rejected him, though they had two kids.
An upper Waar litaw knew of another Boh Estate suicide, a litaw who drank insecticide because his mother forbade him to marry every time he asked. “I hear there’s lots of suicide in the lowlands.”
An upper Waar woman, married with three kids, knew a litaw from her home town who drank snguump, blowpipe wax. He couldn’t find a wife. Women didn’t want him. He looked in Pahang, looked as far as Bidor [the southernmost edge of Semailand] for a wife, but he was unloved, so threw away his life.
An eighteen-year-old upper Waar litaw heard of a Semelai (?) man from Raub in Pahang, who served in the Senoi Praak, and married a Semai woman. People say he drank a lot, was always angry with his wife, suspected she was sleeping around (snabuh). He mixed up a potion, pnglaay, and drank it in the woods.
A Mncaak woman of fifty-five, Kin-Sima, heard that a woman from Kurook killed herself but didn’t know details. Kin-Sima and Colin Nicholas knew of one litaw from Mile 9 who, frustrated in love, drank pnglaay cbuur, “rubber poison;” and another, also from Mile 9, who was found dead in a ravine. He fell while drunk, but folks at Mile 9 suspect suicide.

13 Modernity provides other occasions for shame, which in at least one case drove a man to suicide: Musuh used to run a community store by the helipad near the Waar headwaters. He and his kin had made, people said, about RM [Malaysian ringgit] 1000 (a little less than US$400), a lot of money in local terms. Eventually, the elders asked for an accounting. But the money had “vanished.” Musuh’s kinsmen said Musuh had spent it on himself. Musuh responded, “I’m ashamed. I don’t want to speak. Someone stole the money behind my back.” The headman said, “That money wasn’t stolen, you yourself wanted to spend it, you’re trying to deceive us.” That shamed Musuh further. He didn’t know what to do. So he went into the woods and collected lawenk fruit and jlaas root, brought them home and mixed them with Tiga Kaki, Gun, and herbicide, boiled them together and drank the poison. Later on, though, people realized he was telling the truth, that every time a certain person was around, things would disappear. Similarly, when the mistaken rumor got around that Gorbachev had committed suicide following a coup in the USSR, Ngah Hari opined that it was because ki-siil, was shamed, by the failure of Communism.
Lawenk seeds are poison (Burkill 1936: 899). Semai at Mncaak and along the Waar use the “red” fruits lawenk bears on its trunk for dart poison. Possibly cognate words are used by Semang peoples for bees (Burkill 1936: 192) and by Javanese to refer to a shrub, Phaleria capitata, the cotyledons of whose seeds “contain a biting poison” (Burkill 1936: 1733). Some Semai use the rolled-up leaves of berhep, also a Dysoxylum sp., to clear stuffy noses (Lim 1992: 399). Semai still use jlaas root for dart poison (see Burkill 1936: 1000-1001). Semai associate its power with thunder squalls are their “natural symbol.” Putting dart poison or menstrual blood in a river is trlaac, an act which produces thunder squalls (Dentan 2000b). After a long drought, a concerned Tluup person, not necessarily a shaman, cuts off a piece with a couple of stems on it and takes it to a stream, not a big one since how much wind is released varies directly with the how big the stream is. He cuts up the stems and root, throws the pieces in the water, goes home and waits a couple of days for the rain. Tapah and Mncaak Semai used the bitter bark to poultice wounds, and along the R’eiis to ease childbirth. Malays also associate the plant with sexual prowess (Dzulkifli 1991). They and Malay-speaking indigenes like Temuan call it tongkat Ali, Ali’s cane (Foo 1972: 71-72; Lim 1992: 395; Zakaria & Mustafa 1992: 19, 75; Ong 1986: 512-513). The Malay term covers Smilax myosotiflora (Ismail 1930: 411, 414-415, 438, 470; see Ong 1986: 549-550), a vine Semai call cook masow (Burkill 1936: 2075). Neither Malays nor Semai name the plant while uprooting it, a taboo unusual for plants though not for animals.

14 The word rawuuc connects longing, grief, danger and incoherence (Dentan 2000b). Among Malays, rawan refers to “longing combined with sadness” (Awang & Yusoff 1986). Apparently cognate Malay words include raban, “jabber, rave, be delirious” (ibid.: 866); rawang, “at random, wildly,” and rawak, “haphazard, wild” (ibid.: 889). In view of how often it is Semai young women, mnaleeh, who kill themselves, it is interesting that Malay perawan, “one who rawan,” means “young woman.”

15 Robarchek adds (pers. comm., 1998) : “When you are abandoned like that, or when a girl or a boy promises to come and sleep with you and then doesn’t show up, a sasoo woman or sasoo man comes in her/his place. It looks just like her, and it will have sex with you. But it enters into your body; it becomes a part of your flesh and bone, and makes you crazy. It is almost impossible to remove, that’s why sasoo is so difficult to cure.”

16 Probably because the place was so alien and because Western-style psychiatric hospitals in Malaysia are overcrowded and underfunded (e.g., New Straits Times 1991, Krishnan & Tan 1991). Most Malaysians think being crazy, especially “gila” is shameful (Colson 1971, New Straits Times 1992, Sushama & Wagner 1971: 48).

17 Not all Semai accounts of madness refer to bereavement (Dentan 1968). For instance, a thirtyish Tluup man said he knew a mnaleeh, about thirty, married but with no children, who was all right during the day but couldn’t sleep at night. Instead, she sat by the fire, singing, talking to herself and calling people. Her husband had looked after her for about three years. He did not volunteer an etiology.
I met a pair of sasaaw siblings who would hang around the store at the junction of the Tapah Road with the all-weather road that goes up to the dams on the Waar. The spiky-haired man wore torn dirty clothes and stayed across the road, a hand in his pocket, fondling his genitals. She was better dressed than he, but still raggedy. She had a sarong which she didn’t knot but held up by hand around her shoulders. She was cadging money and cigarettes, begging, as Semai otherwise never do. People didn’t meet her eyes or acknowledge her presence. Even when she stood a foot or so away from my friend Lwey, he looked about six inches to her left, at space. “Money,” she said, thrusting out her hand. Not aggressive, not assertive; a little whiny. “Got none.” She tried the next person, and the next: no luck. Finally, a man spoke sharply to her. “Ma ma ma ma,” she wailed, putting a hand palm down on the top of her head. Still ignored, she stopped wailing after a minute and went back to begging, targeting people who had just arrived. Finally she wandered off up the main road, then sat by the side of the road aimlessly. “The medicine runs out, it [the madness] grows back again,” said a man in his forties. A shaman from an upriver settlement said he thought the couple had had no shamanic treatment. Tree demons were involved, he thought. The reddish sap of the trees was like an engagement token and they needed to have an adept return it, or the demon spouse would remain. Two men on the upper Waar explained that the trees involved were bdo’, puleey, rala’, wiikrespectively, Dyera costulata, the jelutung tree; Alstonia spp., the pulai tree, including A. angustiloba; two species of figs, Ficus microcarpa and F. retusa. Tree demons see human shadows are bad and grab them, pulling our head back and breaking our necks. No one mentioned bereavement.

18 Dentan (1968). Epilepsy seems fairly common among Semai (Dentan 1967, 1968) and other Orang Asli (Baer 1999: 63) Their poverty makes them more vulnerable than richer peoples to injury and sickness, and especially to the perinatal problems which are salient in Semai life (Khor 1997); and thus several times more likely to develop epilepsy than “Western” peoples. But Semai epileptics, like epileptics elsewhere, are not particularly likely to kill themselves (see Kleinman 1995: 149).

19 A man from Mile 16 describes two other cases of snasaaw. In one, a woman went crazy because of snabuh gnsiir, suspicion of her husband. She now stays in her house, mumbling to herself. In the other, a woman at Mile 14 went crazy when her child died. She wanders around, sometimes naked, and demands rides. She asked him for a ride once, but he was afraid because ki-went kuuy, her head was twisted to one side.
A man from Sungkeey in lowland south Perak reports a litaw co-villager developed symptoms after his father (who also -sasaaw) died when he was eighteen. He stopped wearing clothes and “just laughs.” He eats any old thing, i.e., without regard for rules, sleeps under the house during the day and wanders around at night. He gets food from the locals and from mrgaas (beasts, demons) in the woods, mrgaas from the grave (ghosts).
From Kuuy Groh, north central Perak foothills, Feb. 1993. A litaw of around twenty who -yeek for several months injured himself in a fall that people suspect may have been a suicide attempt. Probably, they say, some mnaleeh turned him down. Usually he acts normal. But when he -yeek, about once a month, he flees from people and sleeps in the jungle, emerging only to steal food. It’s not really stealing, because of his condition. The spells last three to four days.
On the middle Waar. Upper Waar people said Pen, a longhaired litaw, laughs for no reason and talks incoherently. Give him a plate of rice, he takes it into a corner or eats it standing up, not off the mat like normal people. His snayeent, childhood, was normal. His father died when he was a little over fifteen years old. He -srng’ii’ (remembered, kept in mind) the old days now gone forever, the way Semai remember the days of British rule. So his sngii’, the part of the psyche that does remembering, is no good and he -byuul, acts and talks disoriented.

20 Robarchek (pers. comm., 1998) writes: About that overwhelming fear of being abandoned that underlies sasoo… I really think that at least one of its roots is in the rejection that kids feel when, after two years of absolute, unconditional nurturance, mom abandons them. The pain and rage in their temper tantrums is pretty impressive. From then on, virtually every relationship is couched, at least in part, in “parental” terms. People talked about the halaa’[adept] who treated them as a kind of parent who had an ongoing interest in their well-being, how you should treat him/her with respect, like a parent, make token gifts of food, and so on. The Penghulu [headman] is an older sibling or parent who gives advice, admonishes and stands up on our behalf in becharaa [town meetings] with outsiders. They said that your parents-in-law become like your parents; they look after you, give you advice. To the sentence completion item “more than anyone else, (s)he is loved by his/her…,” the most common answer was “mother-in-law” or “father-in-law.” When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse should stay with the in-laws because “they have become like your parents,” and on and on. Semai want to believe that others really do want to take care of them, even when all the evidence is to the contrary. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why people were always willing to believe that the government really had their best interests at heart. No matter how many times and in how many ways they had been [expletive deleted], they still wanted to believe that the Pejabat [JHEOA] was trying to take care of them. Even husbands’ and wives’ roles were seen heavily in terms of nurturance: cooking, feeding, hunting, gardening, and so on. I think people go through life looking for another mom, someone who will love you and care for you unconditionally, and when your husband or wife rejects you, you are still that same little disconsolate kid, screaming in pain and rage. To the sentence completion item “more than anything else, (s)he worries about…,” by far the most common response was “that his/her spouse will abandon him/her.”

21 A Semai headman from R’eiis blames the rising suicide rate on “mixing with other peoples [non-Semai] and learning about poisons” [pesticides]. Another new experience may also be involved. Like most Malaysians, Semai are fans of the “Bollywood” (Indian) movies, which many Malaysians blame for violence (Straits Times 2001). In July, 1992, the deputy president of the Malaysian Indian Congress blamed Bollywood for high suicide rates among Malaysian Tamil women, who “simply resort to suicide just for failing in love or an examination.”
In the old days, asked whether he’d rather have a boy or girl, a traditional Semai father might say: “No big deal. Boys collect firewood, girls follow their moms and get water.” But nowadays Semai community activist Tijah Chopil, from Kampung Chang Lama near Bidor in lowland Perak, sees many problems with the application of development policies and the attitude of the bureaucrats who implement them. According to Wa’ Tijah many of these policies erode the status of Semai women. She says that “[b]ureaucrat implemented policies carry with them elements of patriarchy and the devaluation of women’s communal roles” (Yoon 2000).

22 Globalization (and the concomitant dispossession and displacement), also put Semai in contact with Tamils, Chinese and virtual Euroamericans, but Malay culture is the screen through which Semai see the outside world (Dentan 1976, in press). The Malay-dominated government’s policies seek to maintain this dependency (Dentan 1997; Dentan et al. 1997; Jayakumar 1992).

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Robert Knox Dentan, « This is Passion, and Where it Goes: Despair and Suicide among Semai, A Nonviolent People of West Malaysia »Moussons, 2 | 2000, 31-56.

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Robert Knox Dentan, « This is Passion, and Where it Goes: Despair and Suicide among Semai, A Nonviolent People of West Malaysia »Moussons [En ligne], 2 | 2000, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2017, consulté le 21 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Knox Dentan

Robert Knox Dentan, a Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York/University at Buffalo, has worked with Orang Asli, especially Semai and Btsisi’, for over thirty years.

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