The Semai’s response to missionary work: From resistance to compliance

  • Mehrdad Arabestani University of Malaya
  • Juli Edo University of Malaya
Keywords: conversion, Christianity, identity, Islam, Malaya, mission, Semai


Missionary religions show an innate inclination to expand their domain and extend the “truth” they hold to the other people. Other people in turn might resist the missionary activities or treat them with compliance. The Semai of Malaysia have been subject to missionary activities by Christian and Islamic missions. Christian missions started their activity among the Semai in 1930s, while the Islamic missions advanced when the government took a more active role in Islamic invitation (da’wah) in 1970s. The Semai reaction to missionary religions is complicated by the political and cultural context of the missions, as well as a subconscious non-discursive context of conversion. The Islamic mission is backed by the government and is seen as a part of a plan for assimilation of the Semai into the Malay community. Christian missions, in contrast, are nongovernmental and run by non-Malay people. Both Christianity and Islam have their points of compatibility and incompatibility with the traditional Semai culture; therefore, they make different hybrids with it. As the cultural dislocation and threat of identity extinction can be the causes of resistance to missions; religious emotions and perhaps financial incentives lead to a compliant response to the missions and the changes they have brought about. Emotional ambivalence towards Malays, however, is the phantasmic or non-discursive dimension of the conversion. Where conversion to Islam go with the enamoured with Malays and a tendency to identify with them, resistance to Islam or even conversion to Christianity can be regarded as the equivalent of the dislike of the Malay.