Tribal Cosmopolitans: Malaysia's Semai Tribe and the Baha'i Faith

Tribal Cosmopolitans: Malaysia's Semai Tribe and the Baha'i Faith
Temily Tianmay Jaya Gopan


The Semai are the largest of the 18 indigenous tribes who inhabit the forest fringes of West Malaysia. Beginning in the 1960s, they became popularized by anthropologists as a non-violent people, whose culture had been shaped by an explicit orientation around solidarity and egalitarianism, even in the face of centuries of slavery. Beginning in the 1960s, thousands of Semai came to identify as members of the Bahá'í Faith, a new world religion, best known for its emphasis on the oneness of all religions. The Bahá'í Faith emerged in the late 1800s in Iran, and its journey to the Semai is the result of the travels and encounters of cosmopolitan individuals, through India, Japan, and Singapore, finally arriving in colonial Malaya, before making its way to the Semai shortly after Malayan independence.

This study is about the encounter between the Bahá'í Faith and the Semai. Why was this unknown religion deemed pertinent to the Semai at the time, to the extent that they began to refer to it as “the religion for the indigenous people”? How has its practice and relevance evolved in the 50 years since this encounter began?

Theoretically, I use the term “tribal cosmopolitanism” to anchor this encounter. In contrast to globalization, recent critical debates surrounding cosmopolitanism have highlighted the construction of “third cultures” as an inner, reflective response to encounters with Others. This encounter is one such example, but it is also directly relevant to the explicit Bahá'í teaching of global citizenship, summarized by the statement that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”. This study transcends the current gap in the debate between “philosophical” and “lived” streams of cosmopolitanism: It is an empirical case of a tribal community consciously attempting to live according to a normative cosmopolitan ideal.

The thesis is based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in a network of Semai villages, and informed by over ten years of participation within Bahá'í communities across Asia. Rooted in an explicitly collaborative methodology, the issues highlighted in the different chapters of this dissertation, ranging from changes in religious practices to land conflicts, were determined through an ongoing consultative process with collaborators ranging from individuals to institutions at the local, national and global levels.


Temily Tianmay Jaya Gopan

PhD defended at

The University of Hong Kong, Dept of Sociology


Social Sciences


Southeast Asia


Urban / Rural