Many Asian countries have each evolved their own system of martial arts, and Malaysia is no exception. Most Westerners are familiar with Karate, Judo, Tae-kwondo and Kung-fu thanks to action movies from Hollywood and Hong Kong. Yet there is also a graceful, yet deadly, martial art called Seni Silat that is deeply rooted in Malay culture. This art of self-defence is practised not only in Malaysia but also in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and in varying degrees even in the Philippines and Southern Thailand. In Indonesia, Silat is referred to as Pencak Silat, while in the Philippines it is called Kali Silat. The late Bruce Lee, Hong Kong’s martial arts legend and founder of Jeet Kwon-do, was also known to have been learning Silat to prepare for his next movie prior to his untimely demise.
The word Silat is coined from the term “Si Kilat”, meaning “one who moves like lightning.” However, the origins of Silat are hard to trace because of lack of written records; nevertheless, it is believed that Indonesia is its birthplace. This martial art resulted from the observation of the fighting tactics of animals such as monkeys, tigers, eagles and cobras. Such movements were slowly built up into an elaborate system of self-defence. The turbulent history of the Malay Archipelago made fighting ability a much-valued asset; thus, silat spread far and wide throughout the region.
Archaeological finds indicated that formalised fighting systems had existed during the 6th century in the Malay Archipelago. Warriors from the ancient kingdoms of Srivijaya in Sumatra (4th to 7th century) and Majapahit (13th to 16th century) displayed effective Silat skills that enabled them to overrun what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. According to Hisbullah Rahman in his book titled “History of the Development of Pencak Silat in Indonesia”, many Chinese went to Srivijaya’s University of Nalanda to learn both Silat and Buddhism. Early trade and migration from other countries also brought foreign influences to Silat. As a result, many Indonesian Pencak Silat systems feature Hindu weapons such as the trisula (forked truncheon), Indian grappling styles, Siamese costumes and Arabian weapons. Early migration by settlers from Indonesia fleeing from clan wars and, later, Dutch domination gradually swept Silat to the Malay peninsula.
Malaysia’s legendary Silat experts were Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat who lived during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah (1459-1477) in Melaka. Today, though the Multimedia Super Corridor is paving the way for the IT era in the country, Silat is still alive and kicking. Both rural villages as well as cities have Silat schools. Silat performances are incorporated into wedding ceremonies, official functions and the performing arts. The national organisation for the promotion of Silat is the Persekutuan Silat Kebangsaan Malaysia (PESAKA) or The Malaysian National Silat Federation.
Silat has many styles, and they are named after the region of origin, an animal, its founder, a spiritual principle or a physical action. An estimated 200 styles are currently practised. Among the two most popular styles are Silat Seni Gayong and Silat Cekak. Silat Seni Gayong was founded by the late Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman bin Uda Mohd Hashim (1915-1991). It has practitioners in the Middle East, America and Europe. A Bugis, Dato’ Meor was a direct descendant of Daeng Merewah, a famous silat expert from Sulawesi. Silat Cekak has is roots in Kedah, and was developed by the late Ustaz Haji Hanafi bin Haji Ahmad. During the reign of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin (1854-1879), it was widely practised by his senior warriors. While many Silat Gayong moves are acrobatic, Silat Cekak techniques are mostly executed with a straight posture. A third school of Silat that also has a huge following in Malaysia is Silat Lincah.
Silat Gayong Fatani is infused with influences from Muay Thai or Thai kick-boxing. Silat Chikalong is based on the wing motions of a flying bat while Silat Harimau feature techniques similar to that of an attacking tiger. From Kelantan comes Silat Kelantan which is similar to Japanese judo as it incorporates a lot of throws and locks. In East Malaysia, Silat Betawi (named after Batavia, the Dutch name for Jakarta) has a strong following. This style is similar to Chinese Kun Tow (martial arts) and originated from Java. Silat Medan emphasizes weapon techniques, while Silat Setia Hati is named after a flower, which is beautiful yet deadly poisonous. Distinguishing the various styles of silat is not easy, and only experts can do so.
Irrespective of the style, silat consists of two dimensions: the pulut and the buah. Pulut is soft glutinous rice that is eaten at wedding receptions and gatherings. Therefore, Pulut simply refers to the aesthetically beautiful moves that are executed for entertainment purposes. Pulut is also referred to as Bunga (flower). On, the other hand, Buah, (which literally means Fruit) alludes to the practical aspects that are not displayed to the public. In actual combat, however, both the Bunga and Buah are combined with devastating effects. Bunga will distract and confuse the opponent with its graceful moves, which will suddenly change into explosive strikes at lighting speed -the Buah. In this strategy, the Flower leads to the Fruit.
The traditional attire of the silat exponent is a pair of loose pants and top. A sash completes the outfit. For exhibition purposes, a tengkolok is usually worn. Silat instructors are categorized according to the following levels: kang (lowest), guru, pendekar and mahaguru. In the olden days, finding a Silat instructor was extremely difficult as each teacher used different criteria in selecting students, though the prime consideration was always character and moral standard.
Training with weapons plays an important role in the advanced stage of silat. Depending on the curriculum of the school, a student is expected to master the following: kris (a short wavy dagger), pisau (a short knife), tali (rope), belantan (cudgel), pedang (sword), lawi ayam (a sickle), tongkat (a walking stick made of hardwood), tekpi (trisula), and badik (dagger with straight cutting edge and a back curving at the tip)..
Silat offensive moves are usually executed with the arm, knee, fist, elbow and legs. In addition, there may be a combination of claws, tear and pokes to the vital points. The Silat exponent practises with a combination of Juru-juru (or upper body manouevres) and Langkah (or footwork). The amount of emphasis on one or the other depends on the style and tactical approach.
Silat is not just a system of fighting techniques. There is also the spiritual and moral dimension that complements the blows, locks and kicks. Most Silat instructors in Malaysia are Muslim so their spiritual systems reflect the tenets of Islam. However, Silat transcends religion. In the Philippines, for example, Kali Silat incorporates Catholic ideals in its spiritual dimension, while in Bali, Hindu teachings are prevalent in its spiritual component. This religious aspect of Silat is aimed at personal development.
The future for Silat is exciting. Though, The Netherlands, by virtue of its historical association with Indonesia already has a strong following, Silat schools and interest groups are expanding in Japan, USA, France and the United Kingdom. The establishment of Pencak Silat Federation of the United Kingdom, Silat Federation of United Kingdom and Pencak Silat Bongkot of France are testimony of the growing popularity of this art of hand-to-hand combat.