If there is one thing that Malaysia is proud of, it is their culture and heritage that perfectly describes Asia. In fact, they use it as their tourism marketing – “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” However, does modern Malaysians know that they have a forgotten fighting art in the form of Silat Melayu? Whilst it is not as famous as the Pradal Serey or Bokator, MMA, or Muay Thai, it is something that Malaysians can truly call their own.
Silat has become a lost art in Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia mainly because of the British colonists. British colonists tried to introduce their western training system with the incorporation of sepoys and police force to protect the forces from Malay fighters. Silat teachers then were quite cautious in exposing this martial art form because of the British colonists’ experience with fighting Malay warriors.
Silat Melayu is a martial art practised by the Malay communities. At present day, any type of Silat practised in the country may be called Silat Melayu or a blanket term to describe any silat performed by a Malay. Technically, it is incorrect. Silat is a class of indigenous martial arts from Southeast Asia, specifically around the Indonesian Archipelago. It is often practised by the people of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
This martial art has many different schools and styles, but in general, focus on joint manipulation, strikes, weaponry, and its combination.
Silat tradition is deeply rooted in the Malay culture and dates from the beginning of the Malay civilisation about 2000 years before. The first silat which provided the basis for all existing silat was the crude combats used by the Riau.
Based on some written books about silat, it is said to originate from the early kingdoms of the Malays. Even before the First Century, the Malays have contact with China and India which made silat heavily influenced by the two countries as evidenced by the weapons used such as the Chinese sword and the Indian mace.
In Malaysia, Silat Melayu practitioners can practice in a gelanggang, an outdoor or clearing in a village often enclosed by a bamboo fence and covered with coconut leaves. The covering is necessary to prevent other practitioners from copying styles or stealing secrets. Before practitioners can begin training, the teachers and senior students must prepare the training hall by performing a ritual called the buka gelanggang or opening of the training hall.
The ritual begins by cutting limes and placing them in water before walking around the area whilst sprinkling the floor with water. The guru or the teacher walks from the centre to the front-right corner before crossing to the front-left corner. The guru would them walk backward passing the centre to reach the rear right corner before going to the rear-left corner and finally going back to the centre.
The teacher walks backward to show respect for the training hall and other guests who may be present in the area, by not turning their back to the front area. When the sprinkling of the lime water is done, the teacher will sit at the centre and will begin reciting invocations to protect the area with positive energy.
From the centre, the teacher will again walk towards the front-right corner whilst reciting the invocation, head down and hands crossed. The right hand must be over the left hand and must be kept at the level of the waist. The guru will then repeat the invocation following the same pattern in the sprinkling of the water. Upon returning to the centre, the teacher must sit down and meditate. To show humility, the guru must maintain a bent posture whilst walking around the training hall.
There are four main types of silat but the ultimate form is combat. There are some, however, which are performed for training only or as a form of entertainment.
Silat pulut, for instance, uses one’s agility in defending and attacking. In this type of silat, the practitioners or partners start by being apart to perform various freestyle movements as they try to match the other’s flow. One can attack as soon as they see an opening in the opponent’s defences. The defender must then parry and counterattack without interfering with the force’s direction. The attacker must then continue attacking and parrying. This action would proceed until the partners can disable and counterattack their opponent either by grappling or locking. The contact between partners must be light and fast but stronger attacks are possible if the partners agree on it beforehand.
Since silat is a blanket term for most martial arts performed in Southeast Asia, it can have thousands of different types. In Malaysia alone, there are already 1,000 different types which include Silat Sendeng, Silat Gayong, Silat Kuningan, Silat Minangkabau, Silat Lian Yunan, and Silat Pukulan Melaka to name a few.
Silat can be distinguished from other martial art forms by comparing its movement, footwork, hand movement, techniques, and the philosophy behind the practice.
Aside from freestyle martial art movements and techniques, Silat is differentiated from Bokator, Pradal Serey, and Muay Thai with the use of weapons. Silat uses a variety of weapons which includes:
Silat Melayu is slowly creeping its way to the consciousness of some martial arts practitioners, particularly the ones who are looking to gain monetary luck in this fighting art form. Finding an authentic Silat Melayu teacher may be quite difficult for these reasons:
First, they are pretty rare to find especially outside of Malaysia. Second, approaching a guru directly may result in the guru rejecting you outright. They typically do not teach someone they do not know. So the best way to do it is to have a senior student or guru introduce you to one and vouch for you. A lot of trainers of Silat Melayu train in secret and only teach someone from their family. Third, silat schools are also rare since teachers almost never advertise their practise. If you see an advertisement about silat, be wary as they may not be the real deal.
Expats looking to train in Silat Melayu may find it hard to convince silat teachers because they are still old-fashioned and believe that the traditional fighting art form should remain within their family or race only. Many of the foreign silat teachers in the US and the UK are about one to three generations removed from the original. They can help you, though, by introducing you through seminars or training camps.