Silat – a Malay martial art steeped in tradition

Like other forms of Oriental martial arts, the millenia-old Malay silat is equally popular and effective in exhibitive, entertainment and sporting functions as it is for actual combat. The etymology of the word silat refers to movement of the body and the art itself originated during pre-Islamic times. Historically, silat reached its zenith during the Majapahit dynasty (1292-1478).

Today, silat exponents, interest groups and promotional activities are found not just in Southeast Asia but also in America, Japan, Britain and France where organizations like the Pencak Silat Federation of United Kingdom, Silat Association of the United Kingdom and Pencak Silat Bongkot are based. To the uninitiated, silat would appear to incorporate elements of other traditional and popular martial art techniques, like the Chinese wushu and the Japanese jujitsu, for example. In actual fact however, the techniques of silat are ancient, unique and continually evolving.

Like other forms of traditional martial arts, silat is also popularly incorporated in a variety of non-combative activities - major sporting events, physical education, weddings, official launches, as well as in dance and drama, often accompanied by traditional Malay music. For example, the stage production of Kunang Kunang Gunung Ledang by the Suasana dance troupe featured an acrobatic silat sequence. The very first colour Malay movie, Phani Majumdar's Hang Tuah (1956) featured an edge-of-the-seat silat showdown between Hang Tuah (played by P. Ramlee) and Hang Jebat (Ahmad Mahmud). Even a 'peaceful' event like a Malay wedding might feature a silat 'fight' in front of the wedding couple for the entertainment of guests.

Silat techniques, like precious family secrets, are usually handed down from one generation to the next. There was even a time in history when silat was jealously guarded by royal households. The inheritors, either male or female, young or old, usually maintain the tradition or improve upon it. Thus there are as many exponents as there are variations of silat.

In the absence of written records however, pinning down the actual number of silat variations is problematic and an exercise in futility because the statistics vary greatly. For instance, some experts counted close to a thousand forms found in Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia whilst others claim at least 1,800 styles in Indonesia alone! Despite the numerous variations, no two styles are ever alike. Some techniques are ancient - about 1,000 years old whilst others were developed less than 50 years ago. Some historians even conjecture that the genesis of silat began five millennia ago.

Silat exponents are trained from a tender age to take advantage of the agility and 'mouldability' of a young body and mind. Trainees are whipped into shape through several years of tough training. The rigorous and back-breaking routine ensures physical resilience, stamina and agility. To complete the balance, mental and spiritual self-discipline, based on Islamic teachings, is developed. You might ask what martial art has in common with spirituality, and the answer is simple - the stronger you are, the more peaceful and the better you know how to gain freedom and maintain it.

One of the most difficult parts of silat training is the foot work, so much so that it is often a component by itself. Once mastered, the foot movements are gradually weaved into the rest of the training until the end result is a seamless whole. Advanced silat students also learn the use of certain weapons for defence. These include the keris (a weapon with a wavy blade), various knives, ropes and tongkat (tough wooden walking stick) among others. The traditional outfit of a silat fighter is a pair of loose fitting trousers and top, worn with a sash. For exhibitive purposes, a fancy-looking peaked cloth wrapped around the head, either of a plain design or shiny songket called a tengkolok is worn. Interestingly, the tengkolok is also worn as a crown by Malay sultans. The aforementioned keris, on the other hand, is the most important and significant of all Malay weapons, bar none. Most keris are family heirlooms and are handed down to the eldest male child. Some royal households in Perak believe that disaster will strike if the rightful heir is denied from inheriting the royal keris.

(Picture on the right shows the tengkolok worn by the writer's late father, the Raja Muda of Perak. The hilt of the royal keris can be seen tucked into the kain sampin).

The silat hierarchy comprises the kang, who is an instructor, then the guru and finally the pendekar, or grand master. As mentioned earlier, silat training covers both the physical and spiritual parts of the human body, thus it follows that a pendekar is one who has attained mastery of both the martial arts as well as spiritual development.

One of the most famous silat techniques in Malaysia (and also in the Middle East, Australia, America and Europe) is the Silat Seni Gayong founded by Dato' Meor Abdul Rahman bin Uda Mohd Hashim (picture left), who is regarded as a Mahaguru (a supreme title) by his followers. Born of Bugis stock in August 1915, Meor was the descendant of Daeng Merewah, a renowned silat expert from Makassar in Sulawesi. He started training at the age of 12. It is widely held that at 19, Meor's training was given the "Ritual of Authorisation", in a dream sequence, by none other than the greatest of Malay warriors, Hang Tuah himself.

In 1963, through the graces of UMNO founder Dato' Onn bin Jaafar, the Silat Seni Gayong movement became the first silat organization to be officially registered in Malaysia. In recognition of his efforts to promote silat, Meor Abdul Rahman was decorated twice by Perak Royalty, starting with the Panglima Sendo or 'Invincible Warrior' award in 1934 by Sultan Alang Iskandar and again in 1971 when he was awarded the Dato' Paduka Cura Simanja Kini by Sultan Idris Shah.

Meor Abdul Rahman passed away on 23 June 1991.