21 August 2001

Deadly yet graceful silat

Besides the beat of the kompang and the glittering bunga manggar, no traditional Malay wedding is complete without a silat performance.

However, silat, a generic term for the martial arts of Malaysia, south Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and south Philippines, is not only limited to ceremonial receptions.

"It can be deadly and it is deadly," says National Silat Federation of Malaysia (Pesaka) secretary-general Megat Zulkarnain Omardin.

It is also known as penchak silat in Indonesia, where penchak means body movements while silat, the application and use of movements during the actual fight.

Whichever way you look at it, silat has been labelled as a "Jack of all trades" as it packs in the power of karate and Thai boxing, the sensitivity of kungfu and the throws of ju-jitsu.

Silat has its roots as far back as 6 AD when it was formalised as a combative system. So powerful was silat that the SriVijaya and Majapahit empires were able to expand their influence beyond their shores.

Even the Dutch, who colonised the Indonesian archipelago in the 17th century, couldn't disregard its threat, leading to a total ban on silat.

This resulted in the local populace going underground to practise the art until the country gained independence in 1949.

Basically, silat has four roles: to develop mental fortitude; to build one's personality and develop noble characteristics; for self-defence as well as a cultural enrichment as it combines physical movements with music.

"Silat not only helps to develop self discipline and self confidence, it also helps to promote the richness of the Asian heritage and strengthens the brotherhood among its practitioners," says Megat Zulkarnain.

Then again, silat is a sport to build a healthy body and sound mind.

To date, there are 380 registered silat associations, with four national bodies. There are more than 300 genres in Malaysia, with each having its own curriculum, history and traditions. The naming convention normally follows a particular geographical area, animal or combative system. In the Tiger style, for instance, the movements resemble the antics of a tiger.

Silat lincah, which is among the earliest form of silat in the country, started out with only five members.

Today, it has the largest following, with 800,000 members. It is still regarded as a combative system because the moves are fast and aggressive.

Other popular forms include silat cekak, silat gayung and silat gayung fatani, silat nafi, helang putih, sendeng and rajawali.

All the moves are consistent with the ethos of silat, which uses hand and feet movement.

Although silat emphasises the bare hand combative technique, exponents are also required to learn how to wield traditional weapons in real combat situation.

It is said that no silat is complete without the spiritual concept (ilmu kebathinan). Much of the philosophical teachings leads to the philosophy of life and there is a parallel between the physical and the spiritual concept.

There are some silat exponents who carry amulets to induce invincibility.

"But it is just to reinforce his belief. Wearing a tiger's tooth will make him fight with the tenacity, courage and ferocity of the tiger," explains Megat Zulkarnain.

To bring silat into the international arena, he believes that it will have to be "introduced as a sport (silat olahraga)."

However, there are those who feel that silat olahraga will compromise its combative value. They argue that while the traditional silat is defensive in nature, an exponent of the sports silat may have to go on the offensive, as the idea is to score points.

There may be some truth in the rationale but Megat Zulkarnain feels that the steps taken are justified. Otherwise, silat will slowly fade into oblivion.

But this is unlikely to happen as it is now an event in the SEA Games while the World Silat Championship is on world martial arts sports calendar.

"Right now, we're aiming for the Olympics," says Megat Zulkarnain.

Silat is also part of the Rakan Muda Wajadiri programme and he hopes that it will be incorporated into the co-curriculum of institutions of higher learning.

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