FOR a man who can cause a lot of damage with his bare hands, Raja Abdul Aziz Mohd Ali certainly has an unassuming air about him. He’s even uncomfortable being called a mahaguru, or grandmaster, of the silat style he teaches.
“‘Maha’ means godlike, and I am not like that!” said the 56-year-old in his affable manner during a chat at his house in Kampung Dusun Tua in Hulu Langat, Selangor.
Friends said the man had squirmed sheepishly when meeting them after they had read a magazine article that had bestowed the title on him. But the article wasn’t too far off the mark. Raja Aziz has, almost single-handedly, formalised and spread the teachings of Silat Kegayongan Acheh Helang Putih, an ancient style of fighting that belongs to his family. His is one of the most popular silat organisations in the country with a membership of about 35,000. Currently, there are Silat Helang Putih organisations in 10 states in Malaysia and one each in France and Canada.
In 2001, Raja Aziz was invited, along with 21 other grandmasters, to the residence of the then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Wisma Perdana, Putrajaya, to give a pledge of loyalty to the Government.
That moment on March 10 when he took the pledge has spurred Raja Aziz to work even harder to propagate Silat Helang Putih. Not that he needs much encouragement. He’s been almost obsessed with taking this ancient “way of the warrior” nationwide and even worldwide. So focused has he been since he took up the art when he was 12 years old that his 10 older siblings all prophesied that he would angkat sampah (“carry garbage” – become a garbage collector) when he grew up!
According to legends handed down within the family, Silat Helang Putih was taught to an ancestor by a celestial warrior who, after committing an impropriety, had been cursed into taking the form of an eagle. The ancient form of Silat Helang Putih was a killing art, said Raja Aziz. The modern version is more moderate and can be safely demonstrated to the public. Students practice stylistic moves, and piercing shouts, screams and shrieks that are reminiscent of an eagle.
Raja Aziz himself has reportedly taken the form of an eagle. He is supposed to have demonstrated to a sceptical Caucasian martial artist the “internal” (kebatinan) aspects of silat, in the process transforming himself into a giant white eagle simply by mouthing incantations. Displaying typical modesty, Raja Aziz didn’t want to talk about the incident as it is “not good form to flaunt one’s ability”.
Not that Raja Aziz was always this modest. It seems that when he was in his 20s, he was rather taken with his own abilities. He was studying under an elderly silat master in Johor when he decided to issue a challenge – but the master knocked the young man’s lights out with a deft gesture even Raja Aziz “the young terror” didn’t know!
It’s not surprising, though, that the young man was a little overconfident. After all, he was still in his teens when he was instructed by his then master to begin teaching the art. Still training under different masters himself, Raja Aziz had only a handful of students, but he went ahead and opened a gelanggang (silat school) where his parents were living in Kampung Pandan, Selangor.
He ruffled quite a number of feathers with that move. One 80-year-old master of a different style of silat confronted Raja Aziz and insisted the young man pass a test or accept the master as his teacher. The old master wanted the young upstart to escape from his infamous “death lock” hold. Though Raja Aziz politely declined, the old man, a Javanese master with many gelanggangs in the area, kept insisting on the test. Finally, with his father’s blessings, Raja Aziz accepted the challenge.
“The master approached me and I allowed him to apply his lock on me. After he had done so, I asked him to confirm whether he had completed applying his lock as I did not feel uncomfortable at all. The man became angry and dared me to free myself if I could after I queried him for the third time.
“With a few swift movements, I easily freed myself. He applied three different locks on me but I easily escaped from each.
“Many of the master’s schools closed when word (about the test) got around,” Raja Aziz added.
In those early days, Raja Aziz struggled not only to teach his art but also to learn other styles of silat as well as other martial arts – and to do all this while holding down a regular job to support his wife and, eventually, 11 children! He studied Silat Sheikh Baginda Ali, Silat Harimau and Silat Sendeng Kuno in Johor and in Indonesia, juggling his silat with work in an electronics firm in Brunei and then a period of study at an electronics institute in Finland while in his early 20s.
Returning from Finland, Raja Aziz gave up his job in Brunei and moved to Kuala Lumpur where, among other jobs he held, he moonlighted as a cleaner at a sports club in Jalan Hicks. There, he had the opportunity to watch judo and tai chi classes. Of course, with his background in silat, it wasn’t long before he was interested enough to try out the movements he had seen after everyone was gone.
One day, the Japanese master, one Mr Hirakawa, caught Raja Aziz practicing judo moves and was so impressed that he ordered the young man to attend classes – for free and with a uniform thrown in, too! Raja Aziz went on to win medals at tournaments and achieve the rank of second dan in judo. He also fared well at tai chi and received a teacher’s certificate.
“Yes, I studied other arts but I have decided to focus on silat since it is from my own culture. I also find silat stances superior in strengthening the waist and other relevant muscles.
“Silat incorporates all the fighting distances with wide use of the hands for gripping, chopping, hitting and blocking,” he said.
But among Malays, silat is not faring very well, reckoned Raja Aziz: “ Malays are slow to take up silat as they look down on their own culture and favour imported arts.”
As for the art’s sometimes unsavoury reputation, Raja Aziz said that silat practitioners have only themselves to blame: ”Many young practitioners can’t wait to teach silat although their skills are below par, and some practice black magic while others impose unreasonable conditions.
“If foreigners can appreciate silat, I do not see why we cannot make silat known to the world,” he said, referring to the two foreign students he has taught, Joseph J. Vanrooy and Ta’am Kamal, who are now teaching the art in Canada and France respectively.
“It is up to the Malays to take up silat to popularise their own culture as promotion efforts for the art is almost negligible,” said Raja Aziz ruefully.
He’s certainly doing his bit for silat despite suffering all sorts of set backs over the years – from teachers who don’t pay him to teach his art to students who learn from him and then “steal” his techniques and claim them for their own.
Since he set up his organisation in 1967 when he was only 19, Raja Aziz has performed for Prime Ministers and royalty as well as ordinary folk all over the country and produced a book, Teknik Bela Diri Helang Putih (Siri 2), and a VCD of the same name in his bid to popularise this art.
For all that he has done for silat, especially in his home state of Selangor, he was given the title of Raja Aziz Laksamana Hojak Andak by the late Tengku Khalid, the Orang Kaya Maha Wijaya of Selangor in the 1980s.
Not bad for the kid they said would become a garbage collector when he grew up!
For enquiries about Silat Helang Putih and to order Raja Abdul Aziz Mohd Ali’s book (RM30) and VCD (RM20), contact him at 013-668 2523 / 03-9021 2714 / No. 589, Batu 15 1/2, Dusun Tua, 43100 Hulu Langat, Selangor.