Adat dan adab are both Arabic words, loosely translated, meaning Norm and Manner. Most of the time, they have been misrepresented to mean Culture/ Custom and Protocol/ Manners. In reality, Adat in Bahasa Melayu is used to mean Islam, specifically the Shariah, Islamic Law. Therefore, all Adat is based on the Fiqh, or understanding of the Islamic Law. That is why this word crops up so often in Melayu literature or expressions such as Silat.
However, modern usage has confused and relegated it to Istiadat (rites/custom) status where only the observable action of the culture is taken into account. It is because Adat is equated with Islamic observance that many pesilat tend to place importance on it when in reality, it is at best, a permissible act in religion.
Adab, which is usually equated with ethics or manners is in Melayu culture quite comprehensively crystallised, ranging from the different types of hand clasping (salam) devoted to parents, teachers, superiors, friends and strangers to the usage of different fingers for different reasons (e.g. pointing with the thumb, etc.) However, it is the core of adab that is most important and not its expressions.
Adab is essentially the regulation of relationship. In Islam and Melayu culture, there are four types of relationships: with Allah, amongst human beings, with the environment and with oneself. As a Muslim, it is lawfully not wrong to conduct salat with only a cloth covering your navel to knees but it is definitely Adab-less, since no one would even consider dressing in such a way to meet an earthly king, let alone the King of Kings. This is Adab.
Amongst human beings, respect is noted in various ways and differs from culture to culture, where intention is codified and decoded by members of the same culture. I shall not touch on that. Since there is no emotional nor cultural aspect in our relationship to the environment, there are no limits to what we can do.
For example, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) treated his camels and herds with care, gave names to his swords and mirror and made them personal. Likewise, a graphic artist's first taught lesson is to respect the cutting blade or it will take off a good chunk of your index finger one day.
Finally, respect (Adab) towards oneself. This includes performing prayer and eating healthily, exercising and such. I once saw a resting motorcyclist sit on his helmet. He no doubt put it back on his head. Those who are sensitive to this will understand what I mean. Applying powder to one's armpits by using the back of the hand and not the palm shows good character, especially when shaking hands with others. This is Adab.
If I were to put it into one word, it would be mindfulness. Mindfulness of the needs of the relationships we conduct with ourselves, our environment, our fellow human beings and Allah.
A question, then, comes to mind. Should a non-Melayu foreigner (or non-Nusantarian) be forced to practise adat and adab Melayu when studying silat, thus transforming his or her value system to conform to that of the art they study?
The following is my answer: It has been said by some silat masters that they teach silat to foreigners in the hope that they will become good Muslims. What this means, in reality, is not so much the conversion itself but the personality change that occurs during martial education.
There is a sort of cocooning of the confused non-Asian, surrounded by the rich culture, language and people that inevitably, he will himself be pressured to change and like it, or reject the change and be branded an outsider.
However, attitude is a nasty thing here in the many-times colonialised Southeast Asia, so much so that most of the time, the silat practising white man becomes nothing more than a white man practising silat and most communities still see it as a novelty and not an induction into their culture. They'd sooner accept a Chinese, Indian or Arab, since the hostile history is not apparent or nonexistent.
Because of this, many foreigners (especially Westerners) who study silat here are apologetic of their colonial past, or their resemblance to those masters of yore and usually submit themselves to the machinations (the connotation here education, not manipulation) of the silat master. So, the question of should he practise adab usually depends on the strength or focus of his master's education.
Fortunately, the world being the global village that it is today, many cultures are vying for a top spot in the hearts of its citizens. One of my American lecturers said once that everyone in Kuala Lumpur dresses like they were something out of a fashion magazine. We seem to have become more American than the Americans themselves.
The Dutch are fairly surprised to know that we have McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Long John Silver's, Coffee Bean, Starbuck's, Pizza Hut, Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, Hiltons and who knows what else littering KL, while they only have a few McDonald's. So, I guess, this "shouldness" is part of that cultural war.
Interestingly, my answer to the earlier question is, though it may seem biased, I would have to say, yes. A foreigner who studies silat and is keen on understanding the roots of the philosophies and attitudes within silat, has to experience the adab of relationships within its cultural context, or risk second-guessing and/ or misinterpreting the silat lessons itself, which as many pesilat understands, is not limited to jurus-jurus, buah, sapuan and others like it.
However, everyone has a right to practise their own culture. So I suppose, treat silat like a university where all of the university by-laws are your laws, until you leave it to forge your own path in life. Then, if you have permission by your master, integrate your lessons into your cultural contexts and teach them to your local students, all the while understanding the original intention behind them.
Reminds me of our local McDonald's and Pizza Hut serving congee and satay dishes a la carte.