Non-Melayu who arrive in Malaysia find themselves in the thick of this, often being heavily worked over by masters who try to convince them that their styles are good because they are authentic. To gain a greater insight into this, it would be beneficial to discover just why many Melayu actually think this way and why it is important to them.
Adat and Tariqah
Based on my personal research, this notion comes from two sources, Adat (as in Adat Melayu, not the religious kind) and Tariqah. The Adat of the Melayu are based upon the subservience to royalty and as such, lineage of a successor king becomes an important factor in determining who rules the land.
It is said that only royalty can install royalty. Such ideas of recognition stem from Melayu kings claiming lineage from Alexander the Great, and receiving their sovereign status from China, the most powerful country in the world (back then and maybe soon again). They HAD no United Nations Organisation, so China was as good as they got.
This idea of authentication spread throughout silat, which demanded that only duly elected representatives of the master could lead or represent the mini-government that was the perguruan. Thus, the master, often a titled Pendekar, Panglima, Hulubalang (given by a reigning Sultan, which is traditionally how Pendekars are titled anyway in Malaysia's history) would pass on such royal authority to his successors, thus creating only one line of succession.
At the same time, Islam set foot in Malaysia through various channels, but almost always through the vehicle of Tariqah (Sufi Orders) such as Rifaiah, Alawiyah, Qadiriah, etc, which places great importance upon Rabitah & Wasilah (the unbroken connection of knowledge that exists from Prophet Muhammad down through the centuries from master to master).
In the cases where these Silat masters studied religion from Sufi masters (and in turn inherited the Rabitah & Wasilah from them) to become Sheikhs themselves, these two traditions have been upheld.
So, if you bump into a Melayu who would argue you to the ground on the importance of lineage, these could probably be one of the reasons. The next question might be, what is the importance of Rabitah & Wasilah to such a Melayu? That, is a whole other article.
Sometimes, out of a sense of common identity unity, the Melayu will allow and accept a wider definition of Silat. So much so that someone founded a silat style without actually studying any silat.
Once again, the Silat Lian Padukan is registered as a silat style with PESAKA Johor even though it clearly has Chinese origins and Siamese accessories. Also, not many people remember that the eminent Ustaz Hamzah Haji Abu of Kalaripayat Malaysia was actually invited to join PESAKA as Silat Kalaripayat.
Both occured because the current masters were Muslims and were accepted by the Melayu community.
Ill-defined common references
When you sit down to debate a traditional Melayu silat practitioner, the word he will most often use in this context is Asli. If you look up Asli, you'll find that sometimes, what he means is not the standard dictionary definition. Unfortunately, depending on who you're talking to, Asli can mean one of three contexts in English: Traditional, Authentic or Original.
Traditional means passed down from generation to generation. This is the general meaning most imply. Traditional means nothing is changed along this channel of transmission. The methods and thought remain zealously guarded, even in the face of newer ideas. Many Melayu arts claim to be traditional.
For instance, Gayung Fatani and their claims can be easily verified via the many masters of the art who studied it in separate informal perguruan extant of one another. Yet their styles share amazing congruence in many forms, including tari, terminology and allied cultural expressions (music, dress, adat, etc).
Authentic means authenticated or given authority to propagate. This second meaning does not touch upon the veracity of the art's lineage but at one point in time, is given a seal of approval by someone in power, such as the Agong, Sultan or a powerful figure.
It is literally an endorsement of the master's skills and abilities which is passed on like a halal logo from generation to generation. In this case, the passing itself is not as important as the seal.
For instance, Buah Pukul Mersing, although originally a Yunnanese pukulan art, has found its way into the rightful (by his master, of course) hands of Pak Mat Kedidi who blended it with various silat styles and tomoi to become LianPadukan.
That it was no longer the original form is not as important as the fact that he received the Nukil (written and spiritual authentication) from Chu Aman to develop the art as he saw fit. This authority is now passed to his successor Haji Hasyim Haji Salleh who continues to upgrade the art.
Original means that the art in question did not and never has borrowed from any physical source but came about as solutions to several combat conundrums. This is, however, debateable, since it is very rare that an individual just wakes up one day and decides to create a silat style from nothing.
But, with the prevalence of masters who purport to receive their styles in dreams and inspiration with no previous martial training, there are those who rightly claim such originalness.
So, I suppose the next time someone comes up with this word Asli, you might want to ask them, exactly what do they mean?
My personal opinion? If you're a good fighter who made up your own art and it works, and you catch the eye of a Sultan somewhere and eventually have a large school for thousands of students that span several generations, you would have already laid the foundation for your art to become Asli in all senses of the word.