25 January 2008

Tipu Helah: The shameless trickery of Silat Melayu

Traditional Western civilization is governed by a sense of fairness and justice that astounds many Asians, especially since what they define as fair is often hardly so to a person of Melayu upbringing.

The idiom of the English challenge, the French duel and the American showdown clearly demonstrates the idea that a common usage of weapons or a lack of it determines the level of fairness in a particular fight. Therefore, the sheer audacity of a silat fighter who engages in trickery in a fight sickens many a Western fighter who deems such actions as signs of cowardice.

In fact, Silat Melayu was not the first to encounter such responses. Boxing, once the gentleman's art, influenced much of the fairplay ideas that were indoctrinated even at children's playgrounds; that kicking was 'fighting dirty'.

Imagine the shock then, when the Oriental kicking arts collided with this mentality. The fairplay bubble was burst. 'Fairplay' was revealed for what it really was; the stronger man's psychological cage for the smaller, shorter-reached kid in school.

Suddenly, everyone, even those bespectacled, massless weaklings could fight, because their legs could do more damage at a range that was controlled by the strong. What was worse, the former bullies had no idea how to defend against them. Decades rolled on and kicking was no longer considered fighting dirty but an elegant expression of the abilites of the human body. Then, Silat Melayu shows up and rocks their perceptions once again.

Not simply feints or fakes, the trickery of Silat Melayu goes beyond technique and delves into the realms of battle strategy, psychology and plain common sense. A man with a knife walks up to a potential victim, demanding money. The 'victim' begins shuddering and starts crying, telling his would-be assailant that he had just come to this country with nary a cent in his pocket and begs for pity.

For a split second, the assailant is overcome with confusion. He opens his mouth to speak. Suddenly, a 'seligi' appears from nowhere and cracks sickeningly against his adam's apple. The collision snaps his jaw shut, with his tongue between his teeth. Blood spurts everywhere and he goes down, out cold from the sheer shock of it all. Silently, the pesilat walks away. The reader's next response to the above will give him a good idea of where he stands on this issue.

A fairplay proponent (who has of course now accepted kicking as fair) would deem the 'victim's actions as unfair, but a trickery proponent would simply say that he had it coming to him. The fairplayer would say the assailant was about to let him go, but the trickster would remind him of the knife and his instigation of the incident. The fairplayer would ask if there was another way and the trickster would say, maybe, but that was probably the first to come to mind.

Since not all laws (including civil, Islamic, tribal, natural justice, etc) are similar and approach the topic differently, we shall leave legality out of this discussion.

Trickery in Silat Melayu is referred to as Tipu Helah (Tee-poo Hay-lah). Both words mean ruse or trick. However, their second meanings describe them better. Tipu also means deceive, fool, cheat or swindle[1]. It is a simplification of the phrase 'tindakan pusing' (turning around). Helah[2] also means excuse or pretext.

The tactics used in the concept of Tipu Helah vary from one style and one master to another. In fact, sometimes, it also varies in concept. Another word which is usually interchangeable with this is Muslihat, which means strategy or tactics.

This concept is not new, as many practitioners of traditional silat can attest. In fact, Draeger managed to breach the cultural wall and deliver a stunningly accurate description of the method (or mentality):

"Such a ruse is called a weak counterpart position and is on deceptive stances and movements. This weakness is always demonstrated openly and deliberately …. It is all decoy, a lure to bring in the enemy into a blind attack …. By such misjudgement … the attacker leaves holes in his defense and is subject to prompt and efficient counterattack".[3]

Although some masters frown upon deceiving the enemy, deeming it unethical; countless others practise it as a valid, if not defining part of Silat Melayu. The problem lies in three complications: What constitutes Tipu Helah? When can Tipu Helah be applied? and How far can you be allowed to use Tipu Helah?

In my opinion, the answer to the second and third questions, exist in the Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (May Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him and His Household) that states: 'Narrated (Abu Huraira) radhi Allahu 'anhu, Allah's Messenger sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam named War: Deceit.[4]

As represented by the succint definition, trickery is permissible only once a state of war is declared between two factions. Therefore, only once war has been declared over, the danger is past and the threat is gone. So does the validity of Tipu Helah disappear. Outside of war, the Muslim is forbidden from such underhanded tactics. However, Silat Melayu takes it a step further.

Modern Malaysia is governed by enforced laws and is protected by police and armed forces with licences to kill. But the Melayu people of the past didn't have these immediate luxuries (and a telephone number to call them with).

What they did have was the immutable Islamic Law which gave permission for lethal methods to be used against invaders of security and privacy[5]. They lived in villages in standalone wooden houses with no immediate neighbours. Taking into account that one is obliged to defend oneself, one's family and one's religion, it only makes sense that any incursion into these areas would be considered personal acts of war.

However, there is another factor to be taken into account: the level playing field. In war, trickery is considered a battle tactic to deprive the enemy of their obvious superiority, be it their strength, their supplies, their morale, etc. To engage them without applying this tactic is to invite death.

When two unarmed men face off, the fairplayer will nod agreeably, but the trickster will note that although the one man is smaller in size, but he has trained in the combat arts for 20 years while the other, larger man has no fighting experience whatsoever. Or one is healthy while the other is running a fever. Or one has his back against the sun while the other is blinded and so on.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a level playing field and one man will always have the advantage. It is a life and death situation. There can't be rules. Therefore, trickery comes into play.

To answer the first question, Tipu Helah exists and can be executed on many different planes. A physical level, a tactical level, a strategic level or even a psychological level. There are definitely more but we shall limit the discussion to these few. For reasons of secrecy, the author shall only describe the tricks themselves without revealing the particular silat styles which employ them.

On a physical level, the methods of silat seem similar to the feints, fakes, ruses and baiting of other martial arts. However, these take very specialised forms and in actuality describe a mentality and not specific techniques.

A common method is called Jual Beli[6], literally Selling and Buying. Taken from the obvious reference to trade, the defender does the ‘selling’ while the attacker does the ‘buying’. These terms are also commonly used in the favourite Melayu pastime of dialogue rhyming called pantun.

Four stanza rhymes are used in everything from marriage proposals to trade to war introductions, akin to the Arab love of syair. The initiator ‘sells’ a rhyme and the responder has to create a rhyming and witty response in the shortest time possible[7].

In silat however, the ‘selling’ is done by creating the impression of weakness such as imbalance, open targets, misses, etc. The attacker sees his opportunity to ‘buy’ a win for a ‘cheap’ price. Unfortunately, often he ends up paying dearly for misjudging the auction. Some of these Jual Beli are obvious (in fact, to those in the know, are veritable red traffic lights), while others are not.

A particular high-stance Kedah style is said to dumbfound its Siamese counterpart for lack of a stance for them to climb and deliver their favourite head kicks; while another curiously awaits his enemy’s attack by looking away, which could either mean providence or problem for the attacker.

On a tactical level, there are many methods available, most of which could be cross-categorised as psychological. The most common method is Redirection, familiar in the West as the 'Look There, What's That' tactic.

Pesilat trained in this would usually use the Anchors described in methods such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). One master showed the author one particularly effective one that stops most people in their tracks (provided they're not expecting it).

When an opponent lunges to attack, the defender steps backward and with his best expression of fear on, lowers slightly and hunches his shoulders with his arms raised, palms facing forward at forehead level and cries sharply, "Wait!" (In Bahasa Melayu, this expression would be 'Opp!' Which can be used for anything from stopping a car from backing up to telling a bus driver to slow down because he left you behind).

For a split second, the attacker hesitates; and any good martial artist will tell you that that is all the time in the world. The bent elbows protect the ribs from any stray strikes while the attacking possibilities are endless. However, the most common follow through is a heel palm strike to the nose, followed by a rapid barrage of choice widow makers. Unfair? Definitely. But it wins the fight.

Strategy is differentiated from tactics as an overall battle plan that involves larger components over a longer period of time. One strategy was used by a famous Panglima in the past to capture a rogue from among his ranks. The Sultan had ordered the rebel apprehended, but the tasked Panglimas was unable to carry it out since they were too evenly matched.

The fight lasted for several days, with gentlemanly breaks in between for rest and refreshment. Sensing an unfavourable result, the Panglima plotted with the owner of the stall they ate at to pepper the rebel's food with opium. As expected, he performed badly in the next installment of their exchange and was duly captured and summarily executed.

Emotions are a large part of a fighter's baggage. It can be either a resource or a liability. The trickster pesilat turns his opponent's emotions against him. A few years ago, one silat founder demonstrated a particularly dastardly psychological method to me. When an opponent is intent on hurting the 'victim', using 'seni lidah' (art of speech), he confidently calms the opponent down, convincing him that he's mistaken in his assumptions. If he succeeds in converting the enemy to a friend, then it ends there.

But if the opponent begins to show signs of a hostile relapse, then the 'victim' attacks, savagely! What happened was, as the opponent's adrenaline rush dropped dramatically, the 'victim', no longer off guard, had time to prepare and like a coiled spring, awaited his opportunity.

The silat founder described it thus, "When he is committed to attack, we reduce his semangat (spirit) by 80%. Then, our 100% semangat can overpower the remaining 20%". His numbers were, of course, arbitrary, but descriptive.

There are many tricks up the pesilat’s sleeve which ensures that the playing field is leveled and that he returns to his family at the end of the day. Honour may be interpreted differently among these people, but whatever it takes to win a lopsided battle, they are sure to use it.

So the next time you see a silat practitioner dance for you, look for clues to his repertoire of trickery: a crouch to touch the ground, a cheeky smile, a worried look, a deliberate fall, be careful. Sand in your eyes might not be the worst of your problems once the shameless silat man is done with you.

[1] Daud Baharum, An Illustrated Malay-English Dictionary, Agensi
Penerbitan Nusantara, Kuala Lumpur, 1989.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Donn F. Draeger, Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian
Archipelago, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc, Tokyo, 1972, p170.
[4] M. M. Khan (tr.), Summarized Sahih Bukhari, Maktba-Dar-Us-Salam,
Riyadh, 1994, Hadith No. 1298, p615.
[5] Ibid, Hadith No. 2060, p968
[6] Azlan Ghanie, "Untungnya Menjual", Seni Beladiri (Oct 2002), pp40-
41. [The article title translates as the Profit of Selling].
[7] Mohd Yusof Md. Nor, A.R. Kaeh, Puisi Melayu Tradisi, Penerbit Fajar
Bakti Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, 1993, p.xvii

Original Article by Mohd Nadzrin Wahab


djambu puadovich said...

bro nadzrin, do anybody hav d tricks in books? any more articles abt these tricks?

Peluru Perak said...

This article reminded me of a scene from the movie 13th Warrior..

[Herger kills one of the Prince's henchmen in a sham duel]
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: You, you could have killed him at will.
Herger the Joyous: Yes?
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: Well, why the deception?
Herger the Joyous: Deception is the point! Any fool can calculate strength. That one has been doing it since we arrived. Now he has to calculate what he can't see.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: And fear... what he doesn't know.


"Tipu helah" is also equivalently known to me as "Muslihat". It is a 'trick' that a smart pesilat applies upon seeing that the 'fight' may not favour him in terms of the opponent's physical attributes, skills and strengths.

It was said (true or otherwise, I am not the right authority to prove that) that Hang Tuah used similar 'muslihat' during his legendary fight with Hang Jebat to lure the latter's attention in order to get hold of the Taming Sari, a keris said owned originally by Hang Tuah after his victory over Taming Sari. (and the Keris was seized by the Sultan when Hang Tuah's was framed - where later, the Taming Sari was awarded to Hang Jebat - the biggest mistake the Sultan has ever done)

Hang Tuah had to use 'psychological elements' as 'muslihat' to lure Hang Jebat upon failing to penetrate Hang Jebat's invulnerability (which was attributed to Taming Sari's mystical powers) whereby it was said that whoever holds the Taming Sari cannot be hurt even a scratch.

But mind you, another 'evil' (seduced to the dark side) pendekar can use the 'weakness' against his own pendekar friend as well. There are too many stories of 'unfair plays and betrayals'.

Mohd Nadzrin Wahab said...

Salam hormat,

Djambu: There are examples that you can glean from many martial arts books. However, those specific to silat are rarely, if ever, documented because they represent a mindset, and not so much technique.

Peluru Perak: Embarrassingly, I've never seen the movie. Now I'm going to have to.

Poknik: Absolutely on all counts. However, Hang Tuah's application of Tipu Helah extended far beyond a normal silat scope, encompassing his diplomatic and political machinations.

His trickery of the Chinese Emperor, his slickness in stealing the Royal Majapahit Keris, his knowledge of camouflage and emotions (i.e. Tun Teja) are all examples of this.

This is also why in many definitions of Pendekar, a journalist or politician would be considered a fitting bearer of the title.

Salam persilatan,

Anonymous said...

Kerana keluasan ilmu yang ada dalam silat maka tipu helah atau muslihat menjadi salah satu cabang utama dalam amalan Pendekar. Ianya merupakan ilmu akal, akal yang panjang. Ilmu ini mempunyai daya jiwa yang tinggi. Biar pun namanya tipu helah atau muslihat namun mempunyai adab tertib yang amat tinggi. Ianya wujud dalam form and formlesness of silat.

Gunanya bukan sekadar untuk menjatuhkan atau mengalahkan lawan. Ianya lebih kepada usaha menjamin keselamatan hingga kepada mengelakkan pergaduhan. Semua maklum bahawa silat itu bukan sekadar ilmu gaduh tumbuk dan tendang atau menang dan kalah tetapi ilmu bagi memelihara keamanan juga. Disamping tafsiran pengertian lain bagi silat.

Sebagai satu contoh yang berlaku didepan mata saya baru-baru ini. Seorang guru didatangi oleh beberapa pesilat dari luar yang berkemahiran amat tinggi dan mempunyai fizikal yang amat jauh kuat dari beliau. Pesilat dari luar itu selalu ingin mencuba dengan beliau. Guru silat tersebut cuma bertari beberapa langkah dan nampak jelas pesilat luar yang kuat dan sasa itu hendak melarikan diri namun pagar kawasan tersebut berkunci. Tari yang dibuatnya tampak penuh emosi dan jelas menonjolkan kewibawaan guru tersebut. Akhirnya pesilat luar itu menjadi seorang murid yang taat kepada guru tersebut.

Ada banyak lagi pengalaman sebegini yang saya merasa bertuah dapat saksikan. Baik dalam situasi tempur sebenar atau pun semasa mencuba atau jual beli. Ilmu muslihat dan tipu helah ini datang dalam pelbagai bentuk. Form and formless. Itulah uniknya ilmu silat.

Anonymous said...



I love your phonetics. Easier to understand :

Tipu Helah (Tee-poo Hay-lah). (I was chuckling to myself - I didn't see that one coming)

I think the word 'oops' or 'wait' can also be equivalently known as 'chop' (not that 'chop' (cut) but 'chope') - remember? when we were kids?

I used the 'chope' as a 'veto' (it works..gosh!) to 'secretly attack' another friend 'while he was lured by my sweet talks'

Mohd Nadzrin Wahab said...

Salam hormat Poknik,

Chop or as Coca-Cola spells it, 'Chup' is an amazing tool, but it works only on Melayu. Never try it on a white guy. He might startle and hit you instead.


Salam persilatan,