When the eminent hoplologist, sensei Donn F. Draeger became interested in the martial arts of the Malay Archipelago, he began a trend that would snowball faster and faster past the turn of the century.
From being a virtual unknown, now the South East Asian combat arts have become a quirky member of Western martial arts circles, often spoken of in awe (from Draeger's claim that Silat is the world's deadliest martial art), derision and confusion.
Even among silat stylists, there often happen disagreements as to particular natures of silat. This is largely due to many of them taking their masters' words as gospel.
It is unfortunate that some adherents of silat misunderstand or misconceive what their teachers actually said and because of cultural filtering and noise, often misrepresent a particular art.
This is not aimed at any one group in particular, but to illustrate that it is not an isolated occurence. Even amongst Malaysian born pesilat, there exists gross miscommunication between master and student; student and public, even when they meet almost every day.
This article then, is an attempt to clarify and hopefully correct, with evidence and support, many of the misconceptions non-Malay or non-Asians have of Silat Melayu. Meaning, I can only purport to speak about the Malaysian aspects of these cultural concepts.
Firstly, of course, is the all time favourite, Bersilat. There is no such noun. It is a verb. Is this enough to convince the thousands of people out there? Maybe not.
Malaysia may seem homogenous to the outsider, but it is not as apparent to Malaysians. 'Melayu culture' in Malaysia may mean Northern (Perlis, Kedah, Pulau Pinang), Minang (Negeri Sembilan), Bugis (Johor, Selangor), Sunda (Johor, Selangor), East Coast (Kelantan, Terengganu), etc, etc.
There is no one definitive Melayu culture, although they have similar characteristics. The Bugis and the Sunda are decidedly more confrontational whereas the Minang are considered the more diplomatic between the two.
Interestingly, these blanket descriptions also show up in their rituals, choice of weapons, fighting styles and social expressions. The Bugis are well known for brutal, hard and fast combat styles which persist in the forms of Silat Seni Gayong and Seni Silat Sendeng.
This is in contrast to the aesthetically pleasing Sumatran-sourced arts of Seni Gayung Fatani, Silat Pulut, Silat Jawi and others (disclaimer: definitely not a comparison between their efficacy!).
The word ‘silat’ is generally accepted to be in wide usage in the northern region of the Melayu Archipelago which includes Acheh, Kedah and Patani while the East Coast of Malaysia utilise the term ‘gayung’ whereas other areas where the Sunda eventually settled, the word ‘pencak’ came into popular usage. In Johor, the term Buah Pukul is used to describe the Johorean strain of a Yunanese (Chinese) art called Lian.
It is unclear to me when the catch all term ‘silat’ began to be used to describe the Malaysian Malay Martial Arts (M3A). However, it seems that this gained momentum in the late 1950s and 1960s when most of our political leaders hailed from the North who often referred to Silat Melayu in their vernacular.
Add this to the fact that all four of the founding members of the Malaysian National Silat Federation (PESAKA) hail primarily from the northern states of Pulau Pinang, Kedah and Perak and you’re left with little choice regarding what to call your style in public.
(Silat Cekak – Kedah, Silat Seni Gayong – Perak, Silat Lincah – Pulau Pinang, Seni Gayung Fatani – Kedah)
Not all masters accepted this change totally and adopted the term only for identification purposes. For instance, Seni Gayung Fatani is often mistakenly called Silat Gayung Fatani and Silat Seni Gayong called Silat Gayong. To do so would create redundancy (silat silat fatani). This is like the English phrase ‘Rice Paddy Field’ when ‘padi’ in Malay already means rice.
In the same manner, Kegayungan Acheh Helang Putih is often simply referred to as Silat Helang Putih. No one really bats an eyelid anymore about this distinction, especially among the unknowing youth.
Thus we come to the misnomer Bersilat itself. The prefix ‘ber-‘ in Bahasa Melayu creates verbs from nouns. However, it is unique in that it refers to a state of being rather than an action.
When someone asks, ‘Where did he go?’ and the answer is ‘Dia pergi bersilat’ it means he went to practice silat, doing silat. In English, it is often translated as ‘to do silat’. The form that most people in the West think of is the gerund ‘Silating’, or ‘Menyilatkan’ (with accompanying prefix and suffix) which doesn’t exist in popular usage because then the next phrase would have to describe who is being ‘Silated’ by the ‘Silater’. It’s just not done that way.
In any case, from Kedah to Sabah, to Sulawesi, it has now become a well-known term and is an accepted description of the Melayu martial arts.
Although sensei Draeger’s texts are deemed authoritative (to the extent O’ong Maryono had to apologise when we brought up the fact that he included the ‘bersilat’ mistake in his book when referencing Draeger), but I hope that this brief explanation will put an end to any more repetition of this matter.
So the next time a Melayu man walks up to you and asks what martial art you practice, now you can avoid telling him that you do ‘to do silat’.