26 June 2008

Tradition vs Change: The Paradox of Silat?

Malaysia is home to a multitude of Silat styles both traditional and modern. The scale on which these two broad categories sit is, of course relative and difficult to define.

Those arts deemed to be modern and modernists are often seen to be diametrically opposed to the traditional and traditionalists. That there exists a paradox within each art is equally assumed.

Whenever a style professes a change, either in their techniques, training methodology or pedagogy, there will often be heard a voice or two claiming that style as no longer traditional. The addition of a punching bag in the training area, the absorption of a karate-like punch, or the use of English terminology within the syllabus can get blood raging.

However, I believe that this is a problem with understanding the essence of Silat itself. Today, without having any background in Silat or understanding Melayu culture, our youth are being fed an alien definition of the martial arts, that the way the Western world understands it.

We believe that overt techniques make up Silat, that Buah 1 until Buah 65 is the totality of so-and-so Silat style, when in fact, there is something far deeper than this that defines Silat.

I believe that the very words 'tradition' and 'change' lock in an understanding that what is traditional has to be carved in stone forever. Instead of saying tradition vs change, my meaning would be closer to tradition equals change.

Silat is an expression of the Melayu thoughts and external culture within a combative framework. As fluid as these thoughts and culture are, so too is the expression. Much as snowflakes then, ultimately no two pesilat are alike, thus no two silat are alike.

These combative norms exist in many forms and are held as cultural maxims that are passed along from generation to generation. For many of the masters I've met, they call it Petua. Even though these masters studied from the same source, but they experienced different pressures.

Some met different foreign styles that were far superior in certain aspects and were forced to reinterpret these Petua to counter against them. This is different from the cobbling together of foreign techniques onto a core that was never built for them in the first place, creating an interspecies frankenstein.

When these styles of a common root get together after such a long absence, they immediately recognise the inherent petua within each other, and are enriched by the sharing of experiences and innovative ways of applying parts of their style that had never occured to them before.
The only obstacles to this is are hard headed teacher/s who insist that their styles are already/ far more complete than the next one and needs no improvement.

Otherwise, this idea of developing tradition has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years, before names, silsilah, uniforms and sport. Silat stemmed from survival, and in order to survive, you had to change, but you always changed from what you had, not abandon it and adopt another.

Adoption is to import wholesale without making changes, while adaptation depends strongly upon the present skill and inclination of the practitioner.

For me, adoption means being tied to the premises of a particular style. It's taking the blocks from karate, and entering from kali and locks from silat and 'stringing' it together. It's seeing them as components.

Whereas adaptation looks at the objective of the method, it has a clear beginning and a clear end. When seen from this angle, 'stealing' techniques become easier, but they will never work the same as it originally did, because instead of modification, it is reinterpretation.

These are the instances when they look at silat and say, "Hey, that looks like Shanghai Brown Bear Kung Fu's Double Barrel Twist Roll, but not really".

I don't doubt that there are intelligent martial artists who understand it this way but most often I see people studying variously different arts and frankensteining them together to make 'new' techniques.

And this is where they look at silat and say, "Hey! That's exactly the same!". These are the irresponsible adoptions I speak of.

A progressive modernist is one who might not realise the value of things old and may be a generation or a context removed from the masters before him. Seeing more value in things he can grasp easier, he 'adopts' instead of adapts.

Ironically, it is the progressive modernist that causes the creation of the traditionalist as an aggressive response to defend what he sees as a cultural right to exist. His mistake? Freezing everything in place in order to define it as different from his enemy's idea of silat.

None of these two have a place in my heart.

I have met people who, at first glance, could be labelled 'traditionalist' but launch into an infectious discussion on the merits of a loaded revolver and a spanner in a silat fight.If anybody can reconcile the two brothers above, it would be them.

There are some quarters that recommend documentation to solve this problem of ill-definition. Unfortunately, irrespective of how much documentation silat undergoes in Malaysia, there is a dearth of technical records.

Most books, magazines or random articles only describe the surrounding culture, the masters's biography, the history of the styles but very rarely the technical aspects of it. This is a sad but logical approach.

For those modernised silat with clear techniques and defined vocabularies, documentation is easy. Unfortunately, traditional silat in Malaysia is more often bereft of static techniques and wealthy with concepts and philosophies which guide adaptation better.

Once you try to crystallise one aspect of these silat, it locks the definition of that style to exclude other aspects, when in fact, silat is physically inclusive, not exclusive.

Documentation in Malaysia is for reference, not preservation and started very late. When we speak of authenticity, we run into another problem, self-documentation. Many styles now have younger professionals in their fold and they are the information gatekeepers to the world (via print or internet).

When both Silat Cekak and Silat Kalimah have books and websites claiming to be THE cultural inheritor of Mahaguru Yahya Said or Silat Seni Pusaka Gayong claiming that Mahaguru Datuk Meor Rahman approved of their denomination before he died whence Silat Seni Gayong Malaysia claims to have no knowledge of it (etc), the best you can do sometimes is just to document the disputes.

Original Article by Mohd Nadzrin Wahab


djambu puadovich said...

bro nadzrin,
so does this means that to be a real 'pendekar', one has to master many 'schools' of silat or is it enough with mastering one 'school' and applying it in various ways?

Krisno said...

Excellent perspective DiMas Nadzrin.


Mohd Nadzrin Wahab said...

Salam hormat Djambu,

There is nothing wrong in studying many different arts. You get more knowledge that way.

But time is better spent delving into the core of something, akin to diving underwater as compared to sailing the surface of the sea.

This is what specialists do. But if your abilities are all-rounded, you can actually sail the seas and dive in each one, turning your knowledge into pure understanding.

This could become a long answer, but I think you know what I mean.

Salam persilatan,

djambu puadovich said...

allright, thanks very much!

[i think the method of asking questions and answersin d comment space can help other people who are reading too]

Remy said...


just my ramblings,

i think it is inappropriate for someone to learn a few silat and martial arts and then synthesize them into a new brand of silat. for me, that kind of person is very arrogant.

my tok guru learn 2 silat, but he never mix them. he always tells us if he going to teach a technique from another silat.

another sad thing about silat is everyone wants to be tok guru. but just a few of them who really know what they are teaching. my tok guru is one of the best i ever met. sadly, i was very lazy and ponteng a lot of his class. now i'm missing him very much.

Ustaz Saiful Muhammad said...

There are very clear rules in learning, practicing, mastering and teaching any knowledge. People that conquered with their own feeling of perfection and self centered cannot see those rules. They thought their understanding will be the only way, the best way.

There is no fun in being a Tok Guru. There are only responsibilities, lack of sleep, time consuming (consumed by others/students), not enough rest, physical and spiritual tests, more and more responsibilities. Being a true Tok Guru is not something that we can learn, it is truly Allah (swt) blessing.

That is why it is very irresponsible for a student to skip classes without proper reason or to show disrespect to a true Tok Guru even the Tok Guru is not his own Tok Guru. What benefit a Tok Guru get when teaching students? Can he or she be rich and famous? Being a true Tok Guru is really a very big sacrifice for the sake of building a better Muslim, insyaAllah.