Penang is a small island off the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and is home to a mixture of the races which make up the population of Malaysia. While the Chinese are in the majority, Indians, Malays and expatriates from all over the world add to the mix.
Ironically, it is precisely because of the majority status of the Chinese that the Melayu art of silat is so predominant on the island with a concentration of Masters and styles which is believed to be greater than in any other part of Malaysia. This is due to the fact that during racial tension in the late nineteen sixties, fearful that the minority Melayu group might suffer at the hands of the majority Chinese, teachers and experts in silat moved to the island to train their people so that they might better be able to defend themselves.
With the establishment of harmonious and peaceful relations between the different racial communities, the martial arts world in Penang now reaps the benefit of this concentration of masters. Not only are the major styles such as Gayong, Cekak and Lincah represented but lesser known arts such as the secretive Siku Duabelas, Silat Embo and the traditional Silat Tua are also flourishing here.
Knowing this I was excited to hear that there was to be a major team competition to be held at the Penang Silat Complex and I duly turned up at the stated time to watch Silat exponents representing, State, Style and even national teams, in the form of the Singapura silat team. The strongest teams were those from the Malaysian military and Singapore, with the team from Silat Lincah also firm favourites.
As is common with martial arts events the world over, the audience consisted mainly of family members of the participants and a few enthusiastic supporters. The atmosphere in the large wooden hall, however, was charged with anticipation and a barely repressed excitement. The sides of the hall, as is common with such buildings in Malaysia, were open to the elements and here, too a few spectators gathered, several of whom I recognized from the group I train with.
Silat competition takes two major forms. One is a demonstration routine performed by two exponents. This pre-rehearsed routine commences with empty hand then proceeds on to the use of weapons. These include the keris, the parang ( a machete) and sticks and staffs of various lengths.
The other competitive format is sparring which is full-contact but with restricted target areas. Kicks and punches are allowed to the body and competitors wear a specially-designed chest protector. Sweeps and takedowns are also permitted but there is no contact to the head.
In addition fighters are expected to perform the dance movements, known as silat tari, prior to engaging their opponent. Failure to do so results in warning and penalties. This is designed to ensure that the unique flavour of silat is maintained.
As so often happens here in Malaysia when the organizers saw that there were foreigners watching, we were quickly invited to join the VIPs in the raised seating area at one end of the hall. That this happened reflects the pride that Melayu take in the fact that outsiders are interested in their culture and arts.
We stayed for several hours watching the team sparring event. Each team consisted of three men and two women in different weight categories. The sparring was fast and furious and we later found out that many of the competitors had met in competition just a few weeks before to decide who was to represent Malaysia in the next silat world championships.
The flamboyant sweeps and throws which are the signature moves of silat were indeed spectacular to watch and the way in which the fighters rolled and dived to avoid these attacks made for an exciting exhibition. What impressed me, however, was the superb etiquette and, for want of a better term, “martial sportsmanship”, displayed by all of the competitors.
If one of them inadvertently committed a foul, he or she would bow humbly to the referee and could be seen asking for forgiveness. When one competitor downed an opponents/he would quickly move to help them up and often both would be smiling in appreciation of a good technique.
This was all the more surprising in the light of the fact that these techniques were executed with full speed and power and undoubtedly caused some degree of pain. Even in the midst of a furious flurry of techniques opponents could be seen smiling and there was a real feeling of fun and enjoyment about the whole event.
What there wasn’t was boorish displays of anger or aggression, derogatory comments being hurled at competitors from the crowd and blatant disrespect and displays of emotion directed at the referee or other officials.
As I watched I reflected that their behaviour demonstrated some of the positive benefits of martial arts training, namely self-discipline, self-control, humility, respect for others and politeness. Were more martial artists in the West to demonstrate such qualities it might be easier to convince people that these arts were truly more than just methods to train “deadly” fighting techniques and produce thugs and hooligans.
It must be stated that I am fully aware that most, if not all, of the positive attributes described above are very much aspects of Melayu culture and not unique to the martial arts. What is unique, however, is that these cultural values are still embodied in the art. It is important, now that silat is becoming more popular throughout the world, that these values continue to be both treasured and preserved, for they represent some, if not all, of the positive benefits of training in the martial arts.
Finals and Sharp Blades
The finals of this competition were held the next night at the Penang Exhibition Site which is known to the locals simply as Pesta. This large fairground and exhibition complex hosts events from all over the world and at weekend evenings is packed with locals and foreigners alike.
The competitors and spectators were gathered in the large display area right at the centre of the exhibition site and we took our place in the small crowd. This time the competition was to start with the finals of the two-person pre-arranged routines event.
The first pair on were two young women from the state of Pahang. They were carrying keris, the wavy-bladed Melayu dagger, which serves for the Malays as a potent symbol of their history, culture and traditions. For the first part of their routine they “fought” empty-handed then they respectively rolled and dived to where their weapons were and continued the “fight” with keris
It was obvious from where we were standing, just a few feet away from the action, that the weapons were real as was the effort, speed and power that the two exponents put into every stab and counter, every slash, grab and parry.
After this pair had finished several other pairs came out to perform their routines. The most impressive were those who wielded parangs (Melayu machetes) which they smashed blade to blade with what seemed a real ferocity, and sent showers of sparks into the air around the “fighters”. It was very obvious that one small slip or even a fractional mistake in distance or timing could result in severe injury or even death.
Watching, reminded me of a recent thread on a UK based martial arts forum about whether any instructors used “live” blades in training. The general consensus of opinion seemed to be that this was far too dangerous, contravened health and safety regulations, and would surely invalidate insurance cover.
Here in Malaysia, in silat groups the idea of using rubber knives would be greeted with howls of laughter. Wooden weapons are sometimes used with rank beginners but, as soon as possible live blades are used. Certainly this results in some training injuries, but these are few and far between.
The benefits, however, far outweigh the dangers, as students trained with real weapons have a genuine understanding of distance and timing, tinged with that vital factor, that of fear. This was evident when the Singapore team, whose government does not allow them to use real weapons, performed. Their timing was, if you’ll pardon the pun, not as sharp as the other teams
Unfortunately it is a fact here in Malaysia that criminal elements often use bladed weapons and thus if you seek effective self-defence it is vital that you have an understanding of how such blades are used. This makes realistic training a necessity. There is, however, another element in this usage of live blades and that is the teacher-student relationship in silat groups.
When a student is accepted by a teacher the relationship is something like that between father and child or older brother and younger sibling. With this relationship goes all the responsibility that it entails. A teacher who allows his student to get hurt very soon loses the rest of his student body.
Indeed, among the more traditional teachers of silat, practices are passed down the lineage from teacher to successor designed to make the gelanggang (training area) a place of safety and power. Thus the teacher is believed to have both the physical and also the spiritual power to keep his students safe.
This may sound like so much mumbo jumbo to the western student but it is a firmly held belief and, as with many such beliefs, within its own cultural context, it has power and authority.
The bottom line, however, is that if you were have to face a group of attackers armed with blades would you rather have beside you companions who have trained with live blades or those who have become adept with rubber toys? I know what my answer would be.
Written by Nigel Sutton
Sourced from http://www.living-tradition.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25