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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

Insight into the Malay world: Silat, strategy, tactical human combat, weaponry and philosophy

By Mohd Nadzrin Wahab & Marie Tseng

Silat is the traditional martial art of the Nusantara region also known as the Malay Archipelago, and has been passed down from master to student for many generations. It encompasses the vast knowledge of strategic and tactical human combat, weaponry and philosophy.

Integrating soft, aesthetic movements called bunga (blossoms) with self-defence techniques that are both hard and deadly called buah (fruits), silat transcends the physical defence aspect to encompass the spiritual, medicinal and religious practices of the Melayu.

Silat has tread through a long and glorious history. The annals of Malaysia have proven that before the advent of guns and cannons, the ancient kingdoms of the Archipelago were well-defended against incursions from foreign empires, especially the Europeans and East Asians. In the Melaka Sultanate, the legendary exploits of Hang Tuah have been forever inscribed in the hearts of Melayu everywhere.

Among the hallmarks of silat is the Keris, a wavy dagger made of nickel and iron sheathed in wood. It was the weapon of choice of kings, warriors and later became a large part of the Malay identity.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact birth place of the keris. Early daggers were found in China (10th BC), Dongson Vietnam (4th to 1st BC), Thailand (11th AD), Central Java (8th AD - as depicted on Borobudur reliefs), East Java Majapahit (13th -15th AD).


Silat has a strong influence of learning from the environment. Many of the movements will reflect animals that you will find in nature more so than some of the other martial arts. One of the most important animals to them was the tiger, being seen by the culture as a symbol of strength and power. Thus, one will find movements in Silat to be explosive and aggressive bursts of attacks.

Outside factors that influenced the growth of Silat Melayu in Malaysia includes those from the islands of Sumatera and Jawa. Aspects of this can be seen in the clothing fashions, terminology of the movements, spiritual practises and the music that accompanies the war dances. In spite of this, the traditional concept of Silat Melayu remains unique and preserved.

Although silat techniques vary between one style and another, the cultural reality remains, that the applications of the body such as the fist, feet, knees, elbows and traditional weapon-play were similar if not identical. A particular style could be identified from their salutations and wardances.

During these pre-Islamic times, the courts were largely influenced by the Indian and Hindu social structures. The rajas were considered semi gods, the courts were highly elitist and hierarchical.

In this context objects of power were of utmost importance. The keris was such an object. It is found in tales such as the Ramayana, and carries very strong "magic and mystical powers". In Java the keris, being made with meteorite stones, is said to come directly from heaven.

The legend surrounding the keris in Java are abundant. Stories of flying keris show how mighty and potent it was.

One legacy of this Hindu heritage can still be seen on a typically Malay hilt the keris tajong, which represent a symbolic version of the Hindu god Garuda.

As the Majapahit empire extended its influences throughout South East Asia, the "diaspora of the keris started".

When Islam arrived, it took the keris out of the palaces. From semi-gods, the rajas became mere mortal rulers, as Islam offered a new society model based on brotherhood and equality. The centres of power shifted, and Malacca took full advantage of this change. The new heroes were the warriors like Hang Jebat and his five brothers. As Dr. Farish Noor puts it: "From a sacred symbol and object of luxury and status, the keris became a profane weapon of deadly seriousness."

Islam didn't manage though to totally get rid of the mystical and divine heritage of the keris. New narratives had to be written, with Sufis and Muslim clerics trying to give a Muslim legitimacy to the keris while Hindu conservatives incorporated elements of Islam in their stories.

By that time the keris was a strong marker of Malay cultural identity. Every man would wear not one but 3 kerises: one given by his bride, one kris pusaka given by his father, and the kris that he would use every day. A Malay man without his keris felt naked!

When the British settlers and colonial officers came to Malaysia, they attempted to dissect Malay culture and tradition from anthropological perspective. They stripped the keris and silat of their philosophical meaning to turn it into a simple object of folklore.

Personal Development & Spirituality

Silat exponents are trained from a tender age to take advantage of the agility and 'moldability' of a young body and mind. Trainees are whipped into shape through several years of tough training. The rigorous and back-breaking routine ensures physical resilience, stamina and agility.

To complete the balance, mental and spiritual self-discipline, based on Islamic teachings, is developed. You might ask what martial art has in common with spirituality, and the answer is simple - the stronger you are, the more peaceful and the better you know how to gain freedom and maintain it.

Most probably, other then the practice of spiritual matters, it is their inherent and intimate knowledge of the body structure and parts, veins and arteries, the body movements, even psychology, and to use all this knowledge in perfecting their art of self-defence, which made them invincible.

Culture of Silat

In ancient times, Silat was as much a part of Melayu culture as any other form of education and prepared young men for adulthood. Because of this, there is a strong emphasis in this art on self-defence. However, war was not always on the Melayu mind.

Silat sits at the nexus between all aspect of Melayu culture. A true pendekar (warrior) will often have an artistic soul and cultivate interests in cultural fields such as keris metalwork, woodcraft, traditional dancing, Melayu dress, medicine, music and many more. Because of this, Silat still plays an important role in the lives of thousands of people across the Melayu world particularly with the rural village dwellers practising and making it part of their daily routines.

These pendekar were synonymous with the local medicine man, religious teacher or blacksmith, indicating society’s regard for such people of knowledge. Usually, a pendekar can also play traditional musical instruments such as the serunai, gendang ibu, gendang anak and gong, which normally accompanies silat dance performances.

Performances are still held during wedding ceremonies, festivals, or official celebrations. In such occasions, it is known as Pulut, referring to the sticky, glutinous rice that is often eaten at Melayu parties and wedding receptions.

The Pendekar

Every pesilat nurtures a similar ambition, to one day become a Pendekar. A Pendekar is not simply an expert in the combat arts of silat, but is also able to master its spiritual and medicinal aspects. The mind of a Pendekar is like the wind. Its presence can be detected, but cannot be directly observed. His wisdom creates situations that makes his opponents lose their focus, thus incapable of anticipating his actions.

A pendekar is like a teacher. He is qualified to teach his students and may authorise any loyal disciples in the various branches of knowledge that he had acquired during his lifetime.

However, to achieve the status of the Pendekar requires perseverance. Without years of immense courage and incalculable effort, all his works could be for naught. Alternatively, this could also depend on their talents of mastery. Last to master means last to succeed.

However, the true practitioners of silat and the keris still understood its significance and power. The last century saw national efforts by Independence greats such as Datuk Bahaman and Mat Kilau of Pahang, Panglima Salleh of Johor and Yeop Mahidin of Perak, all of whom were pendekars in their own right.

Silat In The Modern World

Merdeka and Independence rekindled an interest in all things Malay and Keris and Silat benefited from this new wave of interest. Silat grew to become an institutionalised and officially recognised martial art in Malaysia and in the region.

May 13, 1969 marked a turning point in the resurgence of Silat as the Malay martial art. The 1970s saw the development of more structured silat associations and the government supported program to revive the teaching of silat to young Malaysian.

To promote silat in Malaysia, the National Silat Federation of Malaysia was established in 1983 by four founding masters, each leading a main style. Silat Seni Gayong was founded by Datuk Meor Abdul Rahman Meor Hashim, Seni Silat Cekak by ustaz Hanafi Haji Ahmad, Seni Silat Lincah by Datuk Omardin Mauju and Seni Gayung Fatani by guru Anwar Wahab. These styles have helmed PESAKA since its inception.

In 1980, umbrella bodies representing silat schools in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore convened in Jakarta and formed the International Pencak Silat Federation (Persekutuan Pencak Silat Antarabangsa or PERSILAT).

At the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Jakarta in 1979, silat debuted as a competitive sport. Pencak Silat World Championships were subsequently organised in Singapore in 1980 and in Jakarta in 1981 and 1982. The first champhionship tournament outside of Asia took place in Austria in 1986. Silat was also introduced as an exhibition sport at the 2002 Asian Games in Korea.

In 2006, the Federal Government recognised silat as the official Malaysian art of self-defence and enshrined it in the National Heritage Act (Akta Warisan Negara), making it part of the nation’s protected treasures.

Silat practitioners respected as the custodian of Malay culture, became attractive to politicians in search of Malay legitimacy. Unfortunately, the philosophy and ethos of silat are not always respected, even by some silat gurus who see the interest of politicians as an opportunity for fame for themselves.

In 2015, silat was declared the National Marital Art and today, some silat NGO are working towards getting Malay Silat listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

More than just a collection of fighting techniques; it was as much an integral part of the Melayu culture as any other form of education and prepared young men for adulthood. Because of this, there is a strong emphasis in this art on self-defence. This emphasis is what has made Silat spread through Europe and now the United States.

Today, silat exponents, interest groups and promotional activities are found not just in Southeast Asia but also in America, Japan, Britain and France where organizations like the Pencak Silat Federation of United Kingdom, Silat Association of the United Kingdom and Pencak Silat Bongkot are based.

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