Hailed as “the Malay traditional dance of life,” silat is a centuries-old form of indigenous martial arts whose origin stemmed from a geo-cultural area of Southeast Asia dovetailing most of the Nusantara, the Malay Archipelago and the entirety of the Malay Peninsula.
Widely practiced in modern day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines, silat has extended beyond the microcosm of Southeast Asia and has garnered much attention from martial arts enthusiasts worldwide. One of the men responsible for nudging silat into this direction is Zainal Abidin Sheikh Awab, or better known as Pakcik Zainal (Uncle Zainal) among his students and peers. I call him Bapa, because he is my father.
“According to my teacher, the word silat comes from the Arabic word silah meaning ‘heritage’,” he began, flicking the ash off his tobacco-laced roll-up, as his eyes glazed over with old echoes of memories past.
Born in olden day Malaya to Arab-Indonesian immigrant parents, Pakcik Zainal sat cross-legged in his Kuala Lumpur city center hotel room that was booked for him by a student. Despite just finishing a seminar, he wore a refreshed look on his face and alacrity in his posture. The sweat of that evening’s rain slowly trickled down the eaves as Pakcik Zainal, 60, talked about silat and his experiences. It was quiet inside the cozy room as the city buzz outside was muzzled by the closed windows.
Silat is a schooled traditional fighting form of the Malays and the South East Asian people influenced by religious mystical beliefs, the world of flora and fauna, and the land terrain the natives used for travel such as jungle paths and rivers, he says.
“Silat evolved from the pre-religion period of men during the worship of ancestral spirit to the beliefs of animal and other spirits associated in nature from trees to mountains and rivers to Hinduism to Buddhism and finally Islam,” he added, his voice running smooth as the smoke from his tobacco.
According to the annals of history, silat was said to have originated from hunting methods and indigenous military training.
Silat was and in some cases still is used by the defense forces of various Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pakcik Zainal recalled a hard time when the nation was in perennial oppression, turmoil, and peril. He took up the sport not only for the aesthetic attraction that he developed for it in his youth.
“Why I did it was to be an able body that can be called upon for ‘ugama, bangsa and tanah air’ (religion, race, and homeland),” he said, sipping the coffee that his Thai wife placed on the bedside table for him.
He recalled watching his neighbor in Johor who was a silat master and his two silat practitioner sons. After watching them on numerous occasions when he was just a little boy, in 1962 Pakcik Zainal decided to learn the trade. Back then, a Singaporean Silat Harimau teacher and also old Malay silat movies fueled his motivation to learn the sport.
“During my preteen years until my twenties,” he recalled, “communist threat and insurgency were the main concern and all young Malay men were expected by the community to be able to fight for race and country when the need arises.”
Even so, Pakcik Zainal was more than a man with a penchant for the age-old Malay martial arts. He had taught silat locally as well as in the Singapore and United Kingdom. Currently, his silat reality TV show, Pencak Silat, airs every Tuesday night on Astro where he takes the Grandmaster role with style and much gusto.
Based in Penang Island, his home-based gelanggang (arena) is an avenue for local and international students from all walks of life: working urban men, school and college students, even royalties.
The walls of his gelanggang are decorated with words meant to fuel encouragement such as “no pain, no gain”. Students regularly train at night or in the evenings in order to avoid the hot Malaysian weather. Those who have gone through a certain level of training are liable to go through graduation.
For this reason, martial art enthusiasts from diversified cultural vortexes have travelled far and wide from Singapore, Brunei, USA, and the UK to train with him.
“It is now internationally recognized due to the effectiveness and the exotic flavor of the art,” he explained. “In silat, practitioners can see the ending of their counters against attacks unlike other forms which might only depend on just punches and kicks.”
“The way the Southeast Asian people do combat were totally different from what the Muslim missionaries were used to thus it was identified as silah or our cultural heritage in combat,” he said, as he moved his hands to accentuate the point.
Traditionally practiced since even before the advent of Islam in the Malay Peninsula, the Hindu-Buddhist and animistic roots of the art were never fully removed. Islamic sciences were the catalyst that made silat scientific in applications whilst still retaining some old, animistic characteristics, and philosophies and culture of other religions, he said.
Since the 1980s and 90s, Malaysia had seen an Islamisation movement that set to make silat more amenable to Islamic tenets.
“Islamic adab (behaviors) became the adat (tradition) in silat culture,” he nodded. “Islamic period silat also propagated brotherhood between Muslim practitioners and for it to work, solat (prayers) has to be observed and conform according to the teachings of Islam.”
Currently, the laws surrounding silat include that it is illegal for Muslim practitioners to chant mantra, worship idols, practice traditional meditation or try to obtain supernatural powers as these are seen as forms of shirk (polytheism).
Aside from attaining fitness and equipping oneself with self-defense, silat also offers many benefits on the spectrum of spirituality.
Pakcik Zainal observed that Islamic teachings were embraced while learning silat and other aspects of adab and culture such as respect for elders, helping the less fortunate, and protecting the weak. Students also learned to stay away from bad characters on persons or groups of people and to have good manners.
Pakcik Zainal streamlined the importance of silat as “to learn about humility and the control of the ego.”
His favorite thing about silat is the friendship, brotherhood, and the total culture of silat itself. Pakcik Zainal also wished for the future that Malaysians value silat as their heritage and for the practitioners to really comprehend the sciences as it should be.
As he envisioned the future, he gave a deep nod and said, “the future is all about fusion and while it’s always good to mix martial arts to make it more effective, but the original traditional culture should also be retained and practiced.” He also saw the future as fast moving and the traditional forms, though they might survive, will be small in magnitude.
When asked for the best advice that he ever received in silat, he cast a dolorous smile and retrieved the words cosseted within the deep folds of his heart.
He smiled and said, “The best advice my teacher gave me was ‘always pray, always make doa (prayers) for salam (peace). Silat was just the human effort to stay healthy and to prepare, to protect our loved ones, religion, and country. Allah will determine the results in our lives.’”