Silat and Kuntao: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Spurred on by some late afternoon talk with my brothers and some acquaintances… plus several cups worth of decaffeinated tea… I thought I’d write about and try to perhaps explain some of the more common negative perceptions with regards to silat or kuntao as it is practiced in Brunei Darussalam. For the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about Silat but the points highlighted apply equally to Kuntao as well.

To summarise, the negative perceptions are as follows:

  1. Silat is practised by undisciplined practitioners who have a need to validate their skills by getting into altercations,
  2. Silat practitioners inadvertently get drawn into the practice of magic (ke-ilmuan, kebatinan) and/or cult practices, and
  3. Silat is wholly impractical, with lots of dance-like movements that do not translate into effective application in a self-defence or combative situation

In answer to point 1: ‘…Silat is practised by undisciplined practitioners who have a need to validate their skills by getting into altercations…’

All too often when I sit down with some of the elder practitioners of silat – Silat Chakak Brunei – stories inadvertently arise about how or when they once over stepped the boundaries of ‘majlis’ (formality) and inflicted injury upon a fellow practitioner during a ‘pertandingan’ (competition).

Putting aside all the machismo that is being aired during these sort of  impromptu conversations, it really does little justice towards promoting silat as an art that engenders discipline, respect for everyone irregardless of colour or creed and ultimately the preservation of the heritage of a culture

At first brush it may seem that too much emphasis is put upon the combative pursuits of these individuals, and not on the more ‘higher’ goal of bettering themselves.

But, sit down alittle longer and more often than not the conversations turn more sombre and regrets are expressed. Some practitioners have even gone so far as to say that they regret pursuing the practice of the art (silat) altogether.

Strange that. It’s almost as though the art is solely to be blamed for their own foolish choices and behaviours. I guess it all comes down to insecurities that are deeply held and hidden, but are then given vent and visibility through martial practice.

No, Silat in itself is not the cause of these anti-social and negative behaviours. The onus lays fully on the practitioners themselves, and their respective levels of emotional maturity.

In answer to point 2: ‘…Silat practitioners inadvertently get drawn into the practice of magic (ke-ilmuan, kebatinan) and/or cult practices…’

The practice of magic – or spiritualism – is a component of the art of silat. There can be no doubt about that. Culturally speaking the two are inseparably linked.

This can range from the recitation of religious verses (Islamic, Buddhist etc.) during practice. To the more exotic practice like ‘mandi di wasai’ which involves locating secluded water sources in the jungle in order to perform a ritual bathing ceremony. The purpose of which is to imbibe the individual(s) partaking in the act with bravery, invulnerability or spiritual cleansing.

I have seen some beginning practitioners of the art actually turning away from the art of silat, because too much emphasis was placed upon this aspect of art. Some parents even warn their children from partaking in silat, for fear of being led astray into questionable practices which may be in conflict with the articles of their orthodox faith.

I feel that it is the responsibility of the guru (teacher) to ensure that they do not force these issues too much with their students. Moreover, the guru should take it upon himself to research and ensure that what he is teaching is within the confines of orthodox islam.

In truth, some teachers of silat who actually lack the technical knowledge of the martial art, gloss over these inadequacies with even wilder and obscure references to magical practices.

A martial art – any martial art – which has even an ounce of efficacy will stand on its own feet. Without any need for elaborate explanations or obscure practices to make it relevant. The same applies to teachers of martial arts.

But it is also up to the practitioner – beginning or seasoned – whether to accept or not accept the spiritual teachings of their guru. In short, to be an adult about it. When I was introduced to some of these sorts of practices, I looked upon it all as part of the varied and interesting experiences that is sometimes associated with the martial arts of southeast asia.

If silat is to have any real future locally and internationally, than this aspect of it – the ‘ke-ilmuan’ (mysticism) – has to be omitted.

I guess it is all very sexy. Some guru’s claim that ‘kebatinan’ or ‘ke-ilmuan’ is enough to make an effective fighter out of a person. So much so, that sometimes the physical techniques are made secondary to the learning of the weird and wonderful practices.

I’m sorry. No amount of incantation cam substitute for the essential components of skill: practice, practice, practice.

In answer to point 3: ‘…Silat is wholly impractical, with lots of dance-like movements that do not translate into effective application in a self-defense or combative situation…’

On this point, I feel that it is a perception that is as much the fault of the guru(teacher) as it is the student. Too much attention is put on the ‘bunga’ (formal presentation – which can look dancelike) and not on the buah (combative techniques).

I have met and have heard recollections from other elder practitioners of instances where a guru (teacher) would withhold key information that contributes to the efficacy of an art. In fact, it is a commonly cited practice that where a silat style has (for example) 13 techniques, 9 would be taught to the student whilst the other 4 would be withheld. Just in case the student(s) decided to turn on the guru. Practical paranoia.

But can you imagine the implications of this? Let’s say the student then graduates with the 9 techniques he/she was taught. When it came to then teaching the art, would they then also withhold some techniques as well? The art in question would soon be lost to time.

I personally find that not enough time is invested into the basics of the art. Yes, there are the locks, throws, kicks and punches of the art. Every art, though, has a core set of techniques which is the basis upon which all the other techniques are built. These should be drilled over and over again. Perhaps with the guru showing different applications or permutations of these core techniques. The basic techniques are the ones most likely to be recalled in a sparring/combative/self-defense situation. It is therefore logical that these are the ones that get the most attention and practice.

The application of the techniques is also what I find lacking in silat that I see. By application I mean one on one sparring.

No. I don’t necessarily mean full-contact sparring – although there is some merit in that – but cooperative and exploratory sparring where the partners seek to develop their skills together. Not unlike the practice seen amongst Aikidoka.

Silat practitioners should take time to practice on the punching bag. The simple punching bag is a humbling tool when utilised properly. Weak wrists, imperfect kicks and impractical techniques all get highlighted when practised against the punching bag. I would also recommend extending this practice to spring loaded boxing stands or double end bags.

And lastly, I would encourage silat practitioners to start looking at and studying other arts. It helps widen ones perspective and provide a larger vocabulary from which to interpret their own silat techniques.

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