10 Things You Should Know About: Silat

In the next segment of our 10 Things You Should Know series, researchers Faisal Nordin and Muhammad Jailani Abu Talib compile a string of riveting facts about the Southeast Asian cultural form, Silat. This series on Malay cultural forms and traditions is commissioned by Wisma Geylang Serai.

10 Things You Should Know comprises short animated videos revolving around Malay culture and traditions, made in partnership with Wisma Geylang Serai.

This is the fourth video in the series and it covers Silat – a Southeast Asian cultural form that is also a sport. It features research by Faisal Nordin and Muhammad Jailani Abu Talib, illustrations from Joy Ho and animations from Jawn. 

The facts below provide more in-depth information regarding the form.

You can also view the video on YouTube.

1. Silat is a form of self-defence martial arts and a cultural form indigenous to Southeast Asia, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore recognised as countries it is indigenous to. It is also traditionally practised in surrounding areas like Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam. Silat incorporates both physical and mental strength.

2. Silat as practised popularly today was developed by PERSILAT, the International Pencak Silat Federation, which had the sole intent of introducing Silat to a wider audience. Traditional forms of silat, however, still continue to be taught within closed circles or communities.
Today, it is widely practised in countries as far as Austria, France and the United Kingdom.

3. The roots of Modern Silat extend back to Indonesia where it is known as pencak silat. Traditional Silat has influences tracing back to foreign regions such as China, India and Japan. The infusion of foreign elements was not only obtained through wars and conquests, but also through trade and diplomacy. 

Scholars believe that Silat developed into a system in the 12th century when the martial art was further developed in Langkasuka under Srivijaya, after the Chola Empire was expelled from Sumatra and Malay Peninsula.

4. Like many other martial art systems, Silat is a wide system of combat techniques that involve grappling, the use of pressure and targeting vital points on the body. What differentiates it from the others is its focus on close-quarter combat. 

Silat has even been used in military and police training in Malaysia and Indonesia!

5. There are more than 1,000 forms of Silat being practised worldwide incorporating differing movements, footworks and stances – many of which are inspired by animals.

6. With time, Silat has evolved in its role – from being a form of close combat, to a martial art, a cultural form and finally, a sport that is even recognised by the Olympic Council.

7. As a beloved cultural form, Silat incorporates traditional costumes, music, weaponry and oral traditions drawn from the Malay Archipelago and cultures of the region. It upholds important community values such as comradeship and maintaining social order.

Did you know? The samping and even tanjak can be used as a weapon too!

8. Keris, a double-edged dagger, is synonymous with Silat. 

However, not all silat styles use the keris. This largely depends on the region in which the silat style hails from as well as how the communities in that region perceive the keris. For example, while the keris functions largely as a weapon of combat in Celebes, it is considered more as a status symbol in Java.

9. Silat also pays great emphasis on the system of discipleship. Students often commit themselves to a master, and are devoted to mastering a sacred branch of knowledge within the Malay culture.

10. Silat used to be practised by the pendekar and panglima (warriors and commanders) of the Malay kingdoms. Till today, it upholds community values such as comradeship and maintaining social order. Silat masters of exceptional calibre may sometimes be referred to as Pendekars, who function as guides in the Malay community.

11. Silat in its artistic form is known as ‘bunga silat’. It was devised as a way for warriors of old to offer a subtle glimpse of their adeptness and mastery of combat. The ‘flowery’ movements serve to deceive the untrained eye, while exhibiting one’s proficiency in the martial art through deliberately simplified moves.

Today we see this in Malay weddings, as a show of respect for the couple who are considered royalty for the day.

12. Silat is recognised as an Olympic sport known as Olahraga, which focuses on punches on the body or takedown. It is evaluated on a points system.

13. Silat gurus (teachers) are continuing the traditions of Silat while incorporating new changes through Olahraga, keeping this important cultural form alive for generations to come.

14. Pencak Silat was recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019. Silat has also made its way into popular culture – from classic Malay movies such as Semerah Padi (1956), to recent fare such as Mile 22 (2018).

Resource List


10 Things You Should Know is the first of a series of videos on Malay culture and heritage, created by ArtsEquator and commissioned by Wisma Geylang Serai. It is a continuation of an earlier series by ArtsEquator, featuring Dikir Barat, Nanyin and Kavadi Attam, which you can check out here.

The videos in this series are sponsored by Wisma Geylang Serai. The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

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