How Effective is Silat in a Real Fight? — Total Urban Survival (2023)

Written By Aniekan Udom

A Pencak Silat Sharaf knife entry to gain advantage and destroy mobility in a trained adversary where resistance is expected. In general, Silat knifework is deceptive and surgical, and techniques can range from non-lethal to direct kills depending on the force level required in a given situation. Pictured is Pendekar Hussein of Pencak Silat Sharaf (TUS Founder).

How Effective is Silat in a Real Fight? — Total Urban Survival (1)

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Pencak Silat continues to be a persistent presence in the military culture of the Nusantara until today. Video featuring VAT 69 Commandos, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Author: Pendekar Hussein, Founder of TUS and Pencak Silat Sharaf

There are some questions we get at Total Urban Survival regularly and some which are very rare. The question, “How effective is Silat in a real fight?” is one that I personally get on an almost monthly basis from someone around the world wondering to themselves what the ultimate combat system is to defeat all others. In truth, the answer to that question is as difficult as it is simple. Murky right? Well, it should be because a “real fight” isn’t black and white, it’s murky, or rather, a wide spectrum of shades and possibilities. Things also depend heavily on the situation one finds oneself in. The fight in a match is very real as the fight in the street is very real, and there are a lot of crossovers in terms of training one can do to prepare for each situation. But the factors that can evolve in each scenario are completely different and sometimes require different approaches. In this article, I’ll endeavor to explain the six reasons I personally believe Pencak Silat to be one of the most effective methods of combat available for humans to study. Then hopefully, I will permanently answer the question, how effective is Silat in a real fight?

History & Culture: Anyone who takes even a cursory glance at the history of the Nusantara (traditionally Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, BangsaMoro, Brunei) will quickly identify that this area with its inter-empire warfare and technologically advanced invaders, has seen its fair share of bloodshed. The super-powerful Malay Buddhist Empire of Sriwijaya in Sumatra, the later Malay Spice Empire in the Sultanate of Melaka, the Jihadist Islamic Sultanate of Aceh, the ultra-expansionist Hindu Javanese Empire of Majapahit, and finally the gun-toting Conquistadores from Portugal, all made for a powerful display of military dramas that could fill years of study at any university. The great benefit of all this bloodshed to the martial artist today is of course the incredible lessons left by the survivors of those past dramas. Those survivors not only codified technical information for us to learn, but they also left us their values, principles of combat, and warrior mentality that made them victors in their respective eras. All this is gold. And the more we learn and connect ourselves to the history of the ancestors of our systems the stronger and more determined we become on the path we follow. Pencak Silat also comes from a very strong culture with bloodlines connected to Suku Melayu, Suku Jawa, Suku Bugis, Suku Minang, and other Indonesian ethnic groups as intensely interesting as the martial arts they brought forth. The rich cultural history of the Nusantara is part of the Seni, or artistic, aspect of Pencak Silat which can be displayed through clothing, dances, Wayang Kulit (puppet shows), and of course, the language of Indonesia and Malaysia. But more importantly to our discussion, each of these ethnic groups has violent martial histories that spawned the techniques that are the foundation of their Silat systems that persevere until today. The Indonesian and Malaysian Special Forces make it their business to inculcate these historical aspects of warrior ethos and practices into their martial training doctrine to strengthen the fighting spirit of the corps. Especially in Indonesia, the military, Police, and Pencak Silat organizations share a long and close relationship, with soldiers bringing their village arts into their units and units bringing Silat experts for combatives training days. This strong relationship keeps Pencak Silat relevant, ambitious, and most importantly, in a state of learning, as the instructors see and hear what really happens in violent military or street confrontations by either being in the field themselves as employed members of the corps, or from their brother practitioners who share knowledge with them during training. Either way, good Silat develops and adapts so it can win, while still respecting the heritage of its origins.

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Weapons First: Pencak Silat is a weapons-first martial art. The reason for that is simple. The purpose of Silat from its inception was to assist empires to conquer land, subdue opposition, and fight off invading enemies. Accomplishing any of that when your primary training focus is hand to hand combat and frontal attacks is ridiculous. Furthermore, the concept of self-defense and a purely defensive mindset was not a feasible one for the environment because defense alone would have cost the kingdom, literally. And in offensive action, the key ingredient to victory is a very good knowledge of weapons, strategy, and tactics. Hand to hand fighting, was, and still is, a secondary focus for the professional warrior or prepared civilian. Even when thinking of this in a modern context it remains the same: weapons are the primary tool of the “enemy invader” i.e. criminal or street gangster targeting you. Most criminals are armed, so understanding what they carry and how to use those tools will give you an advantage. Silat, in its practicality, places an emphasis on armed combat because there is less chance to survive if you fail, whereas unarmed combat between humans usually has an outcome of life, for both sides. So the natural focus, if your fighting for life and limb, is to become expert in the use of weapons that are commonplace to your environment and the tactics with which to employ them to maximum effect. Failing to do so and insisting on making hand to hand combat the main focus of your initial martial study will put you at a serious disadvantage when facing an adversary in real life. And as I said above, sport martial arts like MMA are excellent and valid and there is a lot we can do in terms of cross-training with them to strengthen our Silat practice, but in the end, their environment is very different than ours and training must reflect that. That is why Pendekars in the old days adopted firearms in conjunction with their Barongs, Goloks, and Karambits because, in their minds, the gun was just another weapon to help them win in combat. They didn’t consider it any less or more honorable to kill an enemy with a gun. The most important thing was winning. The tool used to achieve that end didn’t matter, because it’s all Silat anyway.

Putting the primary focus on becoming a master at arms and tactics instead of a master at hand to hand fighting also serves one additional critical function: to teach the Pesilat the severe cost of losing in battle, as traditionally, Pencak Silat is trained with live blades. A live weapon will teach you respect for mobility, aggression, and decisive action like nothing else. And all those three things are absolutely necessary for survival in real encounters against determined enemies.

A great display of aggression and skill from Silat Seni Gayong practitioners Kahar and Mat Wahab. Even with unsharpened steel training machetes, a small mistake can have bloody consequences. This type of training prepares the Pesilat mentally and physically for real violence and mastery of their tools.

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How Effective is Silat in a Real Fight? — Total Urban Survival (6)

Strategy: Pencak Silat, when taught by a real instructor worth their rank, will have a strong focus on using strategy to defeat adversaries rather than pure force. Strategy wins the day in most situations of violence, and force is just a tool used in strategy to accomplish a specific goal. For a traditional Silat Pendekar (fighter and master) to have had value in the past, he would have had to show technical skill in combat as well as strategic knowledge in order to rise up in the ranks of the military, royal guards, or government defense positions within the royal court. Failing a solid understanding of strategy the most he could have hoped for was to be village Rambo or cannon fodder in some king’s frontal attack forces. That’s why it’s said that Silat without strategy is like a sword without a sheath, it’s dangerous but limited. A sword with a sheath has value in many situations of life. It’s a symbol of position, an adornment, an heirloom, a persistent threat to an enemy, and a weapon. The famous history of the Bendahara Tun Perak is a testimony to this. He was a great warrior in the court of the Sultan of Melaka, but it was through his skillful use of strategy to destroy the invading Thai armies, twice, that made him famous and rose him in rank, not mindless raging. If he had simply run into battle like a raging bull, history would have forgotten him as quickly as it forgot Hannibal’s imbecilic Roman enemies who loved “manly” combat, most of which we now don’t even care to remember. But we do remember Hannibal, because he won, as we do remember the Bendahara Tun Perak, because he won.

Brotherhood: One of the key components to Silat is Silaturaheem, the classical Arabic word adopted into the Malay language which means brotherhood and unity. As Islamic culture took root in the Nusantara, eventually overcoming the Hindu Majapahit, the old word “Pencak” retained its original meaning as combat and “Silat” took on the newer meaning of Silaturaheem and is very common to hear in training circles in Indonesia. Nowadays, both words, “Pencak” and “Silat” are synonymous in reference to the Martial Arts of the Nusantara. From a strategic perspective, though, there is no Pencak without Silat, as traditionally, the idea of winning any land or any war without the assistance of your brothers was technically impossible. You could have the best skill of Pencak in the land but if your relationships with others are all negative, you won’t survive long. You need a team no matter what, and that was as true three years ago as it is for any modern military unit. The teaching of Silat in relation to brotherhood is very simple: you cannot and will not accomplish anything of value if you try to do it yourself. You must learn to work with others, respect other’s contributions, and share your victories and defeats together in order to get ahead. The closest people to me in my life are my Silat brothers and sisters. They have supported me through the utmost hardships I’ve faced in my life and I trust them with my blood, my honor, and my family, as they do theirs with me. This is Silat. This is the value we hold to that term and the power it encompasses for us. When you face violence, when you face trials in life, when you face your toughest challenges, it will be those brothers who stick with you. And those who don’t, don’t have true Silat. They have a hobby called Silat. And that’s an entirely different and unrelated thing than what our ancestors left us.

Extreme Violent Techniques: Pencak Silat has some of the most aggressive and fluid assault techniques humans have ever created, armed and unarmed. This exceptional development is a direct result of the centuries of inter-empire warfare, skullduggery, and invasions that make up the history of the Nusantara. These techniques are designed not only to kill an adversary but also to be as brutal as possible in order to instill fear into those watching. As a tool of strategy, fear lasts a lot longer than physical pain, hence it was used by Pesilat at the behest of their Emperors and Sultans to control people. The idea was to be as brutal as possible through extreme tactics so one wouldn’t need to waste resources in using violence to control others in the future. Basically, kill one physically to conquer a hundred mentally. So the technology of Pencak Silat is as aggressive as possible to ensure victory over the physical human and mental victory over anyone who might try to support him. That does not mean that Silat is only for killing people, to the contrary. On a non-military level, Silat was always taught with the spirit to preserve life when possible, because we respect life, and one’s skills are best served by protecting other’s lives with them. Therefore we have techniques in Silat that specifically focus on maiming an enemy and others that focus on controlling an enemy, both options being non-lethal. The first for purposely punishing someone with a lifelong memory of their crime, like a broken arm. And the second to stop people from hurting themselves or others without carrying a lifelong reminder, this could be a joint lock for example. This mentality is steeped in the old concept of Maruah or dignity. The people of the Nusantara have a very polite culture where it is almost impossible to hear someone disrespect another person or an elder in regular speech. Doing so takes full mental dedication because Bahasa Melayu Baku (Classical Malay language), which Bahasa Indonesia (Standard Indonesian Language) is based on, is a very polite language. It respects rank, family order, official position, life efforts, seniority, and much more. Therefore someone who would purposely insult the dignity of another person would call upon themselves a severe punishment in the form of verbal rebuke first, and if there was no apology, a physical retaliation. So in conclusion, Silat has a combination of military aggressiveness, civilian defensive techniques, and a Pesilat must learn both in order to deal with whatever the world throws at him.

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Deception: The last reason I believe Pencak Silat is one of the most effective martial arts on earth is because it relies on deception and not dueling. The act of dueling was reserved for situations of personal honor where dignity, religion, or family was insulted. Or as a method of psychological warfare against an opposing group by dueling and killing one of their famous warriors, as was the case of the legendary Pendekar Hang Tuah who fought the Majapahit Pendekar Taming Sari in a duel to the death. After promptly killing his adversary he was presented with the dead man’s Keris, showing the superior skill of the warriors of the Melakkan Sultanate. But this was not the standard way of dealing with warfare. The way of dealing with an enemy was and is through strategy and deception, and the reason for that was simple: resources. In the old days, like today, frontal attacks were frowned upon because you lost men, equipment, and most importantly, morale. Men are expensive, so are steel and armor, and losing them for nothing is plain stupidity. Any Pendekar mindless enough to waste the Sultan’s resources on thoughtless assaults would have zero hope of a promotion. So deception was the key ingredient to luring an enemy in, killing them off, and gaining position through your exploits. And this remains the priority for any large scale military combat until today. Special operations soldiers are trained to flank, rear-end, deceive, and outfox their enemies, not fight pitched battles against superior foes and die as heroes. Stealth provides far less risk to the team and usually yields much better results than pure headlong combat.

Being deceptive in your attack and using asymmetric assaults to inflict unequal damage on your enemy while trying not to let them damage you in return is the most important principle of Silat. We don’t trade blows, we don’t fight fairly, and we don’t allow hollow words to goad us into actions that will ultimately ruin us. Because the main purpose of Pencak is to win, not to fight. And if that can be achieved through deception, all the better, whether it be during an engagement or in a pre-fight situation. We Silat foxes go home to our wives and children holding our enemy’s gold, while he rots in a shallow grave, brave as a lion, but still very dead. That’s the ultimate recompense of the brave yet wholly foolish.

This is Pencak Silat, and I truly hope that I’ve answered the question, how effective is Silat in a real fight. Now go forth, flank and deceive my dear reader, don’t trade blows! and leave the heroics to those fools who choose the cold dirt over their warm women.

Using Karambit, the traditional Silek (Silat) curved blade from Sumatra, in conjunction with combat archery.


Aniekan Udom

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