Pencak Silat: The Internation Mobilisation of Indon-Malayan Tradition


Paul Mason

Department of Anthropology

School of Culture, Media and Politics

Macquarie University, Australia




Pencak Silat is widely known as the martial art originating from the Indo-Malayan archipelago. It is a hybrid and generic name for a large variety of homegrown styles of self-defence, performance art and cultural knowledge. As a product of internationalization, organizations such as the IPSI (Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia) and PERSILAT have tried to collate, systematize and unify Pencak Silat from across the archipelago for a more marketable system of self-defence. However, do standardised forms of Pencak Silat do justice to the fundamentals of the art? The systematization, formalization and standardization of Pencak Silat for an international audience may help the distribution and acquisition of movement vocabularies, but it may overlook distinct properties of the traditional art. Traditional Pencak Silat teachers do not use the teaching styles made famous by Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese martial arts. In fact, Pencak Silat instructors in Indonesia may be more correctly conceptualized as fight-choreographers rather than self defence instructors. Learning Pencak Silat is a collaborative exercise between teacher and student. Teachers grant themselves the freedom to adapt to and be inspired by their students. Subsequently, Pencak Silat teachers expand the knowledge and movement vocabularies of their students by increasing their awareness of how to recognize and escape from danger. Testament to the adaptability of Pencak Silat teachers is the diversity of styles of Pencak Silat found throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. These styles have arisen through the interaction of Indo-Malayan instructors with foreign students. However, these idiosyncratic styles are often less popular and less widely spread than the more standardized styles of Pencak Silat such as Silat Perisai Diri. Silat Perisai Diri is a highly systematized style of Pencak Silat that allows many students to be taught at once. More traditional styles of teaching only allow for a few students to be taught at a time. The essence of Pencak Silat may not necessarily be found in systematic teaching of various movement sequences. Just as traditional Indo-Malayan music is taught without notation, so too is traditional Pencak Silat movement taught without an over-riding system but with an underlying feeling. While those international Pencak Silat schools that practice standardized forms of the art may be performing traditional movements, those schools with no systematized teaching styles may in fact be performing traditional knowledge.