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Challenges in Establishing Pencak Silat Sports Competitions

Rapid Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Book 30, 2004: 46, 45)

© O'ong Maryono


Rapid Journal readers may remember that in the previous edition we started discussing the beginnings of pencak silat sports competitions, mentioning that matches were initially held at national sports events as demonstrative contests. At these contests, a jury comprising 12 representatives of the various Indonesian regions determined the best practitioners in ‘unarmed combats’ and ‘armed combats’ according to a set of rules devised by master Suhari Sapari. Only in 1969 at the 7 th National Sports Games (PON) in Surabaya these rules were replaced by a new system created by the Study Group, an informal group of young pencak silat experts –Mohamad Hadimulyo, Mohamad Djoko Was­podo and Rachmadi Djoko Suwignjo– set up under the auspices of IPSI. The three of them would later found the perguruan known as Keluarga Pencak Silat (or KPS) Nusantara. Assisting the members of the Study Group draw up these rules was Atok Iskander, a lecturer at the Surabaya Teacher College and pencak silat chair at the 7 th PON.   

In this new system the jury comprised five members who judged performance using five criteria –technical ability, maturity, appearance, efficiency, and stamina. A maximum score of 20 could be awarded for each of the five criteria. After discarding the highest and lowest scores, the best performance was determined on the total of the remaining score. Although an improvement with respect to previous contests, a referee system under which people competed based on uniform technical rules had yet to be applied.  

The slow pace in developing a competition system was due to the lack of support for experimentation and new initiatives. In the pencak silat community, conflict of opinion was reaching its peak, and the masters were split into two camps: those who agreed and those who disagreed with sporting competitions. Conservative and progressive schools were suspicious of one another. The conservative schools, particularly outside Java, continued to oppose pencak silat sports competitions, preferring to preserve pencak silat as a self-defence technique. They claimed that the progressive schools betrayed the cultural heritage of exclusiveness and offended tradition by rejecting the ground principles of pencak silat, which were to avoid violence and seek purity. They also accused the progressive schools of playing with fire and endangering lives by using secret movements only to satisfy their ambition. By contrast, the progressive schools argued that violence actually occurred in society where pencak silat self-defence was commonly used to injure or even kill people. They maintained that sports competitions require the pesilat to control themselves as befitting the pencak silat principle of nobleness of mind and character. In their view, conservative masters were extremely old-fashioned, still believing in irrational myths, like ‘the punch, kick or spittle of a pesilat can burn the opponent’s body’. Conservative masters were caricatured as ‘having long hair, piercing eyes, and thick moustaches, wearing black shirts and trousers, hands clutching a talisman, fingers adorned with agate rings, and wearing a bandanna’. It was this outmoded appearance of the masters, coupled with frequent fighting involving recalcitrant pesilat that gave pencak silat a bad name as a ‘vulgar’ form of self-defence. To restore the status of pencak silat, this negative image had to be erased, by designing a system that would allow pencak silat to be contested like other modern forms of self-defence.  

The progressive and rational-liberal schools were upset by the success of foreign martial arts among young people and disappointed that martial arts from overseas were seen as superior to the home-grown variety, as the comment of Mustika Kwitang master, Zakaria, shows:

Respected masters in Jakarta were invited by the State Palace to present their pencak silat skills before President Soekarno on the occasion of a visit by Master Oyama, a karate expert from Japan (dan VII) and Donn F. Draeger, a self-defence expert from America. The purpose of the visit was to promote Japanese karate.

Pak Zakaria demonstrated his armed techniques and split a stone with his wrist. He wielded a knife very rapidly indeed. Master Oyama was amazed and asked: ‘Why is it you have such a good martial art, but the Indonesian youth don’t like it and prefer self-defence from Japan?’ Pak Zakaria replied: “I’m not sure whether pencak silat is better than other forms of self-defence, but young people think everything foreign is better. They do not respect our cultural heritage. For them, pencak silat is kitsch’.

Foreign self-defence styles could be easily promoted because they were structured in standardised training packages. What’s more, the expansion of karate and kempo had the support of the Japanese government and business community, which at that time was eager to penetrate the Indonesian market.   

To prevent pencak silat from being overwhelmed by foreign martial arts, efforts to establish pencak silat sports competitions increased in the 1960’s and finally succeded at the 7 th PON when a majority of IPSI members agreed to hold pencak silat sports competitions on the condition that violence in competitions be controlled by applying strict rules. Various trials were therefore conducted in Surabaya, Semarang, and Jakarta with the participation of athletes from progressive and rational-liberal perguruan, specially Perisai Diri, Tapak Suci, KPS Nusantara, Perisai Putih, Putra Betawi, Setia Hati Organisasi, and Setia Hati Teratai. At the outset, a ‘full contact’ system was favoured over a ‘limited contact’ system because it allowed the breadth of technique necessary to achieve optimal performance. But, in light of past experience with free fight matches, the Technical Committee decided to restrict the pesilat’s range of moves with a ban on offensives to the genital area. Trials later proved that this rule alone did not adequately guarantee the safety of the pesilat. Many athletes were crushed and unable to take part in the next contest. Gradually competition rules were tightened with bans on biting and offensives to the face and head, and the mandatory use of genital and chest guards.   

Fervent discussion also surrounded the choice of techniques to be included in the scoring system, due to the great variety among perguruans. In Java alone, the differences were striking: the Betawi and West Java schools made great use of arm techniques, with blocking, chopping, catching, locking and throwing offensives, while the Central Java schools made more use of leg techniques, stepping, dodging, and kicking. So, the scoring system could handicap or benefit a particular perguruan, depending on which techniques would be assigned a higher score. If leg techniques would score higher based on difficulty and risk factors, schools that focused on arm techniques would feel at a disadvantage, and vice-versa. How this difficult problem was eventually resolved will be the focus of the next episode.