Friday, August 04, 2006

Lessons in grace & confidence

I first met Norsyafinaz Norshahar, 12, and her younger brother, Nor Shafizzuddin, 10, at a kid scuba diving camp in Pulau Tioman. At the family performance night, Syafinaz and Shafizzuddin stood in front of an audience of about 60 and did a silat demonstration. Syafinaz led her brother through the 16-step bunga sembah.

Almost similar to slow-mo tai chi moves, the steps incorporate different stances, hand and leg positions, kicks and defensive poses. But the movement’s smooth sequence and graceful poses are reminiscent of a lovely traditional Malay dance.

Cikgu Nizam
I was awestruck. I never knew silat moves could be so refined, since we are always fed with scenes of flying and kicking stunts and keris-wielding warriors in movies and TV shows. And mostly, I was impressed with the kids’ rapt concentration and their seemingly precise moves.

A month later, I found myself sitting in on a silat class, watching the same bunga sembah routine led by Syafinaz with 16 other students at Sekolah Kebangsaan Cheras Indah. Aged five to 12, these students were learning the skills of Seni Silat Malaysia (SSM) under Mohamad Nizam Mohamed Shapie, 26, or Cikgu Nizam, as the kids call him. SSM is a uniformed silat syllabus developed from Seni Gayung Fatani for primary and secondary schools in Malaysia.

Founded by Tuan Syeikh Abdul Rahman Tahir in 1890, Seni Gayung Fatani is one of the four most popular schools of silat in Malaysia. (See Preserving tradition.)

The Seni Gayung Fatani Malaysia Association was first registered in 1976 by founder and silat grand master Anuar Abd Wahab. One of the largest silat schools, Gayung Fatani has about 13,000 students in over 150 gelanggang (training schools) nationwide.

There are two forms of Seni Gayung Fatani; the seni silat (art form) and the silat olahraga (sports form). Silat olahraga is a more physical and aggressive form that is often seen in silat competitions while seni silat is more graceful. Besides learning the basic bunga sembah techniques, the students have to understand each of the 16 steps and its functions. Syafinaz and her friends are learning the seni silat.

“Seni silat is a self-defence art that’s gentle and filled with adab. The word silat also means tepis-menepis and serang-menyerang (defence and attack),” explained Nizam, 26, who has been practising silat for 15 years. “There’s no flying stunt like what you see on TV.”

Starting ‘em young

Nizam has been teaching primary school students silat at Cheras Indah since 2000. He divides his time between seven schools, primary and secondary, and his silat centre, Pusat Cemerlang Silat. The Cheras Indah students pay RM20 a month for a class every week.

Younger students, like the five- and six-year-old kids, though not enrolled in Cheras Indah, are welcomed in Nizam’s class. Nizam has nine years of teaching experience under his belt.

“The teaching method for kids and adults varies,” said Nizam who has a master’s degree in sports science.

“A kid’s body is not as strong, so I can’t train them like adults. And I have to see their overall state; from emotional, physical to mental.”

Silat students move through several levels, based on their training hours and exams. The belt grades and colours start with white (beginner level), followed by yellow, green, red and black. There are several degrees of black belts before a student attains junior instructor, instructor, senior instructor and eventually a guru (grand master) status. Over the years, Nizam’s students have progressed to different levels and actively take part in school, state and national-level tournaments.

The youngest student here is five-year-old Badri ( in yellow T-shirt).
What your kids learn

“Silat is for everyone, you don’t have to be a Muslim to do it,” said Nizam who also teaches Chinese students and foreigners in his silat centre. “In the olden times, every man has to learn silat for protection because there was no weapon.”

Like other martial arts, silat helps to instil in students a good attitude and discipline. They invariably adopt a healthy lifestyle, become independent and creative and follow good practices like respecting their elders and setting good examples for the youngsters, Nizam added.

“Your posture becomes better too. The bunga sembah techniques make you flexible and is a form of self-defence on its own,” said Nizam.

“One of my students, a six-year-old, was very shy and afraid when he first joined the class. But now he’s more confident.”

Syafinaz looked like a natural leader as she led the class through the warm-up stretches and sparring demos. But I was a little baffled. Each time I approached her for an interview, during the scuba camp and at the silat class, she smiled, shook her head and scooted off.

“Syafinaz was a very timid and shy girl,” explained her mother, Mahsita Mohammad, 45. “But since she picked up silat three years ago, she has had to perform in public and lead the kids during training. Now, she is more confident and can speak better in public.”

But, I guess her bashfulness prevails.

Silat has given Syafinaz (in white scarf) confidence.
Her brother, Shafizzuddin, used to be quite pampered and “sticky” with their dad, Mahsita added.

“Now’s he’s more disciplined and independent. He used to rely on others to make his decisions,” said Mahsita who has two other kids, aged 14 and five. “But when he started silat, he was the only boy in the class initially, so he was forced to be more assertive.”

Khairul Azim Radzali’s father signed him up for silat about a year ago. “I like learning silat so I can protect myself from bullies when I go to secondary school,” said the 10-year-old with a cheeky grin.

Is it safe?

Naturally, parents’ first concern when they sign up their kids for martial arts is safety.

“Unlike adult silat, in a competition, kids perform/present the techniques they’ve learned,” said Nizam.

“They don’t take part in sparring unless it’s planned (choreographed). Their bones are soft and their bodies are still growing so it’s important to avoid any injury.”

But above all, Nizam wants to make silat fun for the kids.

“I like to encourage them, like saying, ‘Wow, the bunga you did was beautiful,’ praise a good kick and make them feel the challenges,” said Nizam. “Instead of saying, you have to kick higher, I just tell them, ‘it’ll look nicer if your kick is higher’.” W

o For enquiries on silat for kids or Pusat Cemerlang Silat, call Cikgu Nizam at 017-389 7105.

Preserving tradition

When 26-year-old Mohamad Nizam Mohamed Shapie was 11, his schoolmates and friends scrambled to sign up for taekwando or karate classes, both popular martial arts in Malaysia in the early 90s.

“But I wanted to try something different, like silat,” said Nizam.

An Asian martial art with roots in the Malay culture, silat’s history stretches back centuries in Malaysia and Indonesia, and is also widely practised in Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines.

There are many types and different schools of silat, but the four most popular and well-known silat schools in Malaysia are Silat Gayung Fatani, Silat Lincah, Silat Cekak Malaysia and Silat Gayung Malaysia.

“While cekak emphasises self-defence, gayung Malaysia and lincah on combat, gayung fatani focuses on defence and attack,” explained Nizam who follows the Gayung Fatani practice. During his secondary school years, Nizam stayed in a boarding school in Kajang. By luck, his dorm was just across from silat grandmaster Anuar Abdul Wahab’s house.

“On weekends, when my friends hung out in the city, I preferred to drop by Haji Anuar’s house to learn silat,” said Nizam.

Under the grandmaster’s tutelage, his passion for silat deepened and he started participating in national-level silat competitions. At the age of 17, he was helping his silat instructor teach younger students.

In 1997 and 2003, Nizam attended the World Silat Championships to observe the competitors. A biennial event, the World Championships sees the best participants from mostly Asia and Europe display their skills.

“I like to analyse and learn how the world-class silat participants compete,” said Nizam who dreams of taking part in the competition in three to four years’ time.

Nizam wants to see silat enjoy the same popularity as other martial arts. In 2002, together with a business partner, the genetic engineering graduate set up a silat centre, called Pusat Cemerlang Silat (PSC) in Kajang. Over the years, he has trained over 300 students, adults as well as kids. He also has students from Austria, France, Italy and other European countries.

“Karate and taekwando are very established here and wushu is also getting popular. But taekwando came from Korea while wushu originates from China,” said Nizam.

“Why isn’t silat as popular even though it’s a Malaysian tradition?”

Looks like this ambitious young man has big dreams for silat. And what better way to go about it than to start with the young.