Silat's long American trek

Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Mahendra Siregar, is flanked by Persisi CEO Sheik Alau'ddin and US Pencak Silat Federation vice-president Abdul Malik Ahmad at the US Open pencak silat championships last weekend. The Singapore team returned with 16 o
Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Mahendra Siregar, is flanked by Persisi CEO Sheik Alau'ddin and US Pencak Silat Federation vice-president Abdul Malik Ahmad at the US Open pencak silat championships last weekend. The Singapore team returned with 16 of the 27 golds on offer. PHOTO: UPSF

US federation holds first major event and aims to promote sport to nearby countries

Virginia is known for being home to the Pentagon, the base of the United States Navy's Atlantic fleet, and for being the birth state of a record eight American presidents.

Last weekend, a lesser-known milestone was reached in the east coast state when it hosted the first United States Open pencak silat championships.

At The Campus, a multi-sport facility in Sterling, 87 athletes from the US, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Uzbekistan took part in what is a unique achievement for a sport with roots in the Malay Archipelago dating back to the 6th century.

Singapore's 22-strong contingent, featuring junior and senior athletes, won 16 gold medals out of a possible 27.

Abdul Malik Ahmad, vice-president of the USA Pencak Silat Federation, said the UPSF had been "thinking, planning and preparing" to hold an international tournament since it was formed in 2010, but only felt capable enough after nearly a decade.

"We've been to several world championships not only to compete but also to learn and develop our knowledge in the sport," said Malik, 43.

"Now we're at the level where we believe we're ready to have our own tournament. We didn't want to host a tournament just to have one. We wanted it to be done well."

Malik, an African-American Muslim, is a founding member of UPSF. Its headquarters are located in Herndon, Virginia, because of its close proximity to the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, about half an hour's drive away.

According to Malik, the sport was introduced to the US in the 1980s by an Indonesian Embassy staff.

While silat in Singapore is closely associated with the Malay-Muslim community, Malik says it is different in his country.

"In the US, people don't really connect silat with one country or one ethnic group," he said.

"They just see it as a very nice, cool martial arts. The moral system that silat teaches can be accepted by everyone... and some of the people who started (UPSF) are Christians or belong to other faiths (than Islam)."

Singapore Silat Federation (Persisi) chief executive officer Sheik Alau'ddin, who also serves the international silat body Persilat as chairman for public relations, praised the UPSF for their execution of the recent meet. "The US hosting a championships like this is great, and it will help silat's push for the Olympics (in 2032)," he said.

"They are planning to hold the US Open championships every year, and will be supported by the Indonesian Embassy here.

"They will also help promote the sport in neighbouring countries, and can go on to become a hub for silat in the Americas."

APPEALING TO ALL

In the US, people don't really connect silat with one country or one ethnic group. They just see it as a very nice, cool martial arts.

ABDUL MALIK AHMAD, vice-president of the USA Pencak Silat Federation, on the attraction of the sport.

Sheik, who is also the national head coach, believes the challenges his athletes had to overcome in Virginia - such as jet lag from 25 hours of travel from Singapore and difficulty in finding halal food - have toughened them, as they shape up for the Nov 30-Dec 11 SEA Games in the Philippines.

"Despite the difficulties, we never compromised and trained hard twice a day in the US," he said.

Sheik Fayz, the fourth son of the former world champion, was among 16 Singaporean champions last weekend. The 15-year-old won the Under-17 Junior male Class I (up to 75kg) category, beating Yhan Supatmoto, an American-Indonesian athlete hailing from New York, in the final.

The Singaporean said: "The style of fighting of silat athletes in the US is interesting. They are less intricate and their fighting stances are also different to what we are used to facing.

"In this way, competing in a place like the US has given me exposure and allows me to adapt better to opponents' styles."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2019, with the headline 'Silat's long American trek'. Print Edition | Subscribe