Rafee Majid, 38, silat practitioner and manager of the Malaysian National Pencak Silat Team, was born in Penang. He wasn’t an overtly sporty teenager but was attracted to learning self-defence, and then took up the martial art competitively.
His next life was spent working in the entertainment business overseas, after earning a degree in audio engineering and music production in the US. He was spinning the decks, “more or less an entertainment or PR guy,” he says modestly, but continued to practise silat until he suffered a knee injury.
Rafee says he and his team have been entrusted with being the anchor runners in the marathon medal relay sprint that all host countries hold when they organise an international sporting event. There are 20 golds at stake for Pencak Silat, which kicks off on a Thursday, August 24, until the penultimate day of the SEA Games on August 29, during which 16 of the 20 golds will be decided.
On August 30, the overall winner of the Games will be declared during the closing ceremony, and the script segues into triumphal celebrations on Merdeka the following day. Tickets for the final three days of the silat events were sold out in early July.
Kuala Lumpur 2017 might not be up there with Beijing 2008 or London 2012, but Southeast Asia is silat heartland, and Malaysia vies with Indonesia, host of next year’s Asian Games, as its source. Toss in talk of a snap general election and it all begins to look like a record-smashing, season-ending cliff-hanger.
But even if the punters betting on September polls are right, emerging as the overall winner of a regional sporting event that you host is only a short-term tactic. Rafee’s horizon is more strategic: to make silat likeable, shareable, ‘grammable and influencer-friendly for Gen Z in a radically changing environment. What is its brand positioning? Does it have an image that sponsors find attractive?
It’s hard to disagree with Rafee when he identifies the strongly trending entrepreneurial zeal of younger Malaysians. It’s not all hipster culture. In the face of a globalised economy suffering the spasms of oil dependency, speculative financing and ostentatious displays of wealth, young Malaysians take their fortunes into their own hands. They cut deals, collaborate and will “generate income through sports,” he says. The spirit of business is agnostic, and cuts across ethnic and racial lines. (And if Radio Ikim programming is anything to go by, even men of cloth are getting seriously into MBA modules.)
Still, he acknowledges that it’s nothing if not ambitious to marry silat with this new spirit. Rafee’s own silat studios, or gelanggang, are in the conurbations of Shah Alam, Bangi and Bandar Tun Razak, whose collective demographic is mainly middle-class Malay. It’s unlikely they could be anywhere else, at least not yet. But the glass is half-full: it’s also a young demographic.
“They need some steady income to be involved in silat, which for them is secondary or maybe the last resort,” he says, adding that the take-up rate will surely rise once being a silat practitioner puts food on the table. Towards this end, judicious institutional support is essential, he says.
“Silat is becoming more acceptable in the market compared with 20 or 30 years ago. People are more confident to bring their kids to events involving silat. We started to achieve this acceptance after the sport’s profile was raised when silat athletes won Olahragawan Negara and Olahragawati Negara back-to-back,” he adds, referring to Mohd Al Jufferi Jamari and Siti Rahmah M Nasir who were named Malaysia’s Sportsman of the Year and Sportswoman of the Year for 2015 and 2016 respectively.
“I can safely say now that if you were to be involved or invested in the [silat] industry, you can get some very positive rewards. I am proof of that; whatever my achievements are today, they are basically because of silat.”
He feels the cosmopolitan nature of the entertainment industry can rekindle silat’s original openness to different cultures. He’s harnessed his network to broaden silat’s appeal with the international OneSilat Championship. It’s a far cry from the days of having to organise competitions in shopping malls, he says.
“Everybody is into MMA; more blood, more rough, more gruesome. So, we have developed OneSilat with the basic rules of silat movement and incorporated freestyle martial arts,” he explains. “It has helped a lot (with the public acceptance of silat). The industry automatically opens up because, the youth nowadays, all they can think of is watching a person being beaten up. That is the sports entertainment industry; what they want. We’ve reworked, re-engineered the silat competition itself.”
Commercialisation today mandates a consistent, recognisable product of broad appeal that is marketable around the world. There could be as many as 1,001 varieties of silat, literally, in Malaysia alone. It’s an anthropologist’s dream. Where can researchers go to get more information before the market consolidates?
“Under PESAKA (Persekutuan Silat Kebangsaan Malaysia, the national association), we have more than 400 registered associations, and we do new things, bengkel and workshops, just to get the non-registered associations to join us. There are around 1,000 unregistered associations. So, one mission is to get more associations under one roof.”
Meanwhile, Pencak Silat will feature in the Asian Games next year for the first time, and hosts Indonesia plan to apply for its listing as an Intangible Cultural Heritage prior to lobbying for its inclusion in the Olympics. Game on.
The Southeast Asian Games will take place between 19th and 30th August, 2017. The ASEAN Para Games will be held from 17th to 23rd September, 2017. This article was first published in Esquire Malaysia, August 2017.