The reputation of pencak silat began to improve in the early 20th century with the emergence of the Etische Politiek or Ethical Policy, which aimed to raise the welfare of the indigenous people through various programs, including public health and education. This new policy led to greater intervention by the Dutch government in village affairs, security included. With the formation of police units in rural areas and the disappearance of forced labour, the role of the jago in sustaining the colonial economic system began to wane. This alone led to the decline of pencak silat as an instrument of social control over coolies and farming communities.
At the same time, the perguruan were undergoing a significant transformation. With the appearance of public education and the establishment of desascholen or ‘public schools’ between 1910 and 1919, the focus of the perguruan narrowed since they no longer provided humanistic education in the broadest sense. Furthermore, some perguruan -particularly those in urban areas- began to develop from informal associations into structured organisations with oral or written regulations. This transformation resulted from an expansion of the fraternities as the students’ number rose, and from changes in the relationship between disciples and their teachers. The closeness between teachers and students almost vanished because they no longer lived under one roof, meeting only at training sessions.
The structure of the perguruan became increasingly hierarchical, with students grouped by seniority and levels of knowledge. Students would normally begin by practising basic pencak silat moves and physical techniques, before moving on to study the spiritual aspect. Junior students were not permitted to observe or train with their seniors and had to show them respect. When a senior student achieved the highest level of study he was allowed to open a school separate from his teacher’s. Such expansion in other areas was meant to occur in a spirit of fraternity so that the pledge of loyalty to the main perguruan would be reaffirmed.
To preserve the unity of the perguruan and to prevent the misuse of pencak silat in the community, masters began to draw up rules to regulate the behaviour of the disciples both inside and outside the school. Several teachers also devised a code of ethics to guide their students through life. Discipline was intensified and old regulations, such as the prohibition to study at other perguruan or teach outsiders, were reinforced. Those who broke the perguruan commandments would be punished by their teacher.
The colonial government viewed the growth of these ‘new’ perguruan with suspicion, since it realised that organised pesilat could not be manipulated as easily as jago, who acted individually. They were concerned that the perguruan might become effective instruments in disseminating nationalist ideas advocating civic resurgence and resistance to the Dutch colonialists.
In the beginning, this concern seemed excessive since the majority of perguruan were also open to members of society close to the colonial government, such as the upper-classes, ambtenaren (civil servants), KNIL military (Koningklijk Nederlandsh Indisch Leger) and korpsen soldiers (Saleh 1991:20). The Dutch marechausse were also trained in pencak silat techniques. It should also be noted that many of the teachers that set up ‘modern’ perguruan in cities were from the upper-classes and were employed as civil servants. Not infrequently, pencak silat masters would receive awards for their services on Queen Juliana’s birthday, ‘Koninginne Dag’.
However, nationalist ideas gradually began to permeate the world of pencak silat, and some perguruan started questioning who had the right to learn pencak silat: should pencak silat be taught to the nobility, the educated and the Dutch ambtenaren; or should it be solely for the indigenous population? In the ensuing decade, the government decision to allow indigenous political organisations and the subsequent emergence of associations and parties of differing ideological backgrounds -including nationalism, socialism, communism, and Islam- also sparked debate on whether the perguruan should remain neutral. If not, with which groups should the perguruan align themselves? These dilemmas could not be unanimously solved, and members of differing opinions often broke away and set up new pencak silat groups
The growing spirit of nationalism within pencak silat circles echoed the intensification of efforts to realise ‘One Country, one Nation, one Language’ in the archipelago. Following several incidents of mass uprising in the 1920’s and the declaration of the Youth Pledge on October 10, 1928 in Batavia, the colonial government tightened and expanded its control over youth activities, pencak silat included. The colonial intelligence apparatus (PID) kept a close eye on all activities and organisations considered to be potentially in opposition to Dutch control. Training in pencak silat provided youths the strength, confidence and courage needed to resist the Dutch colonialists. Therefore pencak silat self-defence activities were closely scrutinised as they were suspected to be the front for political activities, and had to go underground. Training was done in private houses, in small groups of no more than five persons. At the end of the training, the pesilat had to leave one by one without attracting the neighbours’ attention. At times, training would be carried out in secret locations in the middle of the night -from midnight to morning prayers- to avoid the scrutiny of the Dutch. Pencak silat teachers often made use of eerie locations such as graveyards, since even the police would be scared to go there, and they could be protected and safeguarded by the spirits of their ancestors.
Pencak silat matches too began to disappear from public eye following their prohibition by the colonial government in the 1930’s. What is more, many pesilat, who were also political figures, met with bitter fate and had to live in prisons or isolated camps for several years. Pencak silat epics abound with stories of masters who ‘were branded as extremists and forced to move around to avoid arrest’, or who were punished for having opposed Dutch authority by using their pencak silat skills, both physical and spiritual. Although we cannot generalise and assume that all pencak silat teachers and schools opposed the colonial government, from the above it clearly appears that pencak silat played an important role in the struggle for independence.