The martial arts capital of the world

(Adapted from some ideas I was playing around with for something else, and never really finished. Maybe it’ll spark some debate, hehehe).

For a long time, Singapore meant only ‘Cyberpunk’ to me. I first heard the name of this tiny city-state in William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, where it was simply a far-off Asian Tiger, the base for the impersonal agents of freelance mercenaries who sent contracts by fax, never engaging in human contact. Later, it cropped up as a location in Bruce Sterling’s “Islands in the Net”. It was a good novel, but Bruce can’t write Singlish dialogue for toffee… Much later, Gibson wrote about Singapore in his famous “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” essay for Wired. Although it lost much of its mystery after I first visited on a business trip I was, after all, there for internet-connected work. Singapore remained, to me, a technology and MNC place.

If I told you that I now think it should be named the martial arts capital of the world, what would you think? Perhaps it’s not the first place that you would think of..? Then where? Tokyo? Beijing? The Shaolin Temple? You may instead have associated Singapore with caning miscreants, a ban on chewing gum, and a fanatical devotion to shopping for brand-name products… Yet, hidden behind the air-conditioned malls and reflective-glass office towers, is a martial arts culture that’s second to none.

When Sir Stamford Raffles first declared Singapore a free port, the immigrants came flooding in from all over Asia – and their martial arts came with them. Singapore was a pretty wild place for most of its history, and the colonial authorities’ police force simply didn’t have the resources to control crime. Instead, the powers-that-be (I suppose that should be powers-that-were) segregated the incomers along ethnic lines, and told the leaders of each community that they had responsibility for maintaining order…

The summer monsoon brought workers and traders from India and Arabia – and with them the Indian fighting arts such as Kalarippayattu, and the Sikh Shin-Kin. A few months later, the wind would shift direction, and the winter monsoon brought the junks from China. On board was a seemingly endless stream of merchants and desperate peasants – fierce Hokkien people from Fujian province, and the Cantonese from Guangdong. They brought Hung Gar, Wing Chun, and White Crane – all of which are widely practised in Singapore to this day.

Nor was that all! Year-round, the surrounding archipelagos and peninsulas sent their warriors pouring into the new port city. Ferocious Bugis pirates fleeing the Dutch fleet; solemn Malays from the kingdoms to the north and the massive rock of Sumatra; Moros from the Philippines, battle-hardened after centuries of resistance against the Spanish, and more lately the US Marines… all familiar with keris, golok, staff, and the multitude styles of silat…

All these were in Singapore from the beginning, and surely lacked no practice, with gangs, triads, secret societies, and revolutionaries of every stripe – active, strong, and less than civic-minded.

The first half of the 20th century saw many new martial influences introduced. The fall of the Qing dynasty led to a swell of national pride in the new Chinese Republic. After so long of being scoffed at as the “sick man of Asia”, the new China promoted a sea-change in official attitudes to the martial arts – and the ripples swiftly reached Singapore. The Chin Woo Association soon established a branch, while the northern art of taijiquan became popular with the bouncers in the red-light districts of Geylang (where sailors of the world’s merchant fleets and navies engaged in “friendly debate”).

The rising prestige of Japan at this time, following its 1905 defeat of Imperial Russia, led to a welcome in Singapore to judo, karate, and kendo. Although enthusiasm for things Japanese dipped substantially mid-century, it has endured and grown since then.

Overlaying all of this, of course, was the long presence of the British armed forces, whose practice of boxing survived their departure.

Postwar, independence for Singapore and its neighbours has seen an infusion of talented fighters from the north. Muay Thai has a strong following in Singapore! Like everywhere else, Korean Tae Kwon Do has a massive following. Globalization, and the arrival of a large and disparate expatriate population has attracted martial arts experts from further afield – Singapore has two capoeira schools, for example, while styles as diverse as Russian Systema and South Africa’s Piper knife-fighting have their devotees.

What truly makes Singapore outstanding is the density of martial experts who have had to use their skills to survive in a variety of perilous situations – and what’s more, in circumstances that are almost inconceivable to the average Western reader of martial-arts magazines. From a policeman who has had to use his wing chun up against drug dealers who know they’ll get a certain death sentence if they’re caught, to an ex-Red Guard who fought for his life during the Cultural Revolution, Singapore’s kungfu community harbours a huge fund of knowledge and experience, unparalleled anywhere else that I know of. And then there are the really amazing stories of wandering Shaolin monks….

Sadly, as the generations that grew up before and immediately after independence get older, there is a real risk that this trove of martial knowledge will evaporate, and become lost. This would be a tragedy – not just for Singaporeans, who would lose a rich seam of their precious national identity and history, but also for the global martial arts community, where there are few other places so rich in diverse traditions. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge of documenting this accumulated wisdom while it is still possible.


  1. Same here in Taiwan: So many MAs from mainland China came with different generations of immigrants, Japanese arts through occupation, though no Indian stuff, as far as I know, but south American is catching up, alos MMA.
    But who’s interested? Not the younger Taiwanese strawberry generation. They sit in aircon-ed houses and surf the net 20 hrs a day, get autistic and bodily weak. So, it’s up to a few locals and some aliens who pick up the arts and preserve them for generations to come. And believe me, I was totally shocked, when I was called a living treasure the other day, for what I have learned MA-wise in 17 years over here.


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