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Known as the “Father of Aikido in Malaysia”, Thamby Rajah Sensei helped to plant the seed that spread the martial art across the country and beyond. Today, his successors carry on the aikido master’s legacy at Aikido Shudokan.
Nestled in a quiet neighbourhood in Temiang, Seremban stands a modest wooden building. Inside, green mats line the dojo’s practice area, and memories from Thamby Rajah Sensei’s life-long martial arts career are on display. The building remains mostly unchanged since Thamby opened the first aikido dojo in Malaysia almost 60 years ago, and although the 92-year-old teacher does not teach aikido anymore, he occasionally comes to watch classes and offer advice.
Ramlan Ortega Sensei, Chief Instructor of Aikido Shudokan Malaysia and Singapore (which has branches around the Klang Valley as well as in Penang and Singapore, boasting over 1,000 members), describes Thamby as a quiet man: “When people interview and ask him long questions, he just gives one-word answers. To him action speaks louder than words.”
Born in Seremban in 1926, Thamby was a keen gymnast before venturing into martial arts. In 1947, he started learning judo at Kodokan, Seremban, and obtained his shodan (black belt) in 1952. In the mid-1950s, Thamby travelled to Tokyo to further his education in martial arts.
Ramlan Ortega Sensei is Chief Instructor of Aikido Shudokan Malaysia and Singapore.
At a time of political tension, Thamby’s decision to go to Japan was seen as unusual. While studying under Harayoshi Ichijima Sensei and Kyuzo Mifune Sensei at Kodokan in Tokyo, Thamby was introduced to Soke Gozo Shioda, one of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba’s finest students. Intrigued by the graceful and practical quality of the new martial art form, Thamby vowed to study aikido.
Thamby returned to Malaysia in late-1957 and made the voyage back to Japan in 1959 to learn Yoshinkan Aikido – a style of Aikido which places heavy emphasis on basic movements and practicality – under Shioda Sensei.
Aikido – composed of three Japanese characters: ai (harmony), ki (energy), do (way) – is a non-competitive martial art that develops the mind, body and spirit. The “way of harmonising the energy of the universe”, aikido uses techniques to redirect an opposing force and neutralise an attack. In practice, strength only plays a small role in aikido; the aim is to take an opponent’s balance through control and timing.
Thamby returned to Malaysia with a shodan in aikido – the first Malaysian with a black belt in both martial arts. He started teaching aikido in Kuala Lumpur and subsequently established the first Aikido Shudokan dojo in his hometown Seremban. The dojo’s name, Shudokan – which means “a place to study the way” – was given to Thamby by his teacher, Shioda.
Through bringing aikido to Malaysia, Thamby planted the seed that spread the martial art to the world. The Seremban dojo was the first official Yoshinkan Aikido dojo to open outside of Japan, and over the decades, many notable individuals, including the martial arts historian and researcher Donn F. Draeger, have practised and paid visits there.
Aikido uses techniques to redirect an opposing force and neutralise an attack.
Thamby’s nephew, Joe Thambu Sensei – the first person to introduce the style of Yoshinkan Aikido to Australia in the 1980s – also trained under his uncle and currently holds an 8th dan (a martial arts ranking system) in the martial art. Today, Joe is a renowned Yoshinkan Aikido teacher and continues to teach in Melbourne (where he currently resides) and across the globe. Other family members and students are also carrying on Thamby’s legacy through teaching and practicing the martial art in other parts of the world, such as in the United Kingdom, Russia, and Indonesia.
Ramlan – who trained under both Thamby and Joe – believes there is still value in traditional martial arts. He hopes that Aikido Shudokan can continue to inspire individuals through the essence of budo – a martial arts philosophy that promotes positive character building and the unity of mind and body through training and discipline.
“The kids that come here, after six months you can see some character changes. Some children, who have very weak focus, start to have increased focus,” says Ramlan. “Some were very slow in communication, but they started to respond. Some of them couldn’t even say their own names, but by learning aikido, they increased their confidence and you can see that in their daily life at school. It translates to the outside world.”
Aikido Shudokan runs dedicated classes for children between six to 12 years old. The classes include a diverse mix of students, and Ramlan mentions that the dojo has also sponsored students from underprivileged backgrounds to learn the martial art.
The essence of budo extends beyond the practice mats; it’s about awareness, with the ultimate goal being the perfection of self. Thamby practised budo through self-discipline in his everyday life: he exercised regularly, avoided ingesting anything that caused bodily harm, and made sure he was well rested.
According to Ramlan, Thamby may have some health issues in his old age (hence his absence during our visit), but he remains strong with an undefeatable spirit: “He still comes here to check on us. He still complains about the classes if he is not happy with the way they’re run.”
“To him, the art must go on, no matter what,” Ramlan continues. “I think he learnt that from his teacher and he passed down the same attitude to us. What I learnt from him is, no matter what you do in life, you have to be true to the art. Because if you are not true to the art, how can you be true to yourself?”
Text and photos by Stacy Liu
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