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Tomoi is the Malaysian name for a South-East Asian martial art known in Thailand as Muay Thai, in Cambodia as Pradal Serey, in Laos as Muay Lao and as a similar art from Myanmar known as Lethwei. Tomoi refers to siku lutut, which in Malay is translated literally as “elbows knees”.
The word tomoi derives from dhoi muay or dhee muay which is a Thai word for pugilism and fist fighting in general. It was the original term of reference for the old bare-fisted form of Muay Thai now known as Muay Boran (ancient boxing).
It’s not clear exactly where the various Indo-Chinese forms of kickboxing originated but they are known to share a common ancestry having been based on Chinese techniques with some influence from Indian martial arts. Tomoi was brought into peninsular Malaysia by the Thais and Khmers who share close cultural, historic, ethnic and linguistic links with the Malays. The ancient Funan empire, based in modern-day Cambodia and Vietnam once encompassed what are now Thailand, Kedah, Perlis and Pahang. Nearby Langkasuka, The kingdom of Lembah Bujang traded extensively with the Khmers which eventually led to Perlis and parts of Kedah being ruled by Angkor in the 1400s. However, it was the ethnic Thais, who have long existed side by side with the Malay people, that were mostly responsible for tomoi’s practice in Malaysia. After the fall of Srivijaya, virtually all of Malaysia’s northern states came under Thai sovereignty until the 15th century when Melaka was founded following a Siamese attack. Trengganu had already been paying tribute to Siam during this time and they coninued trading with each other even after the state became a vassal of Melaka. Both Kedah and Trengganu were either controlled or influenced by Siam from the 1800s until power was passed to British colonists in the early 20th century.
Tomoi’s practice was focused mainly in Kelantan and a few states nearby. Like neighbouring Trengganu, Kelantan’s geographic location led to its strong links with Cambodia and especially Thailand. The area was heavily influenced by the Indianised kingdom of Funan whose farming methods it adopted. The ancient kingdom of Langkasuka, based in present-day Kelantan, Trengganu and Pattani, was described in Chinese accounts of having a culture similar to Funan and this may have included martial arts. Kelantan was under Siamese influence throughout the 1800s until the British came into power. During the Japanese occupation, control of Kelantan was passed to Thailand again until the state became part of the Malayan Federation. Because of these close geographic, ethnic and historical ties, Malaysia and Thailand are linguistically and culturally very similar. Kelantan, Trengganu and Thailand’s southern provinces in particular share a distinct Malayan-Thai culture and language. One of the practices they have in common was the boxing form of dhoi muay (now called Muay Boran) from where the term tomoi derives. It was practiced not only the local Thais but other races as well, especially Malays. The Malays didn’t do so for its effectiveness in the ring but leaned more toward the cultural aspect.
Even before British colonization tomoi was a popular pastime. It remained so until 1990 when the Kelantan government under the administration of PAS banned a number of Malay arts including traditional attire, dances, shadow puppetry and tomoi along with them. Although it was still practiced by a few, tomoi’s popularity among Malays began to wane. In 2006 the ban was abolished and the art was again allowed to be practiced under the proposed name of “Muay Kelate”. The preferred name used by promoters is freestyle kickboxing but most Malay-speakers still call it tomoi.