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Don’t sweat – Self-Defense for Solo Travellers

One Saturday afternoon, I spent an entire hour fending off a knife-wielding assailant.

I was down at SWEAT!, a little gym studio along Cantonment Road, where I had been kindly invited down to check out their self-defense classes. As a solo traveller, and a female one to boot, one common concern people always express about my solo journeys is the matter of safety – is it really safe for me to be wandering around the big bad world on my own where I could get robbed/raped/attacked/etc.?

How essential is self defense for solo travellers?

I think I’ve been pretty lucky so far, never been thrust into particularly dangerous situations through a combination of paranoid self-preservation and pure luck, but SWEAT’s owner Wai Yee had convinced me through email that knowing some basic self-defense techniques might be a useful skill for travellers to have, especially when they’re on their own and exploring countries which aren’t as safe as Singapore. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt to know some of these things whether I end up using them or not.

Which is why I was there in my workout clothes, taking my turn at stabbing a rubber knife at my sparring partner. The class was pretty small, just four of us, three of us ladies, and our instructor Victor, whose smaller stature may not make him the most intimidating person at first glance,  but woe betide anyone who tries to rob him as he is a certified Taekwondo instructor from the Singapore Taekwondo Academy.

What self-defense class is like

The class structure is stand-alone and pretty fluid – the week before, they worked on grapples and getting out of various holds; today Victor decided that we would learn specifically about how to avoid getting stabbed by knife attacks, but also how to counter these attacks. There is no real syllabus followed when it comes to the classes, we’re free to make requests even, mostly because as Victor constantly reminds us – if you get attacked by someone, it’s not going to be a textbook situation.

“Self-defense classes are more about honing these techniques until they become instinct”, Victor says as he goes around the room, correcting our stances and adjusting our grips. “There’s no real right or wrong move, it’s about practicing the moves over and over until the action becomes a natural reaction.” And my reaction evidently, is rather lacking – I get poked and slashed several times by the rubber practice knife, emphasizing the fact that if I really had been suddenly attacked, I might not survive to tell the tale.

It is also revealed that my evolutionary solution is flight, as when Victor tests us out with actual-speed demonstrations, my body is usually geared to fly rather than fight. “There’s no right or wrong when it comes to self-defense; the counter-attack isn’t always going to be possible or the best idea for yourself, if you’re faster at ducking, then go with that, go with what feels right,” he reassures.

Victor tells us a story in his younger days, when he had once had to put his self-defense skills to use on a drunk guy who kept bothering him and wouldn’t leave him alone; he put the guy in a choke-hold, and calmly told him to please stop bothering him. While that initial move worked and the drunk guy scuttled off, he would later return with 15 others from his gang behind him. “I did what I do best, I turned around and ran for it. I know I can run really fast!” Victor says with a chuckle. He continues on a more serious note, “I probably could have taken them on with my skills if I wanted to, but it really wasn’t worth it.”

That afternoon’s class covered a fair bit of ground – from simple dodging techniques (effectively sliding out of knife’s reach is surprisingly difficult), to basic blocking techniques to prevent major injury, and finally counter-attack moves where the knife is turned on your assailant. It’s a very hands-on class and you split the time between practicing the moves or being someone else’s practice dummy – be prepared to be a little sore if your partner is rather enthusiastic; and that you might have to be a little rough even on your friends, to get a real feel of how the moves work.

My sparring partner easily fends me off.

“One class unfortunately is not going to be enough,” Victor says at the end of the session, “it’s something you have to keep practicing, so that in a bad situation, your body will be able to react instinctively.” He demonstrates this by having one of the other students throw random attacks at him, and his hands seem to fly out and block them almost independently of his body. “I’ve had a long time to practice,” he shrugs at our wide-eyed amazement.

But ultimately for Victor, self-defense especially for travellers, is a lot of plain old common sense. One of his usual travel practices is to always carrying an extra wallet with a small amount of cash in it, in case of muggings, “They (muggers) are not usually interested in hurting you, they just want what you have.” He is a frequent visitor to Johor Bahru, Malaysia; Singapore’s neighbour across the border and notorious for frequent carjackings and robberies, but he has never once been robbed in his decade of driving up there. “I’m always aware of my surroundings, and even with my family, we don’t dilly-dally and give people the chance to set upon us; we get in and out of the car quickly and I lock the doors immediately when we’re all in, it just takes a little coordination and thought.”

Why travellers can benefit from self-defense class

My takeaway from self-defense class is simple – unless you’re pursuing a particular martial art quite diligently, you are not suddenly going to become Bruce Lee overnight or be able to fend off muggers with aplomb. What I think self-defense class does is give you confidence, building the certainty that should you encounter any rough situation, you won’t freeze up and panic in fear, or put yourself in a worse situation.

Sure, you’ll probably still get robbed anyway, but there is also the fact that you are now more aware, and hopefully that makes you less likely to end up in preventable situations. For solo travellers, and especially women travellers who tend to have more issues about personal safety, having this knowledge could be empowering for yourself, and lead to safer travels all around.


The self-defense class was originally sponsored by SWEAT! – thanks to Wai Yee for the opportunity and the photos, though they don’t offer this anymore.