Self-defense is a mindset, not a fight: We took a class at Kapap Academy, and here’s how it all went down

Photo: Brooke Lark/Unsplash
Photo: Brooke Lark/Unsplash

When you think about self-defense, your mind probably conjures up stereotypical images of victims fending off street attackers with impressive combat skills. But it’s so much more than that, as we discover one evening at the CBD digs of social enterprise Kapap Academy.

The basic premise involves three “rings of defense,” co-founder Qin Yunquan explains to us. Avoidance is key, followed by de-escalation with words and, as a last resort, physical defense.

Having misunderstood self-defense as a variation of fighting techniques, we’re a little surprised to find out that most of it actually revolves around escaping from threatening situations. We’re equally disappointed to learn we won’t be mastering some kick-ass, Fight Club-esque moves, but truth be told, that’s probably what makes Kapap Academy more approachable to the average person than any martial arts school.

Having taught the skill of self-defense for the past decade, Qin speaks of it with a natural confidence, describing the academy’s system as Modern Street Combatives. It’s something the 29-year-old had a hand in creating, together with co-founder Teo Yew Chye, who set up the organization as a tribute to his brother after the latter passed away from injuries sustained in a street attack.

Kapap currently retains its title, which is named after a type of Israeli hand-to-hand combat approach, but shapes its methods to be more well-rounded and “civilian-oriented.” The result? A mix of street smart psychological teachings, philosophies from Kapap, plus Muay Thai, Taekwondo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu moves – all thrown into practical settings for easier real-life applications.

Martial arts, it is not. Photo: Hermes Rivera/Unsplash
Fighting, it is not. Photo: Hermes Rivera/Unsplash

If you, like us, operate from the belief that any martial arts training will give you some sort of basic skills to tackle your assailant, Qin sets the record straight by clarifying that it takes analysis and quick-thinking wits to pull off those moves in a realistic scenario.

The issue with martial arts? “They don’t really understand how a true predator functions on the street,” she says. Sure, the same techniques can be used, but in a modified manner, taking into account what the perpetrator does and reacting to it.

In short, self-defense is most importantly about watching out for pre-attack cues to avoid getting trapped in dangerous situations, whereas martial arts instincts, when they kick in, will pump you up to face-off and fight. Qin stresses the importance of mindset above fighting instinct – to heighten your situational awareness, refine your improvisational skills, and defuse a situation without coming to blows.

Mindset over moves. Photo: Lesly Juarez/Unsplash
Mindset over moves. Photo: Lesly Juarez/Unsplash


From martial arts to self-defense

Reminiscing about how she got into the craft – even though she had a martial arts background – Qin reveals that it was out of personal interest, to learn how to protect herself as a petite-sized woman. Reading news stories about female victims caught in treacherous predicaments led her to visualize herself backed into their corner, and she soon became aware that she had no idea what she would do in their shoes.

“I realized it’s better to learn something and hope it never happens, than to worry about it when it does,” she acknowledges.

Qiu demonstrating a move. Photo: Kapap Academy
Qin demonstrating a move. Photo: Qin Yunquan/Kapap Academy

Clearly, Qin is passionate about equipping others so they’ll never feel unsafe, or worse, a false sense of security. In the ten years since she started this journey, she’s gotten international recognition with the Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2017 and a place on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year for social entrepreneurs in Asia.

“It’s a great honor to get all these accolades and recognition from different bodies,” Qin admits. “But what I really hope to get from all this… is to have that voice to educate and empower people.”

Already planning to expand beyond our shores, she tells us about the academy’s subsidized fees for the underprivileged and its plans to teach free lessons to the disadvantaged women of rural India.

A victim mentality

To delve deeper, Kapap Academy’s 10-module course, each two hours long, is a flexible scheme with no expiry date and no pre-requisites needed. From kids as young as five to 85-year-old elders, the program has trained over 15,000 individuals over the last 10 to 15 years. Most participants are women, some of whom have plans to go overseas for travel, work, or school, while a small minority have been victims of sexual assault.

“What struck me was, when you hear their stories, if only they knew what to do, they could’ve gotten out,” Qin recalls. “To see the aftermath of the effects, which last for decades to come, and knowing that they probably won’t be the same person, is very heartbreaking. They carry that scar with them for life.”

Practice makes perfect. Photo: Katerina Kerdi/Unsplash
Practice makes perfect. Photo: Katerina Kerdi/Unsplash

Listening to Qin talk, we’re struck by how much we take our (relatively) safe Singapore for granted. Self-defense is one of those things you tend to have at the back of your mind to learn one day, but somehow life just gets in the way. She reminds us to steer clear of the victim mentality, stressing the importance of being prepared in case that if turns into when someday.

“I’d like to know that what I’m doing to help people gives them a fighting chance at life,” she divulges. “I hope people don’t take chances. You don’t need to train for ages; you can do it, if only you just learn the right tactics, with the right mindset.”

For those who recoil at the thought of undergoing 20 entire hours of training, each class focuses on its own theme, so by the time you’re done, you’d have laid the foundational basics. Topics include anti-molestation, the use of improvised weapons, avoiding dangers, choke defenses, strike techniques, detecting pre-attack cues, and defending against kidnapping, knives, and ground attacks. That’s just the first level – the advanced class teaches defense against skilled opponents or multiple attackers – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The fundamentals of training

With all this in mind, we sit in on a two-hour session for a first-hand experience in lesson two’s Offensive Basics. The first half concentrates on theory, so each participant is given a binder of notes to fill out.

Before you groan inwardly and flash back to droning lecturers in school, the class is anything but dull – it’s actually rather insightful and fascinating, although sometimes morbidly so. Offering plenty of illustrations and real-life case examples, some of which can tend towards the gruesome, our instructor interacts seamlessly with students, asking each of us for suggestions on actions to take in particular scenarios.

Taking down an 'attacker'. Photo: Qiu Yunquan/Kapap Academy
Taking down an “attacker”. Photo: Qin Yunquan/Kapap Academy

As we mull over what we’d do if we unknowingly got into a car with a stranger who had ill intentions, our mind comes up blank. Call someone, we suggest weakly. Would the person arrive in time to save you? the instructor questions. Er, probably not.

Game over, then.

That leads to the explanation of the standard fight or flight response, along with the third option: the freeze reaction. It’s one that’s all too common and riskiest, because you don’t get do-overs in unpredictable circumstances like these. Okay, we admit, things just got real.


Hit me with your best shot

Now comes the moment we’ve been waiting for: hands-on training. Apparently, the best places to hurt attackers are the eyes, throat, solar plexus, and groin. If you’re really desperate, the base of the skull works as well, though that can lead to a severed spine or death. So proceed with caution.

We start off with palm strikes, which we learn are safer than closed fist punches, because those can shatter the tiny bones in your hand. Crouched in our fighting stance, we also attempt elbow strikes in the air, aiming for an imaginary attacker’s jaw, ribs, chin, and collar bone. You’d think swatting off someone with those moves would come sort of naturally, but we found ourselves hesitating and second guessing, eventually hitting our partner with the strength of a limp noodle.

Yeah, these things definitely take time. And loads of practice.

What an elbow strike looks like. Photo: Qiu Yunquan/Kapap Academy
What an elbow strike looks like. Photo: Qin Yunquan/Kapap Academy

Meanwhile, as we ponder over the effectiveness of the moves in stopping a perpetrator twice our size, Qin steps in to demonstrate what it would feel like to be hit in the throat. She breezes around the room, smacking us with light taps that take up possibly just one percent of her strength. But it hurts. We’re left with a hoarse throat. Coughs echo around the room. The effects don’t last long, yet we’re now convinced whatever she’s teaching us works.

Just before we end, she gathers the group to watch a few videos of real-life assaults as examples of what we just learned. Time and again, we see palm and elbow strikes knocking down burly males with one solid thwack. Granted, they’re men versus men, but the idea is there, and it’s up to us to drill the moves into our muscle memory.

Qiu illustrating a palm strike. Photo: Qiu Yunquan/Kapap Academy
Qin illustrating a palm strike. Photo: Qin Yunquan/Kapap Academy

As the lesson draws to a close, we’re vaguely conscious of our confidence rising a notch. Inwardly, we’re already thinking of ways to practice our newfound moves on unsuspecting family members.

Two hours ago, we were completely clueless about any sort of self-defense strategy, living in blissful ignorance, assuming the likelihood of us ending up in a desperate situation was slim. But frankly, you’ve got nothing to lose by arming yourself with useful life skills like these. Better safe than sorry, right?


Kapap Academy has two outlets, including #05-01 Robinson Square, 144 Robinson Rd. 9027-6996. Rates for level 1 Modern Street Combatives 10-module course: $420 for adults, $321 for students (SkillsFuture credits applicable).

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