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The debate debacle

Debates should encourage constructive discourse for the young minds. Photo by Headway on Unsplash

By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Adelina Asmawi

Anwar Ibrahim, Syed Saddiq, Mohd Rafizi, and Khairy Jamaluddin share a common trait – they were all accomplished debaters during their school and university years before venturing into the political arena. Similarly, President Lyndon Johnson, a former debater, led his university’s debate team before embarking on a distinguished political career as a U.S. representative, senator, Senate Majority Leader, Vice President, and ultimately succeeding Kennedy as the President of the USA. Another notable debater, Reagan, also known as the Great Communicator, clinched victory in the presidential election with a memorable rebuttal against President Jimmy Carter, starting with the famous phrase, “There you go again,” and concluding with the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Adelina Asmawi

Debates play a vital role in both the political process and higher academia. They provide a platform for presenting opposing perspectives with equal time and opportunities to address counterpoints.

As the dust settles on the completion of the 48th Prime Minister’s Challenge Trophy Debate Competition 2023 final round in July, with the ultimate finals scheduled for September 2023, it’s an opportune moment to provide a glimpse into the Malaysian schools debate scene.

Firstly, these young debaters engage in discussions on an array of topics, covering a wide spectrum of subjects. This diversity necessitates a lifestyle shift, with reading becoming an almost constant requirement, consuming the debaters’ time nearly 24/7. They delve into subjects as varied as science, technology, philosophy, economics, geopolitics, law, social rights, and pop culture. Training for these debates demands a significant commitment, with typical debaters dedicating approximately 5-8 hours per week to honing their skills. As competitions draw near, this commitment may double, highlighting the immense dedication and effort required. The training process entails extensive reading, sparring with team members and club peers, organizing online friendly matches with other schools, participating in public debate competitions to gain experience and refine their skills, and even visiting the parliament and meeting senators to observe and learn from their practices in parliamentary debates. There are no shortcuts to success in debating; only relentless hard work and an unwavering commitment to improvement pave the way forward.

Secondly, the beauty of nurturing debaters from a young age lies in the cultivation of critical thinkers and confident advocates at an early stage. The debating platform fosters leaders who embrace tolerance amidst diversity, providing them with a broader perspective on various issues and empowering them with the mental fortitude to respond maturely to differing opinions. Debates encourage a more comprehensive exploration of subjects, as they require both sides of an issue to be presented. This process effectively counters any potential bias that may arise from a single presenter, promoting a balanced and open-minded approach to understanding complex matters. Moreover, debates contribute to the peaceful resolution of disagreements, substituting aggression and confrontation with reason and logic, thereby nurturing a culture of respectful discourse.

Thirdly, debate has evolved into a valuable pedagogic tool for teachers in schools. Research has demonstrated that students who are encouraged to engage in debates as a study method are better able to present their arguments effectively in essay form compared to their peers who do not partake in debating. The process of debate compels each individual debater to thoroughly comprehend and organize their topic in a manner that is not only clear to themselves but also easily comprehensible to others. As a result, students gain a deeper understanding of opposing viewpoints and various perspectives, enabling them to identify faulty logic and weigh evidence critically. Researchers have therefore concluded that this study method enhances students’ analytical abilities and comprehension skills, promoting a well-rounded educational experience.

However, there are instances where debates may not only be ineffective but also counterproductive. This is particularly evident in issues related to racism or hate, where engaging in a debate can inadvertently grant a platform to offensive or harmful views. Although regulations typically forbid presenting such topics to school children, recent cases have emerged where these rules were breached.

In May 2023, a national debating competition organized by a reputable public university in Selangor forced debaters to discuss the topic of LGBT during the finals. School debaters had no choice but to propose and oppose the motion: “This House as the LGBT movement would oppose the use of neo-pronouns.” Such a motion controlled roles for both the government and opposition teams, raising questions about its appropriateness for young students.

Similarly, a recent national debate competition held up north featured a motion on ethnicity that made school debaters uncomfortable during the Octo final round. Haven’t we learned from history? In 2013, a motion about the election of a pope caused a significant controversy in Malaysia. While it is understood that debaters challenge even the most contentious issues to sharpen their skills, some topics are simply unworthy of debate as they draw attention to matters that should not be in the spotlight. These subjects may impose values and cultures that are not suitable for Malaysian students, let alone future leaders. To avoid such debacles, it is crucial for debate organizers to thoroughly screen motions intended for school children and youth.

By shielding school children from these so-called debacles, we can nurture the ideal leaders of the future, capable of engaging in constructive debates that foster understanding and strength on both sides, just as Nelson Mandela wisely said, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger.”


The author is an Associate Professor at the Department of Language and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya. She may be contacted at adelina@um.edu.my

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