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Strengthening the Debate Culture

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Second Sphere by Saifuddin Abdullah

Malaysia’s debating culture reached another milestone when we successfully hosted the 35th World Universities Debating Championship 2015 (Worlds 2015) from Dec 28 to Jan 3. Worlds is the most prestigious debating competition, and it is every debater’s dream to become the champion.

Worlds 2015 saw the participation of 774 debaters, representing 316 universities from 92 countries. The event was co-organised by the Malaysian Institute of Debating and Public Speaking (MIDP) and University Teknologi Mara (UiTM).

The teams participated in three categories: Open, English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).The four teams that made it to the final of the Open category were Sydney, Harvard, Oxford and BPP. Sydney emerged champion.

The most successful Malaysian team at Worlds 2015 was the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), which made it to the Open quarter-final. The other Malaysian team that had a good outing was Asia Pacific University (APU), which together with IIUM, made it to the Open Break. This is the first time Malaysia has had two teams making it to the elimination rounds.

For Malaysia, the hosting of Worlds 2015 is very significant because it is like a celebration of 40 years of documented history of debating in this country. Debating, in fact, started a long time ago, notably among the country’s premier schools, but its development was not well documented.

It was only 40 years ago that debating became more celebrated and systematic. It started when, in 1974, the then prime minister Tim Abdul Razak started the Prime Minister’s Cup (PPM) Debating Competition (in Malay and English) among the boarding schools (SBP). This was followed by a similar competition among the Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSM) and later, among all schools.

About a decade ago, IIUM started the Inter-School Debating Competition (IDC). Today, IDC is the most prestigious inter-school debating competition because it is the only one open to all types of schools (SBP, MRSM, day schools, private schools and international schools) and is conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, English and Arabic.

At the university level, debating competitions became more popular in the mid-1980s. For example, in the Malay category, there was the Selangor Chief Minister’s Cup and the Environment Debate, and in English, the Universiti Malaya Fifth College Debate.

Here, it is important to note that most of the university debaters were — and today still are — former school debaters. That is why, 1974 — the beginning of a more systematic and well-documented debating scene in the country — is considered a watershed year.

By the mid-1990s, there were already about a dozen inter-university debating competitions. In 1994, the Malaysian Universities Debating Council (Madum) was established. In 1995, Madum organised the first Royal Malaysian Universities Debating Competition for public universities.

Last year, MIDP organised the first National Inter-University English Debating Championship (Nationals), which was open to all public and private universities. The Nationals is set to be the most important national debating competition because it serves as the final preparation for Malaysian teams participating at Worlds.

On the international front, our schools and universities have been doing quite well. MIDP is commissioned by the Ministry of Education to recruit and train the Malaysian high school team for the World and Asian schools competitions. The MIDP-trained high school teams were Asian champions for three consecutive years (2012 to 2014). At Worlds in 2014, we were ranked fifth best.

For the universities, besides IIUM and APU, two other universities with strong teams that have been winning Asian-level competitions are UiTM and UM. The Worlds 2015 Convener, Maizura Mokhsein (from UiTM), was Best Speaker of the United Asian Universities Debating 2014.

But debating is not just about competition. It is much more. It is about knowledge culture and education approach and involves larger aspects of life, for example, politics, economics, social and diplomacy.

Minister of Education II Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh was spot on in his speech at the closing ceremony of Worlds 2015, when he said debating is a very important education tool.

Richard Andrews, in his book, Argumentation in Higher Education, offers an antidote to a system that has grown boring with too much focus on the “right answers”, to the extent that students are taught to be simplistic and robotic.

Debating, as one of the modes of argumentation, would be able to enhance a student’s prowess in rationality, thought, critical thinking, communication and discourse.

In the Malaysian context, if we were to add language, for example English, into the equation, then debate is indeed a very important tool in enhancing the quality of our university education and graduates.

This does not mean that all university students are required to debate or attend debating competitions. What is needed is to introduce the elements of debating and argumentation in the class and co-curriculum, for example, in spoken form, such as through forums, discussions, seminars, dialogues and conversation, and in written form, through essays, assignments, position papers, research papers, dissertations and theses.

One may argue that these forms are already in practice. I will rebut that by asking: to what extent? Are they conducted in the spirit of university autonomy and in upholding the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom?

Our schools and universities have made headway in debating competitions but in the case of debating in the larger education context — as an important education tool — we definitely have to do much more.

And this will only be possible if society, especially the leadership, understands the role and importance of debating, work to develop and strengthen debating culture, and more importantly, engage in debating activities that celebrate the contestation of ideas so that the best ideas will bring about the best policies and programmes for the people.

Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO of Global Movement of Moderates and former deputy minister of higher education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd

Source: The Edge Weekly, 26 Jan 2015

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