I was under the impression that debate in Malaysia, like so many other after school activities, was as much pageantry and theatre as it was, well, debate. After looking over the scoring rubric, which celebrates the use of “bombastic” words and fancy annunciation as much as it does content, strategy, and form, I volunteered to help coach my school’s team right before the competition. I’d done debate in high school, found it dreadfully boring, and predictably, after two years on the team, was honorably discharged for my strange conduct in the field. I volunteered partially in the hopes of redeeming myself, partially so that I could debate vicariously through my students, and largely because it looked like they could use some serious assistance.
Once upon a time our school was host to a squadron of mastermind debaters, or so I was repeatedly told, but we have since regressed back to the dark ages of English-language debate and no longer possess the pedantic rhetoric characteristic of the champs. So, among my many roles, I was to be a living thesaurus, inserting words like “vapid,” “culpable,” “unequivocal,” and “annihilate” into the students’ otherwise sound arguments. I was also to help my students with their annunciation, inflections, and their overall oratory alliterations. We also spent a disproportionate amount of time drinking chocolate milk and discussing the feasibility of the recent GI Joe film, which exercised the students’ casual debating skills. However, I was not able to explain how “The Rock” got to be so buff.
I had my own internal debate of what to really teach; the means of scoring in this particular debate were largely contingent on style and sound, but I thought it equally important to emphasize actual content and substance. I settled on something more holistic, and so we practiced “overall” debate skills on the first of many topics: “Junk food is the greatest cause of health problems!”
The first speaker would define the statement. Apparently, defining a sentence is as simple as defining each word individually – by explaining what the word “junk” means, followed by the meaning of the word “food”, “is”, “the”, “number”, “one”, and so on, one can arrive at a thorough understanding of the sentence as a whole. Its common practice, my students insisted. We made some minor corrections, for the sake of coherency, and progressed. A really phenomenal form four student, Zulhafiza, would act as the first speaker – and with impeccable sass, she was to state one solid reason as to why our argument was 100% irrefutable.
The second speaker, a badminton champion, Nabila, was to then put forth three arguments further detailing why our team was unstoppable. Finally, Shazuan, a sharp-tongued form four boy, was to refute all points made by the opposing team, and in the course of his rebuttal, further support the prevailing argument that our team was not only the best, but also destined to win, and superior to the opposition in every possible way. We worked a little bit on organizing our thoughts by paragraph, and, once our speeches were honed and ready for battle, we received some despairing news.
Call it conspiracy, but the school hosting the debate suspiciously told us only three days before that the topic had changed, and that we’d now be discussing the issue of the global versus the local. We skipped classes, bunkered down in an air-conditioned room for two days, and prepared once more for this new, significantly more vague topic. Then, unsurprisingly, those colluding villains hosting the event changed the topic again!
This time we were to argue that more technology leads to more problems! The students were understandably exhausted, as was I, at having to constantly reassure the team that it was all worth it in the end, and that English was fun, right, right?
It goes without saying that, on the day of the debate, the topic changed once more; “One Malaysia is the only path towards unity,” or something to that effect. We were the opposition, meaning we’d have to argue on the contrary. Shazuan was excited – he’s our team’s demolition expert – more than proficient in viciously tearing up other’s arguments and launching attacks on their personal character and intelligence. Serving on the opposition means there are many more opportunities to perch and wait for gaping flaws in the other team’s argument. Unfortunately, we had little time to prepare for such a loaded topic. Furthermore, a rule prohibiting the discussion of sensitive topics like race, religion, and politics was explicitly mentioned several times before the debate. In other words, we were told not to say anything.
My team made several strong arguments, and were consequently scolded for questioning the integrity of an ostensibly infallible existing piece of legislation, and lost because of it.
The drive back was rough and it was difficult to console my students, who’d spent so long working on so many topics, only to be thwarted by a glaringly unfair and unwinnable stance. I made some dad-like consoling remarks, which were deservingly ignored, and for a few days the students brooded over their swift defeat. Life goes on though, and as it turns out a small piece of plastic that says “winner” on it is not very significant or meaningful for more than a few days. I am happy to report that the whole team is looking much happier nowadays, and when asked about the debate, they respond, “what debate?” But hey, at least they’re answering in English!