Malaysia’s relationship with debating is a whacky one. On one hand we have high rates of awareness of its potential – yet on the other, a mindset that debating is the realm of tank-top wearing geeks who do things that ‘normal’ people don’t – arguing for fun.
As a nation, we’re comfortable being ‘observers’ of debates, a term used for people who merely consume ideas and information in debate tournaments. And even then that is a shot in the dark – Obama and McCain presidential debates last year, most of Malaysian who watched it thought that it was soap opera. Judging from the severe lack of appreciation and embrace for the culture, the level of ‘active’ support continues to be low compared to other developed countries. Why is this? What are we afraid of and why is it that each wave of debate initiatives is met with scathing cynicism?
I remember in the early days of big and un-affordable mobile phones where the people who proudly rejected debate and everything else that jollies along with the tenets of democracy believed that freedom of speech is caveman-like and very un-Malaysian. There was a fear of criticising and debating as if this were a totally bad thing. It took some years before we all came to our senses and realised that acting daft and being mute was a far bigger problem.
Then there was the World Universities Peace Invitational Debate (WUPID). A prestigious and celebrated debating championship right under our noses, that gathers future leaders and decision makers from the top debating institutions in the world – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Sydney, just to name a few. Some people, predominantly in mature, established industries and organizations, buried their heads in the sand claiming that it would never happen and that its significance was overstated. But, over time and buffeted by the push and pull of the ‘debate promoters’ and support from debate enterprises who provided cheaper services, WUPID climbed its way to survival.
On the other side of the globe, people in debate emerging countries such as South Korea, Qatar and Botswana are finding it much easier to embrace the culture. Debate analysts suggests that people in these countries are more likely to create, engage and interact with the debating culture. This will give them an advantage in utilising debate as a business and political tool. Matured democracies and well informed societies are already utilising debating to great success. The Oxford and Cambridge Union for instance is viewed as a gold mine for political recruitment.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Malaysia has 3 universities ranked in the top 30 debating universities in the world – International Islamic University, Universiti Teknologi MARA and Multimedia University. Malaysia has the capacity to produce people and companies that can rank with the best in the world – but as long as the mainstream considers it cool to be a debate-phobe and nerdy if you write a blog or use social media, we will fall further behind.
The debate revolution is here – what we need now is active aid rather than mere endorsements as show of support. What we need now is the move towards a cultural revolution.