I was at Petah 2010, a Malaysian record-breaking event – 111 hours of non-stop debating. It was five days of United Nations-like excess, during which debaters rented two halls at the Putra World Trade Centre, sending an endless stream of people for nasi lemak and fried mee hoon, played cards with politicians and coffee-slammed their bladders until they felt like walnuts.
The fact is, though, I’m not really a politician or a debate legend; which is why I was so surprised to receive a special invitation in my inbox to take part at the historical event. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t work out why one of the greatest living Malaysian debater formally invited me and my piggy-eyed partner, Saiful (Not Anwar’s Saiful and I am very straight. ‘Partner’ refers to a business partnership.)? What on earth would we talk about?
As a general rule, I’m quite good at small talks. But there’s a world of difference between a Sunday morning teh-tarik at a mamak and a session at a hall stuffed with perhaps the most critical people on the planet. Saying something that they would perhaps have read somewhere simply wouldn’t cut it.
It was like queuing at a funeral line-up. You want to say something to the widow that all the other guests haven’t said before, but what hasn’t already been said to a bunch of debate addicts? My head was in a spin. I was shaking with nerves. And perhaps that’s why my first line (from a point of information) was — and I’m not making this up — “If a car was moving towards you at 300 kmph, how many adults pampers would you need?” – The motion was: This house would abolish speed limits in Malaysia.
But this entry is not about me, or precisely about how silly I made myself sound on that celebrated day. This entry is about the throngs of people there, their addiction and the culture manifested within their genes. To see what might have nurtured this culture into an entire breathtaking event, we must know what causes it. The answer lies less in fame, glory, money and whatever Maslow would tell you lies on the peak of his pyramid than in simple peer pressure. We debate because our friends do. Despite my debating apprehension, stage fright and lack of interest on what is happening outside my office, I was there debating because my friends were there debating as well.
An estimated 54 per cent of people who are debate-addicts say that all or most of their friends do so, whereas only 17 per cent of non-debate-addicts say their friends are debate-addicts. This could be because like attracts like. But that’s not the whole story. Many will agree that debating is contagious; if a few people do it, their friends will join in.
Results from an observation and survey conducted throughout the Inter-College English Debate (ICED) League in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) last month corroborates this. They have found that college students whose room-mates competitively debate are more likely to do so themselves. In other words, if there’s a critical mass of debaters, this will cause others to debate. And that is why, they boast to have the most number of competitive debaters in the country.
All this means as more people debate and come back to debate, the peer pressure to do so will increase, which in turn could cause even more debating. And then a social norm might develop that regards debating as acceptable, so it will increase further.
In 2050, there will be no more small talk in the mamaks. People will be allowed to talk in libraries. Neurotic-introverts like myself will be social outcasts. Everyone would want my job. And you would now sadly have to pay to watch the Grand Finals of WUPID (the World Universities Peace Invitational Debate – hehehehe) because it would now be the equivalent of the World Cup.
And this is why I avoid debate addicts on my peaceful weekends with the same fervent determination as I avoid close encounters with rabid dogs. I do not understand the GST, the environment bores me, I have zero interest in sustainable agriculture and if anyone interrupts me while I’m speaking, I am filled with an overwhelming need to respond with a punch to their kisser.
I can’t wait for the World Cup.
Kudos to the organizers and debaters of PETAH 2010. From the heart of my bottom, I am deeply impressed and awed by your enthusiasm, passion and dedication to aculturalize what we all love. Keep up the spirit and thank you for letting me in all the fun!