Bitten by the debate bug

  • Education
  • Sunday, 01 Jun 2003

By Mallika Vasugi

AFTER last year’s short-lived teachers debate stint, I had sworn off debates for life. Sure it had been great while it lasted – the mental challenges, the intellectual stimulation and the exhilaration of winning. But I wasn’t going to go through the whole debate gamut again – the sleepless nights with debate lines running through your mind, the butterflies in your tummy. (Diana says hers are vultures, swooping in for the kill each time her speech is due.) 

No, thank you very much. I had made up my mind. Debating was a fine thing to be sure but I’d rather stick to my safe world of calculus and trigonometry. 

Then, sometime in April, Diana called me. “Guess what? We’re going to Kelantan for the zone-level teachers debate.” 

“When are we leaving, and what’s the topic?” I asked. 

Thus it began, again. The whole cycle of meetings for discussion, the endless brain-storming sessions, the writing and rewriting of scripts and practise, practise, practise.  

We went all scrunched up in a Jabatan Pendidikan Negri Johor coach to Kota Baru, Kelantan, and won the eastern states zone championship. Then it was back to school for a week or so to catch up with whatever work we’d missed before preparing for the grand finals in Penang. The big one. The debate that would determine the national Teachers Debating Championship. 

There were five of us on the team, including Diana and me. The others were:  

Terry, who got married the day before we flew to Penang and left his bride of less than 24 hours with the words – “Be brave, while I go forth to defend the glorious cause of the debate. I shall return with victory on my wings.” (We sincerely hoped that she would still be waiting when he returned). 

Anita, who left a job with TV3 to join the more glamorous teaching profession, and Ang Tauk Khoon, who said that his greatest regret in life was not having a more refined-sounding name. He said he’d pay me RM2 for every good thing I said about him and handed me a list of some 50 complimentary phrases. I told him I could not be bought, but for RM10 per word I’d think about it. 

Besides the five of us there was Wan Rozana (or Kak Wan), the District English Language Officer for Johor Baru who was officially our team manager but unofficially our Provider-of-Junk Food. Among her many duties was the responsibility of keeping the debate team copiously supplied with all manner of unwholesome, high calorie, zero nutritional value and artificial-everything laden snacks. It’s a little hard to explain but Kak Wan has this uncanny ability to know exactly at which point of some profound discussion the sudden craving hits you. 

“Brain food” she would say before ripping open another packet of those twisted crisps. 

Mr Lee Leng Song who was the District English Language Officer for Kulai (“Kulai Kak Wan”, Diana told me) was roped in as our coach but I suspect that his real duties were to keep an eye on us.  

Our suspicions were confirmed at the airport when Puan Sallina, the State Language Officer handed us a big brown envelope with a slightly worried look. “Now here are documents to prove that you are all indeed teachers and not riff-raff.”  

Now while other State English Language Officers would have been sending off their debate teams with words of motivation and inspiration, Puan Sallina had only three words for us. “Behave, behave, behave,” as we walked into the departure area.  

“I think she’s trying to tell us something,” whispered Diana as we boarded. 

And so we arrived in Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, and it was back to work almost as soon as we arrived. Critical examination, analysis, opinion-swapping, defensive and aggressive arguments. Spending hours laboriously building up a case and then just as laboriously tearing it to pieces. This was debate parliamentary-style. It was intellectually invigorating, stressful and mentally exhausting, but wonderful, wonderful wonderful! 

Ang, the sophist, dashing and debonair, with his ready wit and charm (that’s RM50, Ang) had 17 distinctly different debating styles, ranging from taxi driver in Bombay to businessman from Jakarta.  

My personal favourite was his Chinese opera-style debate which he delivered with full high-pitched wailing and gong effects. (Terry laughed so hard during one of these “performances” that he actually flew out of the hotel room, much to the consternation of the passing bell captain.) 

Anita was assigned to take down important points and notes during our discussion, a job she did with much seriousness and flipping of pen and paper. Back at the hotel room, when I asked her for the notes she handed me half a scrap of notebook paper with four or five words and gravely informed me that she’d done a little editing to save me time. 

The level-headed Mr Lee did a wonderful job coaching us from his vantage position on the bed but confessed later that it was not much fun being a coach.  

“I have to be on my best behaviour at all times,” he said. “All that acting dignified and proper is so boring. Next time I want to come along as an orang biasa. “ 

The topic for the debate finals was, An Educator’s Personal Leadership is the Main Determinant of Quality Teaching, and our team was on the Government or proposing side.  

I think I can honestly say that we were all in top form. It was adrenalin all the way once we got started. Diana’s vultures must have been hibernating, for she took the stage full of poise and confidence, and her voice rang out with eloquent conviction. 

Ang turned on his usual magic and it was brilliance till the end. He had the audience practically eating out of his hand with his oratorical skill and flair. 

I really don’t know who was most shocked when the results were announced and we’d lost. Yes, we lost and as much as we believed that we deserved to win there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Shock, disbelief and indignation were only some of the things we felt. 

Thank God for the support and consolation of the entire Johor contingent who had come to witness the debate. After the first flow of emotion, Puan Sallina promised us a ice-cream treat to help cool us down. 

We attended the Teachers Day national-level celebration in the Penang International Sports Arena later that night. It was uplifting being part of the tribute to the teaching profession. The launching ceremony was spectacular, simply breathtaking, and the performances were presented in a splendid array of colour and music. 

The prize-giving ceremony was held the next day at a state luncheon and when Ang got down from the stage after receiving his prize he clutched his plaque possessively and said: “ I have rightfully been awarded the wrong plaque.” 

Johan, the plaque read, when it should have been Naib Johan. “This is divine intervention,” said Ang solemnly. “I am not giving it back.” 

Divine intervention or not, the exchange had to be made and before long we were on the bus heading back south. 

I thought about how it was when we had to take our own student teams for interschool competitions. And the clichéd, overused phrases that we so glibly dished out when they didn’t win: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s taking part that counts. Try again next year.” Easy words to mouth when you’re not the one directly involved.  

And then I thought about those of us in the teaching profession who had worked hard and long only to see the promotions or rewards that were rightfully ours awarded to those less deserving.  

How easy it would be to get bitter, give up or stop trying. As difficult as it is to accept defeat. I think it takes a deeper kind of maturity and a certain finesse of spirit to accept it when everything you know tells you that you should have won. But perhaps that’s what champions are all about – of the heart and not of words written on a judge's decision slip. 

“I’m not taking part in debates anymore,” proclaimed Diana when we got back, but Puan Sallina gently reminded her: “That’s what you said last year, the year before and the year before that.” 

I guess that’s how it is when you’ve been bitten by the debate bug. There’s no cure. Meanwhile, Ang still holds fast to his “sign from heaven” theory. 

Incidentally, Puan Sallina if you’re reading this, we still haven’t forgotten about the ice-cream treat you promised ? 

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