An experience to cherish

Winning the English-Speaking Union Malaysia's inaugural Public Speaking Competition 2003 was a dream come true for winner MIA-GERMAIN PALENCIA and runner-up JEAN LEE SI ZHEN, culminating in a trip to London. Here, the girls recount the exhilarating experience.  

IT was the first time Malaysia had participated in the English Speaking Union's International Public Speaking Competition, which is held annually in London. From May 13 to 17, we were with 55 other contestants from 34 countries, all of whom were winners in their respective countries. 

It commenced with a welcome get-together at the President Hotel, where all the contestants stayed. Most of our activities were held at the English-Speaking Union headquarters in Dartmouth House on Charles Street.  

STAR ATTRACTION: Mia-Germain (left) and Jean posing with Brad Pitt at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

One of London’s historical treasures, the building’s original polished marble floor, opulent banisters and enchanting frescos were awe-inspiring. Since all travelling was done via the tube, we learnt its precise location the hard way when we got lost walking for about an hour and somehow ended up on posh Bond Street! 

The first item on our programme was the “Balloon Debate”. Put simply, a group of people taking the guise of famous or influential personalities had to persuade, convince and cajole the audience that he/she should be the one to remain in the hot air balloon.  

Those thrown out of the balloon were deemed never to have existed. Among the personalities that the volunteers assumed were the late Princess Diana, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Devil.  

It was not only very interesting to hear what they all had to say, but also highly amusing because it gave all of us a glimpse of the speakers’ personalities. At the end of the morning, we not only got to know each speaker, but also a quick lesson in Geography! 

The next day, we were divided into three political parties for a mock parliamentary debate. There were Liberal-Democrats, Nationalists and Socialists. After formulating party policy and electing our respective party leaders and ministers, we had a blast “negotiating” with the other parties.  

That night, all the speakers were treated to a spine-chilling play, Woman In Black by Susan Hill, at the Fortune Theatre. It was a showcase of brilliant acting in which two actors, taking on multiple roles and minimal props, managed to spook the audience and had us biting our nails and screaming.  

The next morning, we decided to sleep in a little since our tour of the Houses of Parliament was scheduled at 10.30am. We woke up that morning only to find that for some curious reason all the other contestants had already left the hotel by 10am.  

It was only on the tube that we noticed what was printed in bold capital letters on our programme: YOU MUST ARRIVE BEFORE 10.15AM. IF YOU ARE LATE YOU WILL NOT BE ADMITTED. The time then was exactly 10.15am! We did the only thing we could do – run! Thankfully, we did not miss this chance of a lifetime – there was a slight delay as all 55 of us had to pass through the security check. 

Steeped in tradition and resplendent in décor, words cannot describe the interiors of the Houses of Parliament which are richly adorned with painted roof panels, stained glass windows, florid ironwork and beautifully tiled floors and wall designs.  

We were privileged to watch a parliamentary debate from The Gallery in the House of Commons. Among the “intriguing” issues addressed that morning were rural areas, fisheries and manure! 

Back at Dartmouth House, our own engaging mock parliamentary debate took place that afternoon. As Members of Parliament of Allocos, a mythical country, it was our responsibility to determine if the new Education Bill which sought to make it compulsory for all students under the age of 18 to learn English, should be passed, or otherwise. 

At the end of the debate, a new law was passed, by a one vote majority. The whole thing turned out to be quite comical as some of the participants suddenly decided to create a new party, the Allocosian People’s Party, in the midst of the debate. 

May 16 was competition day. Contestants took part in four concurrent heats. Two participants from each heat would enter the finals. Participants from the same country were slotted into the same heat.  

Our heat was held in the very quaint Wedgewood Room and there were a total of 14 participants. After a short break, the judges decided that from our heat, Maria Povarkova of Russia-St Petersburg and Jean, representing Malaysia, would proceed to the finals.  

Jean succeeded in being the only Asian in the finals; the other six finalists were from Australia, The Netherlands, Serbia and Montenegro, the Czech Republic and South Africa.  

The finals of the International Public Speaking Competition were held at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall. ESU Malaysia (ESUM) chairman Tunku Dara Naquiah, wife of the former British High Commissioner Toyoko Fry and The Star’s senior manager of marketing services Iris Tan were there to support us. 

Although Jean did not win, she was honoured to represent Malaysia. The support we got from the responsive audience made the arduous preparation for the competition more than worthwhile. 

The occasion was made even more memorable when former British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Graham Fry, who had initiated the setting up of ESU Malaysia, invited us to a delectable dinner at a French restaurant in Covent Garden that evening. Also present were his wife, Toyoko and Tunku Dara Naquiah. 

Among the highlights of our trip was the opportunity to meet Datuk Jimmy Choo at his shop. Mia and I were over the moon to see the master at work with his divine creations. Imagine how thrilled we were when he gave each of us personalised autographs and even drove us back to our hotel!  

As with every unforgettable experience, we left London altered, yet still quite the same. We cannot thank ESUM, The Star and HSBC enough for sponsoring and organising such a fantastic programme. 

We would also like to thank British High Commissioner to Malaysia Bruce Cleghorn for his support. 

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