“What do you mean, you’ve been appointed pelapor (reporter) for the debate finals?” said Carol, trying to peer over my shoulder at the letter I was reading. “You’re making that one up. There’s no such position as pelapor in any debate. The honourable chairman, I know, or do you call them speakers now? Most distinguished panel of adjudicators? Ha, how’s that?”
She cocked an eye at me. “Didn’t think I knew that, did you? And the esteemed timekeepers. I was one myself, you know, an esteemed timekeeper, way back in the 70’s when Convent met the St Joseph boys. But anyway there’s no such thing as a debate reporter.”
“What? Another debate,” yawned Lily. “How boring. And so soon after the last one.”
“This,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster, “is the National-Level Interschool Debate. See what it says here, Pertandingan Bahas Sekolah-Sekolah Menengah Peringkat Kebangsaan. Venue – Eden Garden Hotel, July 31.”
I hoped that sounded impressive enough but I could hear Lily say as they walked off, “Fed up of all this debate talk....” And Carol replying, “ Five letters I received after that from the St Joseph boys. They said I was the cutest timekeeper they’d ever had. Probably that’s why they lost. You know, the distraction factor.... Can’t blame them really.”
Cheah Sweet Moi, my ex-colleague, agreed to give me a lift to the hotel on one condition – that I mention the name of her school (SMK Sultanah Engku Tun Aminah or SETA) in every alternate line.
“It’s all for the school,” she said modestly. “Me – I don’t care much for publicity myself although if my name keeps coming up in every paragraph, I wouldn’t really make a fuss. I guess it can’t really be helped, considering the importance of my role in the whole thing.”
I acquiesced as sweetly as I could. I needed that lift. And to be fair. SETA had done an admirable job hosting the semi-finals the day before.
National-level school events are not something to be taken lightly and schools have been known to spend months on preparation for such a formidable task.
Besides SETA, the three other schools that had hosted the semi-finals were Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, SM Teknik and SMK(P) Sultan Ibrahim.
The teams representing Pahang and Selangor had made it through the semis of the English debate and would be meeting each other that day. On the Bahasa Melayu side, Sabah would face Perak.
Both the state education department and district Education offices in Johor had been working hard and different schools had been allocated special duties, ranging from taking care of hall decorations, prizes and programme books to arranging special “tour Johor Baru” packages for the participants from all the different states in Malaysia.
“Of course SETA has one of the most major roles to play today,” boasted Cheah. “Without us the whole show simply can’t go on.”
“You’re the M.C.?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Chief Judge?” No, again.
“More important than that,” she said. “In that bag over there,” she pointed to the back seat where alarm clocks rattled against each other in a red plastic bag, “in that bag lies the entire framework of today’s proceedings.”
“Oh, Timekeepers!” I exclaimed as an alarm clock suddenly went off, causing the motorcyclist next to us to give a violent start.
“Timekeepers!” Cheah was most indignant. “I would have you know that we at SETA are the Guardians of Chronology, the single most unifying dimension in eternity.”
The two teachers who were to be the official timekeepers gave me a long-suffering look when I met them in the hotel lobby.
“Three hours,” they whispered to me out of Cheah’s earshot. “We had three gruelling hours of time-keeping rehearsal yesterday. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Practising time keeping?”
“I’m still not satisfied with the angle,” Cheah had said with a frown. “You’ve got to get the angle just right. Your finger against the bell. Otherwise the pitch will be all wrong. And remember, chin up and smile sweetly at the camera each time you press the bell.”
The Grand Ballroom of Eden Hotel was resplendent. After all, the occasion was to be graced by some of the top officials in the education scene. Quite suddenly, a remark made by a teacher some time ago crossed my mind
“Buat apa nak pertandingan selalu. Buang masa aje. Menganggu pelajaran. Itu pun belum tentu menang lagi.” (Why have competitions so often. It’s a waste of time and disrupts lessons. And you’re not even sure of winning.)
Well, if winning is the only justifiable end, then 99% of all schools should not participate in any competitions. Why then does the Ministry of Education still call for the organisation of interschool competitions, quizzes, essay writing, public speaking, science projects, choir, drama and sports, just to name a few? Why bother having student debates if they only serve to disrupt studies?
Sadly, the perception of some parents, teachers or even students themselves is that participating in these events is only important if you get a certificate at the end of it which will help your chances for university entrance.
Among the objectives of the parliamentary style debate (which has in recent years replaced the older traditional style) is to shape students into future leaders with courage, understanding and discernment. Not only are their oratorical skills honed but students are challenged to think logically, rationally and spontaneously.
The fact that the teams themselves do not know until one hour before the debate whether they are on the Government (proposing) or Opposition side, makes it all the more challenging.
Besides style, strategy and eloquence, a strong intellectual grasp, maturity and depth of thinking are required in the understanding of pertinent issues.
A teacher who has judged numerous student debates told me, “One of the saddest things for me about debates is when I see students with so much potential and passion in their delivery and yet lacking in depth and substance. This is where the teacher-coach should come in. To help them with the content. But then again perhaps the teachers themselves are not very sure.....”
“The Information Highway should have more traffic lights” – that was the topic for the English debate finals. After the introductions and reading of rules, the battle of wits got under way with well-presented arguments and rebuttals flowing in from both sides.
“Look at the increasing rate of cyber crime,” said a speaker from SMK Sultan Abu Bakar, Kuantan. “Child pornography is on the rise, so is cyber stalking, hacking, defamation. The Information Highway is no longer safe for users. There should be more traffic lights.”
“Not so,” countered the opposition from SMK Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya. “It is not more traffic lights but more ethical users – people who abide by or adhere to cyber ethics. A motorist who chooses to beat one set of traffic lights is just as likely to beat the next one and the next. A million traffic lights won’t stop him.”
“The word ‘more’ is measured both qualitatively and quantitatively,” claimed the Government team.
And so it proceeded, argument against argument, rebuttal for rebuttal. P.O.I.’s (Points of Information) given, accepted, answered or denied.
But the most distinguishing feature throughout the entire debate was the composure of the debaters. Speeches were delivered persuasively and fluently and reflected keen perception and maturity of thought.
If indeed part of our national educational aspiration is to mould clear-thinking and far-sighted youths with mental poise and balance, then surely interschool debates provide the avenue and set the stage for their potential to be developed.
The well-deserved victory went to SMK Damansara Jaya, representing Selangor, who greeted the news with whoops of joy right there on stage.
Right after that, it was time for the Bahasa Melayu debate and the final showdown was between Perak and Sabah. This time SMK Agama Sultan Azlan Shah from Perak walked away with the challenge trophy.
Then the stage became a colourful fusion of well-choreographed zapin Johor and the official prize-giving and closing ceremony began.
In his closing speech, guest-of-honour Datuk Rashdi Ramlan, the ministry's deputy director-general (schools division), complimented the Johor Education Department on a job well done and the high level of organised efficiency.
“But, of course,” said Puan Sallina Hussain, state English language officer (whom I’m convinced wears a Superwoman suit under her baju kurung), “that’s the way the Johor Education Department does things. Everybody knows that. Our style, quality and excellence.....”
“SETA,” whispered Cheah. “Didn’t you listen between the lines of the Pengarah’s (director) speech. It was all there. Our wonderful timekeeping job, brilliant hosting of the semi-finals, our kulintang group. Even our rosettes..... He was praising us all the time.”
I had the opportunity to speak with some of the student participants and they were unanimous in their praise of support given to them by their schoolmates, teachers and parents.
“Perhaps too much support,” one of them said. “I truly appreciate my Dad but I wish he wouldn’t follow me for every debate. It makes me nervous sometimes.”
“How much of school lessons did you actually miss?” I asked.
“Negligible,” they said, adding that some of their teachers actually gave them extra coaching to make up for whatever they’d missed during training.
“All that research we had to do from the Net and various publications made us discover a lot of new things. Plus the experience – nothing beats the experience. Even when we don’t win.”
Perhaps, as Puan Sallina put it, “Each student who participated is a clear winner. The honour of having represented your school and state is no trifling matter. Tthe opportunity to come to J.B. and the exposure they have received are all in themselves growing experiences and something each of them would remember for a very long time.”
There is a whole lot more to education than scoring strings of A’s – a fact that sadly even educationists themselves sometimes overlook.
And the role of the teacher can never be overemphasised, especially in student competitions.
The teachers’ own attitudes and personal responses to situations and outcomes can make lasting impressions on the students under them and may even determine how these same students deal with success or failure in their lives.
It is an enormous thing really, to know that we have within us this power.
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