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The debate between UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt and MP Boris Johnson, who are both vying to become Britain’s next prime minister, on Tuesday. Debates have proven productive in nurturing a healthy democratic society. EPA PIC
The debate between UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt and MP Boris Johnson, who are both vying to become Britain’s next prime minister, on Tuesday. Debates have proven productive in nurturing a healthy democratic society. EPA PIC

AS Malaysia is seeking to reduce the voting age, not all are convinced that it is such a good idea. One of the primary reasons for those who are unsure seems to revolve around the question of “(im)maturity”.

Some have cited the tendency to merely “go with the flow” without much self-reflection in arriving at a certain position. The current trend exhibited through social media has been used to justify the above allegation.

In any case, it is perhaps an academic question as there seems to be a consensus among the major political parties involved to vote for the lowering of age. So it is better to look for solutions rather then create more “uncertainty” and “anxiety”.

One way that has proven effective is to raise the level of confidence among potential young voters. That is, encouraging them to speak their mind on things that matter to them and their community.

It also means that they are “enculturated” to be aware of “credible” sources of information as points of reference in contrast to the current tendency to go for what is conveniently available; to further articulate the issue according to the context and values that one holds dear, and eventually communicating it to others in a convincing and ethical way.

A mere click on the “like” symbol or otherwise is no longer enough. In fact, such “habits” breed the converse, namely, remaining “timid” and “insipid” which is exactly what the problem is all about.

Fortunately, such habits can be remoulded by grooming new habits using debating as the platform because it can provide the platform needed to build the necessary self-confidence leading to the desired “maturity” over a period of time.

Last week, the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) did exactly the same thing when it organised the 17th National Interschool Debating Championship at the Gombak campus. More than 100 teams from 53 secondary schools of various types participated, including from a neighbouring country.

More than that, the competition cut across three languages: Bahasa Malaysia (26 teams), Arabic (32 teams) and English (52 teams). Almost 400 debaters were involved and some 72 teachers were present. Among others, the aim was to help potential schools develop active debate programmes by sharing IIUM’s expertise in debate and oratory activities.

Grants were also provided upon meeting some stated criteria, namely, participation in any two categories of debate, the involvement of at least one teacher who has basic understanding and exposure to debates and public speaking programmes and have consistently participated in any national debate tournaments previously.‎

No doubt this a unique initiative being Malaysia’s first and only interschool debate competition that opens its participation to all debaters from various types of schools: residential/boarding schools, Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSM), government aided religious schools (Sekolah Agama Bantuan Kerajaan), daily schools and even private ones.

It is also unique for being the first interschool debate competition using the power match (Swiss) method, which is akin to most inter-varsities debate competitions nationally as well as internationally. It is also the only tournament that applies two different debate formats, namely; Asian-parliamentary debate for the Bahasa Malaysia and Arabic language categories, and British-parliamentary debate for the English category.

In short, such variability allows for a wider exposure for debaters to experience, which in turn builds a more robust level of confidence and maturity. Added to this were motivation sessions with IIUM alumni through debate workshops conducted to facilitate knowledge transfer in the three languages. All these sought to enable the debaters to undergo the most challenging school debate championship where each team is required to debate at least four rounds in the preliminaries, before qualifying for the knockout round.

Moreover, the debate motions were only released to the debaters 30 minutes before the debate began. The motions were critical as well as diverse, encompassing social, political, economic and international topics thus training the debaters to think on their feet on a wide range of issues. At the end of it all, they were provided with constructive and positive feedback from the adjudicators to further improve themselves in the future.

Overall, for more than a decade this exercise has proven productive in nurturing a healthy democratic society beginning at the very school level where good habits and citizenry are more easily groomed. Especially as a preferred co-curriculum activity other than the conventional ones — culture and sports.

Even then debating is not mutually exclusive because most “debate” is with the “self” no matter what they are doing at the time. Meaning the art of debating is more relevant than what is normally regarded as in terms of just competition and championship.

By turning Malaysia into a “debating nation” the future will not only be brighter — where the younger generation are more critical and analytical in arriving at decisions that are crucial in meeting the challenges of the 21st century and beyond — but, more importantly, it is a viable passage to a more mature democracy and politics surpassing what is currently deemed as “mediocre” at best.

So, let us debate!‎

The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector

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