THE EVENT was the Sixth Manchester Intellectual Debate (MID). The experience was both entertaining and refreshing, leaving me exhilarated to find that public speaking was truly well and alive among our students.
The exchange between the competing teams and the manner arguments were delivered had left me with so much to think about during the train journey back to London.
It brought me back to the days when I used to tag along with my big sister to watch her stand before an audience and speak with so much conviction and confidence. I had always been in awe of people who could do that — stand in front of an audience of more than 10 and not have their knees turn into jelly with memory that decided to go awol.
Prior to her public speaking forays in town halls and schools in our area, my sister had weeks, if not months of preparation; she jotted down notes on pieces of papers, practising with punching the air in front of the mirror and voice projection in the bathroom.
It was during Bulan Bahasa Kebangsaan, leading to the Merdeka celebration.
Whizzing through effortlessly, representing our school in the small town of Yen in Kedah, my sister managed to reach the state-level competition, bringing back a trophy for being the runner-up in public speaking.
We duly went to the studio to have our picture taken to remind us of this victory.
Yen, in my mind then, was indeed the place to learn public speaking.
The town, at the best of times were full of men from our neighbouring country, selling traditional medicines retrieved from the jungles.
They could talk and talk, and sell coal to Newcastle. Yen, in the 1960s, also provided the political backdrop to a small community of exiled Acehnese, who marched and spoke with such gusto against the first President of Indonesia Sukarno.
We used to hang around and hear their fiery speeches to “Ganyang Sukarno”.
Political awareness unwittingly seeping in, I was suitably impressed to hear them speak.
The next time I was suitably impressed was when I watched the debate between Khairy Jamaluddin, the present youth and sports minister, and PKR’s Rafizi Ramli at a students’ event in London some years ago.
The audience was mesmerised, as the exchange between the two took place with such clarity and confidence, minus personal spats and emotional elements that were expected from two political figures from different ends of the political spectrums.
Those were the skills that I found impressive and rare. I took a lot back from the experience and I believe many others in the audience, too.
MID, organised by Malaysian university students in the United Kingdom, offered the only platform for intellectual competition among Malaysian students in the UK, giving them the opportunity to discuss critical issues related to nation building.
This commendable event and many other activities supported by the Education Ministry, such as the Malaysian Initiative held in Cardiff a month before this, certainly helped in promoting analytical and critical thinking among the students and instilling the culture of respecting and acknowledging different views and ideas.
We were gathered in the Students Union Hall for the finals between two teams debating in English and two teams debating in Malay.
The finalists had been at it for two days, with the preparation started in October last year.
Coming right after what was an emotional and frustrating experience at the People’s Tribunal on the fate of the Rohingya in Myanmar, I was delighted to hear the different views being debated by the English team on Asean’s non-interventionist policy.
Much was said about why members of Asean had kept a distance from saying or doing anything about the fate befalling the Rohingya.
The opposition, with speakers from Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE), needless to say, stole the show from the beginning as they methodically and strategically demolished the motion proposed by the “government” party from Team UCL that Asean’s non-Interventionist policy had served more harm than good.
The Cambridge LSE team, in their black suits against the black backdrop of the stage, certainly out to impress, put up a very impressive fight to win, compared with the more casually dressed government team.
And, win they did, taking back with them the coveted High Commissioner’s Challenge Trophy and £500 (RM2,750)!
The judges were in the unenviable position of choosing the best speaker for, indeed, there were a few from both teams.
This year, the Best Speaker for the individual round for the English category went to Thevesh Theva, an Economics student at the University of Cambridge.
I guess it came as no surprise as Thevesh was indeed blessed with the gift of the gab.
Googling him, I found a young Thevesh, head full of hair, being honoured as the Audience Choice World Champion for the English Speaking Union International Public Speaking Competition in London in 2013.
He was one of the six finalists in the annual competition and had engaged the audience with his impressive content and delivery as well as having the audience and the judges in stitches with his wit.
Four years and minus hair later, Thevesh held court once again in Manchester.
“It was an enjoyable experience, being able to discuss ideas with some great, great competitors,” said Thevesh, who stressed that lots of reading and researching were crucial to win points.
He added that the training to become debaters was done over years and years of engaging in the activities, developing the style and learning to disagree respectfully.
“Debating is a way of life. You gradually grow into it, but never really master it fully because there is always something new to learn,” he added.
“We were debaters at Kolej Tuanku Jaafar,” said Imran Mateo, a law student.
“When you read the news, you think you know it, but when you debate the finer points of the issues, then you realise what’s happening,” said Aaron Luke, who had been debating since he was 15 at SMK Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya.
“We had trainers and coaches and the alumni of the school would do it from the goodness of their heart.
“They teach you to argue and challenge ideas.”
The championship for the Bahasa Malaysia category went to the Team Manchester A: Mohd Syafiq Zolkeply, Amirul Asyraf Ahmad Sabri, Anand Phraseart Ma Noon and Muhammad Muhammad Mahdi.
Being the opposition, they gave plausible arguments against the motion “TN50 Bukan Suatu Madah Berhelah”.
According to Anand, a Mechatronic Engineering student at the University of Manchester, who won the Best Speaker prize for Bahasa Malaysia, he was contacted two months ago to join the team.
“I did not know them before this, but we had training via Skype,” he said.
Khairy would be proud of these winners and the rest of the debating teams in this year’s MID. He had said the culture of debating was the way forward.
It was indeed encouraging to note that Malaysia had a vibrant debating community amongst the student population, with some of them making headlines and the country proud for being champions on the international stage.