This House Will Defend the Debaters

An eloquent riposte to the recent controversy over a local varsity debate on the papal seat.

“This House Opposes Sharia”

“This House Believes That Allah Is For Everyone”

“This House Believes That People Should Interpret Sharia and Not Ulamas”

“This House Believes That We Should Have A Female Mufti”

“This House Believes That Halal Meat Production Is Against Animal Rights”

“This House Believes That Praying Halls in Mosques Should Be Desegregated”

“This House Believes That Polygamy Should Be Banned Despite Religious Approval”


Ladies and Gentlemen,

If we were to compare the above list of motions that we debaters have often debated in Malaysian varsities and schools (yes, Malaysian varsities) to “This House Would Let The People And Not The Cardinals To Elect The Pope” – the ‘papacy debate’ is as tame as a fluffy bunny.

Yes, we debaters debated over religious issues. We, Malaysian debaters who come from all walks of life, creed, race, political beliefs and universities. Conservative Muslims, staunch Catholics, traditionalist Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and liberals of all faiths – have debated over all these issues and argued for all sides. We abide by the rules and the Constitution. We adhere to our faiths and respect one another. But when it comes to debate, we debate.  Can we do that? Yes, we can. It was so mentioned in the constitution. Did we do that in our campuses? Yes, we did. Surprised? Don’t be.

The controversial piece | Source: The Star, 24th March 2013

The main issue with the recent brouhaha caused by an article that was published in The Star on 24th March 2013 is this: our ultra-conservative society is still unable to stomach the fact that a group of Muslim students debating about the throne of St Peter – or, in essence, a group of people from a different faith discussing yours. To certain Catholics, it is rude and perhaps blasphemous for a group of non-Catholics to be arguing over who can best lead the Church. To certain Muslims, it is unacceptable for these young Muslim minds to be exposed to Christianity at such an early age.

To the Catholics who were offended, I ask you this: would your narrative of the whole event be different if the motion was debated by Catholics only? To the Muslims who were offended, I ask this: are we not allowed to learn from those of different faiths in a civilized manner?

I see no reason for anyone to be offended by the debate. Rather, I am offended that such putrid and offensive words were thrown at a group of aspiring debaters who had the courage to debate and argue such a motion. In the most typical Malaysian narrative, the issue is at once ‘politicised’. The ‘tudung clad’ girls are deemed ‘UMNO-bred students’, while the motion is seen as a ‘charge against Christianity’. Malaysian debaters as well as debaters around the globe could only cringe at such words. We debaters have debated over those issues, and we see such hatred as a breach against our freedom of speech. We sincerely believe that our right to debate should be defended and not presented as ‘fear or hate mongering divisive arguments’.

Debate is an intellectual discourse that transcends all divisions – religious, political and national. True, not all debaters get their facts right in their arguments, but why should that stop them from an intellectual discourse where they would eventually learn what and where they have gone wrong in the first place? Mind you, we are discussing about school and varsity debaters here. After all, having wrong or distorted facts has never stopped our YBs from arguing in the so-called august house.

As far as I am concerned, these school and varsity debaters have more substance and style as compared to those tub-thumping clowns we call YBs. Debates in schools and varsities are about the battle of intellectual prowess, and the ability to showcase your talent and knowledge in current issues, global affairs, politics, religious issues and of course, your oratory skills. You don’t debate to get a group of people to support you. Nor do you debate to get people incensed and whack one another because the bottom line is this: a debate is supposed to be an intellectual discourse for the public to judge and observe how different arguments clash. As compared to our politicians’ speeches that drive people to hysteria – ala Munich in 1933 – these debates are done with proper decorum with everyone, including the debaters, showing respect towards one another. And we debaters are proud to tell you that we have maintained our decorum even when the issues presented to us were more contentious than ‘the papacy debate’.

Secondly, debate is the only avenue where students are allowed to express themselves beyond the ever watchful eyes of university authorities and school disciplinary boards. Bear in mind that all these sensitive issues are not to be discussed in schools and universities, despite the fact that these places are dubbed as intellectual platforms. Yet there are still a number of students with the itch to discuss on these bold issues. These are the students who have the urge to argue, dissect and elaborate on these issues beyond the headlines. These are the students who would eventually understand issues in the newspapers beyond the ever twisted headlines and biased deliberations.

The fact that these debaters are able to argue – regardless of the level of arguments – over such ‘sensitive’ topics behind closed doors or in special forums such as the debate club, brings much relief to them. Bear in mind that these are the minds with the potential to bring us out of the cycle of fanaticism we face in Malaysia. And the shoving of authorities in to this avenue marks the beginning of an end for what is left for students’ freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, I think the main issue here is the perceived discrimination felt by Catholics specifically, and non-Muslims generally over the debate. Here, my Catholic friends and debaters, as well as a host of non-Muslim debaters, could testify that ‘Islam’ or issues pertaining Muslims are always up for debate. In fact, issues pertaining the Muslim world or Islamic faith have always been favourite topics among debaters. We have argued against the hijab, against Palestinian freedom and against sharia in our debates, and these debates are conducted here, right here in Malaysia. We have never heard of International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) shying away or objecting to such debates (but they do shy away from nightclubs for ‘break nights’ … Astaga!).

Nor does the UiTM debate team (commonly known among debating communities in Malaysia as the “UT MARA”) ever do that. To quote a Catholic friend of mine, “To put this situation into perspective, I’ve debated against the formation of an Islamic state that imposes Sharia Law in IIU (International Islamic University) with Muslim audiences and I didn’t see people posting stuff on Facebook.  The key over debating such issues is by trying to deliberate such topics in a non-offensive manner, which I believe the girls did.” (Okay, now some Muslims are going to hate the debaters. Oy, vey! You cannot really please everyone!)

As I and my fellow debaters are cognisant of, we have debated for and against Islamic principles, Catholic dogmas, secular senses and other religious or sensitive issues where we argued with passion without bias for a brief 30 minutes. My colleagues and staff who witnessed a varsity debate voiced out their displeasure over the fact that some debaters were criticizing Islamic principles. My response was simple,

In an intellectual discourse, it is not about mocking a religion or discrediting them but rather the deliberation of the opposing views that such topics bring.

Such a revelation is rather shocking to our community – Muslims or Catholics.

Is the Catholic community in Malaysia the only one harbouring such attitudes? No, I don’t think so. By and large most Malaysians have that attitude due to their misconception of what goes on in the debating community. If it is a group of skirt-wearing Chinese girls arguing against ‘female genital mutilation’ or ‘polygamy’, I can assure you that our dear Ibrahim Ali will walk down the streets shouting insults against those debaters. And I doubt certain leaders would just sit still if the students in the picture were instead arguing against the caste system.

It boils down once again to our society’s disregard for the debating culture and community. We are seen and deemed as a group of students who would only argue for what the government allows us to argue. We are deemed as those who argue with information provided us by government mouthpieces. Or rather, we are deemed as tools for the opposition to reach out to students.

I am sorry, but you are wrong.

We are just a group of people who argue over issues which we believe are of importance, or over issues which we cannot argue or discuss freely in our society. Pretentious? Maybe. But at least we are no pseudo-intellectuals who would fan the public to vilify or deify certain individuals or groups. The most damage that can possibly be brought by us debaters is to ‘wreck our own brains’.

One thing I urge the public to understand is this: in the debating community, we may argue over religious, political or national issues – but we never let our emotions take over. So, before you point your fingers at us for being anti-Catholic or anti-this-and-that, bear in mind that you may be pointing at the only group of people amongst our new generation who could argue over ‘so-called sensitive issues’ without coming to blows.

There, I’ve ranted enough. Now I need my sleep. Cheers.

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A maverick of his own brand! A wanderlust, debater and a workaholic; he wishes time has a reset button. Although non conformist in attitude, he accepts conformity as being one of the norms of a human being.

Posted on 25 March 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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