The Great Debate?

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Dodging questions and launching personal attacks are not the hallmarks of a great debater. Wong Soak Koon  looks back and reflects on the great oil price debate and laments its lack of quality. 

I shall confess to not being overly excited when I heard that Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek had taken up the gauntlet to debate with Parti Keadilan Rakyat adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. There is such a great gap between the two in terms of articulateness and thinking.

Besides, anyone on the government side will inevitably be constrained by the need to be defensive at all costs whether the issue is the fuel price hike or whatever. Logic and critical thinking, even if one has these qualities, are often thrown to the winds of political needs. A veteran Malaysian minister would have been less eager to take part in that public debate as there is a lot to lose.   

As any schoolteacher who has trained debating teams will tell you, emotions have to be controlled so that a debater can retain clear-thinking and the ability to take up the opponent’s questions squarely and confidently, if they are important. Simply ignoring relevant questions just won’t do.

The Minister chose not to answer a question asked by the gentleman appointed by Anwar’s side on how the government intends to improve public transportation with the recent huge fuel price increase when, after the last increase some time ago, nothing much was done. This was a missed opportunity to answer logically and convincingly.

We, the watching and listening public, were left in a “nganga” state , that is, in open-mouth disappointment as there was no reply.

Not answering such a central question makes the public doubt if there is a well thought out plan to improve public transportation at all or worse, we wonder if indeed there is the political will to do so.

One must not get personal

As any debater worth his salt should know, one must not get personal. I read in The Star (17 July 2008 ) that the Information Minister claims he did not “personally attack the former deputy Prime Minister”. Shabery is quoted as saying: “Personal attacks would be more about criticising what he likes, his clothes or his face.” It is quite amazing to see how narrowly the Minister defines the word “personal”. And yet, with clear inconsistency, he takes offence with Anwar’s one brief reference to his involvement in Semangat  46. If we apply the Information Minister’s own logic, then he shouldn’t care about this brief reference at all. In fact the “personal” has wider implications than the Minister’s definition.

Any good debater will know how wasteful of time it is (and time is always short in debates) to dredge up old, old scenes especially if these are not really related to the issue at hand but are meant to discredit an opponent. Shabery need not spend time going all the way back to Anwar’s undergraduate days to trace the latter’s dissenting role. If Shabery thought that this history discredited Anwar’s credibility as a leader, he may well be wrong. Shabery may instead have enhanced his opponent’s status.

It would have been far more useful if the Information Misister had done his homework and used the time to provide convincing statistics and information on the fuel price hike and the economic situation in our nation. It is simply a waste of time to give us a long list of Anwar’s roles as a person who dissents.

“Where has the key theme gone?”, the audience and public will ask, as their earlier eagerness to get answers is quickly dissipated. A debate should be the place to stick to the issue at hand.

The Malaysian citizenry today are more politically savvy and can judge for themselves both incumbent and opposition claims. They are more aware of what good leadership and good governance must mean in actions that affect  their everyday lives.

In fact, any personal attack on an opponent in a debate , as all debate-trainers will testify, has the opposite effect of creating empathy for the opponent. I guess, as teachers, we can train our schoolchildren but whether they grow up to be fair-minded or not depends on them.

Such public debates, if there are to be more of them, and they are aired on TV, will be the most ho-hum (boring) affair if there is no improvement in the quality of the content and delivery and if the two sides are not balanced in terms of calibre.

In retrospect, I should have watched one of my well-liked programmes on TV that evening instead of that first-of-its-kind live public debate on the fuel price hike. I should have chosen to watch the story of a forensic expert which aired at the same time as the debate. At least, in that story, the forensics would have been worth my time!

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