Debating their way to world title
By Andrew Loh
(1. They left out my name! =( )(2. They edited too much! My version is so much better. TheStar's version is too choppy.)
It was a glorious day for Malaysia as International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) was crowned champion of the English as a Second Language (ESL) category at the 27th World Universities Debating Championship held at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, Canada.
Tasneem (left) and Suhaib outclassed teams from the National Law School of India University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Stockholm School of Economics to win the title.
The ESL finals saw Tasneem Elias and Suhaib Hassan gracefully outclassing teams from the National Law School of India University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Stockholm School of Economics.
Individually, Suhaib was also the overall best ESL speaker, while Tasneem came in fourth place. Tasneem was also a finalist at the Public Speaking Competition held concurrently with the debating tournament.
"It is an amazing feeling; being overwhelmed by joy and achievement at this level," said Tasneem, a Sudanese who has lived in Malaysia since young. "It's time to celebrate!"
Suhaib, an al-Bukhary Foundation scholar from Kashmir, concurred. "We want to share this euphoria with our team mates and university who have never stopped supporting us in our endeavours, no matter how challenging it got."
The World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC), or more commonly known as "Worlds", is the largest international student debating tournament in the world. It uses the British Parliamentary style of debating, with four teams of two speakers in each debate. Traditionally, the top 32 teams "break" into the octofinals, while the top eight ESL teams which do not make the main break have their separate ESL semifinals.
In the main break, the University of Sydney defeated Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Queensland in the Grand Finals.
The tournament was the largest in history with the participation of more than 1000 debaters and adjudicators. This is the second time Malaysia has held the ESL title, with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia winning it in 2005.
What makes team IIUM's accomplishment even more awe-inspiring is the fact that none of them had debating experience before going to university. The duo earned their gifts of the gab through plain, hard work.
"Training was intense," explained Suhaib. "For at least a few weeks before every tournament, the IIUM debate team would meet every day from after dinner until midnight for drills. Sometimes we also had to forgo our weekends to train."
Tasneem added, "Our friends sometimes laughed at us for having no social lives. While they were going out to movies or doing other fun things like island-hopping, we would be slogging at our sessions."
The debaters now reap the fruits of their labour. In addition to a plethora of other achievements, they finished second at the Royal Malaysian Intervarsity Debating Championship 2006. Suhaib was also the ESL Champion for the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championship in 2005. Winning the World ESL Championship is now the culmination of their debating career.
"We are forever indebted to our trainers, Azrul Izzam bin Kamarul Zaman and Mohammed Abdul Latif, for the grand amount of time, effort and energy they have sacrificed for us. Our laurels are their laurels. I hereby bestow upon Mr. Latif the title 'eternal godfather of Malaysian debate'. All hail," said Tasneem cheekily.
"We also would not be here without the support of IIUM," added Suhaib. "The fact that our university sponsored our expenses to the tournament in Canada shows that our current management takes debating seriously. They understand the importance of debate in sharpening a student's skills in critical thinking and communication, and for willing to invest in this international opportunity, we thank them."
Only five Malaysian universities were at UBC Worlds 2007: IIUM, Universiti Sains Malaysia (ESL semifinalists), Multimedia University, Universiti Teknologi MARA, and Kolej Universiti Teknologi Tun Hussein Onn. More teams are expected next year as Assumption University, Thailand hosts WUDC 2008.
"This victory is due recognition indeed," said Coach Latif. "It presents Malaysia as a debating powerhouse, and at the same time promotes the Malaysian education system. It showcases Malaysian talent, par excellence, on the world stage."
IIUM's triumph has by no means weakened their drive to succeed. Their next objective is to make it to the main break in coming WUDC's.
"Before we flew off to Canada, the Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Sri Najib Tun Razak told us to 'make a splash' for Malaysia," explained Tasneem. "I believe we've succeeded. This win is our gift to Malaysia."
The debaters also understand the importance of creating a sustainable debating culture by targeting young Malaysians. Suhaib is part of an IIUM program that trains debaters weekly at Sekolah Berasrama Penuh Integrasi (SBPI) Gombak.
"Malaysian children are really excited when it comes to debating," observed Suhaib. "They already do it very well in Malay, so we are exposing them to English debate from an early age. Hopefully, they will be better than us in a few years' time."
Tasneem agreed. "Debate can be a very helpful tool in education as well. It exposes children from young to things besides the Backstreet Boys and fashion. Debaters are forced to learn about the outside world and to keep up with current events."
To this ends, IIUM is organising its fifth Interschool Debating Championship in April 2007 for secondary schools. The participants will be in good hands, as they will be taught by the same world-class coaches who trained Suhaib and Tasneem.
"We hope to attract more public schools this time, as most of the participating teams were from residential schools in previous years," said Coach Latif. "Past tournaments have been great successes with plenty of talent unearthed, and this year's should see even more potential."
"We also hope that this international recognition of Malaysian talent will promote a greater level of participation by Malaysian universities and schools in all debating competitions.
Although we have a strong presence in the international university debating circuit, Malaysia is absent in the World Schools Debating Championships. I think that given the strong showing of our teams at WUDC's, Malaysian secondary school students should also be given the opportunity to excel at the international stage. After all, many of the best debaters of the world have formerly participated in the World Schools Debating Championships.
The writer represented Swarthmore College as an adjudicator at UBC WUDC 2007. For more information about the IIUM Interschool Debating Championship, visit http://www.iiu.edu.my/spice/schooldebate/index.htm.