During secondary school, debate competitions were not really my favourite. Even though I did join quite a number of them including representing my school once, I never really liked them. Yes, they’re mostly entertaining especially to the audience as we get to watch lots of verbal attacks and counter-attacks between any two debating teams. Some are down right hilarious, while others can be plain boring. But most of the time, it’s entertaining to watch. Where else can you get that much amount of sarcasm?

But now that I think about it, I knew back then why I didn’t quite like those debate competitions. There’s a major flaw in the way those debate competitions are conducted, one that I believe deserves quite a serious attention.

You see, the way debate competitions are conducted in schools is that you have these pre-determined issues or topics for each round of debate. Then the two debating teams will then take a roll and see whether they got to champion the cause or reject it. This format is used in all the debate competitions I’ve seen and I’ve been in, and it’s not unlikely that this same format is used all over the country, in secondary schools and colleges and even universities everywhere.

And that is bad, because that format has a major flaw: there is no honesty in it.

That might sound a little harsh to say, but let me clarify. In those debate competitions, the teams never get to choose which cause to champion and which to reject. They are decided by chance. And once their side of the topic is chosen, they’re going to stick to it no matter what. To each of the debating teams, nothing else matters but to win that round of debate. Even if it goes against their beliefs.

Sure, some teams would be lucky to get the side of the topic that they honestly believe in. But most of the time, what they believe in doesn’t matter. All there is to that round of debate is to win it. The phrase “You’re right and I’m wrong” is literally and practically non-existent to any of these debating teams. Every single point the opponent raise in support of their cause is to be rejected and rebutted, no question asked, no deliberations considered. All that the members of each team think about is how to send the opponent’s points down the drain.

This might all seem harmless and the normal practice to do in these debate competitions. But the immediate effect of this format is that we’re teaching our youngsters to argue and debate in a non-constructive manner. We are telling them that when arguing, all they should care about is to win the argument. We are implicitly training them to never say “I’m wrong”. Just try and ask yourself honestly how difficult is it for you to admit that you’re wrong even in casual arguments with your friends, and you’ll get my point.

Yes, I realise that the major purpose of these debate competitions is to train students to be able to argue convincingly and to train their oratory skills, as well as to help them develop a mind that can respond quickly to new arguments and situations. But what good are these skills if there is no honesty to accompany it? These kids might one day be one of our country’s policy makers. We certainly don’t want them to just know how to win an argument. We want them to be able to do it with sound credibility, honesty, as well as moral and ethical conscience. What good is an excellent oratory skills if what you are preaching is not really what you believe in?

I know that it is difficult to conduct an inter-school or inter-university debate competitions that can allow the debaters to choose their own cause to debate upon. I honestly can’t think one format that will allow that and still maintain the orderly structure and order of a debate competitions with many teams and many participants. And so to preserve this orderly structure, we have to submit to this format with its damaging flaw.

Perhaps the original creators of this format realise this flaw in their design and reluctantly overlook it, all the while feeling in their hearts that they wish they can do better. And perhaps over the years as the old passes and the young replaces, this reluctance slowly diminishes and eventually is forgotten altogether.

What we can do for now, and what I ask our honest educators all over the country to do, is to at least tell our students right before any debate competition that this is not the way they should be debating, that in an honest discourse we should always be open to other people’s opinions and not closed to ours, that the purpose of a discussion or an argument is to come out of it being better informed, not just to win it.

But that’s going to be hard to do, because a few minutes later during the debate round those students will be doing the exact opposite.

Perhaps it’s time we all get together and think of something better.