The Different Meanings of Debate

by Gareth Lim • Singapore

The following article was written on behalf of Team Singapore. It discusses the meaning of debate for the author, and his thoughts on the debate community in his country.

Since the age of thirteen, debating has been a core part of my identity, with debate training and tournaments being the highlights of my week. In many ways, debating, for better or for worse, has shaped the person that I am today. 

Like many debaters, I joined debating as an obnoxious preteen, desperate to have an opportunity to express myself and deploy the vast stores of useless information that swam around my mind. (Sport was and still is not an option.) By the time my fourteenth birthday came around, I was a dedicated debater, signing myself up for as many tournaments as possible, practicing my debate skills at the worst possible times while hogging the TV to watch debate videos. (Much to the chagrin of my parents, teachers and former friends.)

Reflecting on my younger years, I realise that debating had taken on a rather toxic role in my life. It was a surrogate for the many things for which I yearned: an opportunity to show my “brilliance”; a means to feel superior to my peers; but worse of all, it became a crutch upon which my fragile sense of self worth lay.  You see, I hail from a country and a circuit that is highly competitive, where every event is an opportunity to one up your peers and where the difference between “winners” and “losers” is very stark. It is only in Singapore where, after every single round of debate that, along with the winning team, the adjudicator announces the “best speaker” of each round.  This faux prize remains much coveted by school debaters across my country. Of course, I do not blame an entire circuit for the way that debate has been perceived by its own participants. But a circuit is made up of the people within it, and it would be misleading to say that the way that many treat debating has not created a self-perpetuating cycle of competitiveness.  

This explains a lot of the rather inane and strange behaviour that I engaged in, such as  repeatedly checking Facebook pages for the release of tabs after a tournament, and comparing my position and scores with my peers before loudly bemoaning that “one judge” who I felt ruined my ranking. In many ways this behaviour was symptomatic of a larger problem: that debating (and my performance in it) represented my entire world.  A bad speech represented much more than what it really was; it represented a monumental failure as a person, rather than an opportunity to learn and grow. Debating soon became a justification for skipping school work and for poor grades because it became the lens through which I viewed myself.

As I grew up, I was introduced to other experiences and many people who showed me the errors of my ways.  Obviously, I still sometimes suffer from lapses into my previous mental state. But I have begun to see debating as what it truly is — a fun activity where I can explore issues in depth and meet some rather amazing people.  If you think about it, debating is a rather strange and specific activity, with questionable utility in other domains of life. It is genuinely a thankless task, with hundreds of hours of effort boiled down to a single award that means nothing to the average person. Yes, debating does train critical thinking, general knowledge and might even be useful for university applications but those are probably not the reasons for which most debaters take part.

So why do I still do it? In many ways, debating is very similar to chess.  They are both mental sports that lend little practical benefit once taken extremely seriously. But both can be incredibly meaningful and fun for their participants. I genuinely enjoy the cut and thrust of a debate, the way that logic and strategy combine to create an incredibly enjoyable experience. It sounds rather nerdy to say this, but I still experience a sense of the sublime everytime I hear a case that takes into account every moving part of a debate.  

It might sound cheesy, but what makes debating meaningful to me is not the outcome, but the journey. Debate has gifted me many of my closest friends and a team that means the world to me. The discipline and rigour that is required to improve in debate has proved to be intrinsically valuable in my growth as a person and the satisfaction in making steady improvement is without equal. The line between growth and over-toxic competitiveness is extremely thin, however, and I feel that the best way to distinguish the two is that the former is focused on self-betterment and -improvement as ends in themselves. 

It is important to acknowledge the immense luck and privilege in enjoying so many opportunities for growth. Singapore has an extremely lively debate circuit at every level, with many national tournaments and communities of incredible people supporting them.  Of course, no country is perfect, and Singapore, like many other societies, continues to struggle with inequality in our debating scene. Having built a relatively strong debating culture at the top levels, our challenge is now to ensure that those opportunities are available to all. And this is a challenge to which I’m sure we will rise. I say this not to bemoan the status quo, but because as one of the lucky few who have the honour of flying the flag of Singapore, it is important to me that as many people as possible get the opportunities that I had.  

Debating has meant many things to me over the years and remains to mean a lot to me.  My journey as a debater has had many ups and downs, loaded some of my greatest triumphs and worst regrets. But despite the countless weekends I have lost, I have never once regretted being a debater, because to deny debating would be to deny the very person that I am today.