Commanding the Issues

By Rehman Rashid


There were some great debaters during my time at Malay College. Although Sdr. Anwar Ibrahim, Sdr. Sanusi Junid and Sdr. Hishamuddin Rais had left by the time I got there, I grew up crossing intellectual swords with the likes of Sdr. Kamaruddin Jaafar, Sdr. Anuar Othman and Sdr. Sallehuddin Hashim. All of them as eloquent in Malay as in English, they all ranked among the best debaters the College ever produced.

They also went to become extremely successful men. Do you think there may be a connection? I believe there is. To be a successful debater, the most important thing is to see the side of any story. To be able to do this is to have command of the issue. With such command, it doesn’t matter which side you are on in the debate itself. Proposition or Opposition, it doesn’t matter. Debates are almost invariably won by the side that demonstrates greater command of the issue. Their arguments carry the more convincing weight.

US President Bill Clinton was a successful debater during his schooldays. It is said that he once argued one side of the question and won, then argued the opposing side and won. This is not that big a deal. I did it myself one, against the Royal Military College during our trip there for our annual games. Because of bad scheduling, the debate had to be cancelled at the last minute. The frustrated teams from both schools got together in a dorm to blow off steam. The topic isn’t relevant now. What mattered was that after nearly an hour of passionate discussion, they admitted that we had the better argument and accepted that we would have won the debate.

And then we pointed out the flaw in our argument. We had recognised our own weakness, and structured a whole position to conceal it. If they had seen it, they would have blown us away and won. But they didn’t see it. We had a better command of the issue and therefore we won both sides of the debate. It would have been good to have proven it in the battle onstage in front of our schoolmates, we were happy enough to have beaten them at tennis. (One of Sdr. Kamaruddin Abu Bakar’s greatest moments.)

I have never doubted that I owe my own career as a writer and journalist to what I learned as a debater for Mohd Shah and Malay College. I learned very early in life how interesting it is to examine any idea from opposing viewpoints, tackle any questions from many angles, fill in any spaces of any doubt. It led to a generalist approach to education; the idea that the object of leaning is to understand as much as possible, as much as possible.

I became that you might call an ‘information junkie’; the sort of person you have to play at Trivial Pursuit. It was fun to know things. But over the years, all the little bits of accumulated data began to arrange themselves into a world-view that has helped me to navigate through life in an interesting and rewarding way. I learned to put myself in other people’s skin, so to speak. I learned that you can never know enough, and that everyone you meet can teach you a part of what you need to know. And I learned to be cautious in exercising judgement; before you can hope to suggest to answers, you must first learn to ask the right questions.

And so did all those Old Boys named above. They would probably argue with a lot of what I’ve just said, but that’s just the way debaters are. We argue for the sheer fun of it, knowing the truth that has nothing to do with what the debate judges decide. Truth emerges from the contention of ideas. The more ideas contend, the more refined the truths that emerge. And nothing we’ve ever won or lost can match those we’ve played out in the privacy of our own minds.

There are many paths in life. There are many definitions if success. My Malay College contemporaries have all taken different roads to our respective destinies. Some are artists; others, academics. All are thinkers. But in our every different ways, we’re all part of the development and evolution of this country and our people. We’ll always have much to debate about, and we’ll probably always be proud of our differences, as we are of the Malay College heritage we all share.

On one thing, I’m sure we’d all agree. I f you want to achieve anything in life, it helps to be in command of the issues. The rest is show biz.


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