I recently attended a reunion of my Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) Bahasa Malaysia debating team.
It’s always good to see old friends again but this gathering was extra special given what a closely-knit group we were.
We won the Prime Minister’s Trophy in 1999, being the fourth MCKK BM team to do so.
The team which featured Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah won it in 1980 while PKR strategic director Rafi zi Ramli was part of the MCKK team which won it twice in 1992 and 1993.
The gathering reminded me of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s refusal to debate Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
In June, Najib responded to Anwar’s challenge to debate saying:
“We will look at the situation. If there needs to be a debate between the leaders, then a debate will be held.
But it is not part of our political culture as a whole.
“Most importantly the rakyat has adequate information (in) making a decision.
“And we will provide political parties the opportunity to broadcast their respective manifestos when the time comes.”
It strikes me as ironic that while the prime minister claims debates are not part of our culture, his father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, had established the Prime Minister’s Trophy as a debating contest for fully-residential schools in 1974 at his alma mater, MCKK.
Najib has no qualms attacking Anwar. Yet, when Najib had the opportunity to confront Anwar directly, he did not show up.
The opposition leader was present when the prime minister unveiled the budget, but Najib and almost the entire cabinet were absent when it was Anwar’s turn.
If Anwar was such a bad finance minister, why didn’t they at least turn up in full force to hold Anwar to account?
In fact, if Anwar truly is not a factor in Malaysian politics, now is the chance for Najib to expose this.
The only time Anwar was allowed to be live on national television since his removal was when he debated Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Shabery Cheek on the oil price hike in 2008. But it was quite unfair for Shabery, to be forced to debate the opposition leader.
If debate is not part of our culture, then why did that debate take place in the first place?
How do these critics of debates explain our Parliament’s robust tradition of debate from the times of Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Dr Zulkifly Mohamad, Ahmad Boestamam and Dr Tan Chee Khoon?
If debate is not part of our culture, then why did Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek debate Lim Guan Eng?
The truth is, Malaysians want their leaders to debate and deliberate. While the world might focus on the US presidential debates, it is now widely accepted as part and parcel of democracies: the United Kingdom, Egypt, Indonesia and Japan, among others, all have debates.
In March, the Merdeka Center reported that 54 per cent of Malaysians, including an overwhelming 75 per cent of young Malay voters want an Anwar-Najib debate to be held.
Among fence-sitters, 62 per cent of them want a debate to help them decide on which leader is best for Malaysia.
This brings me back to school debates. Recently we saw Batang Kali Assemblyman Mohd Isa Abu Kasim slapped with a RM1,000 fine for uttering a sexist remark in the Selangor State Assembly, when he asked executive councillor Elizabeth Wong to jangan sampai terlupa jaga hutan sendiri (not to forget to mind her own forest).
In 2007, Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin attracted condemnation when, in response to criticism on the Parliament’s frequent roof leaks, stated that Batu Gajah MP Fong Po Kuan too “leaked” every month.
When I took part in the debate in support of the motion to fine Isa I recalled that I never encountered such crude, disgusting remarks while I was debating for my school. Such language is certainly not part of our culture.
I remember many debaters had ambitions to be politicians while they were at school, but maybe it is politicians like these that could learn a thing or two from school debaters?