Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Debating democracy

Published: Jul 14, 2007

School debaters struggle against social norms to promote change.

Nick Long

In December 2005, 96 schoolchildren from 32 provinces gathered in a Jakarta hotel - and argued. This was the Indonesian Schools Debating Championships (ISDC), a quest to find the national champions. The ISDC is the annual highlight of competitive debating, one of the newest and most important facets of Indonesian education.

In Indonesia, competitive debates, which are held in English, follow the Asian/Australasian standard format. Two teams of three persons propose and oppose a specified policy or philosophical position. Each speaker must respond to their opponents as well as advancing the substantive basis of argument for their team. The progression of the argument is tightly structured, marking a move away from the ‘indigenous’ form of debating, debat kusir - a free-for-all that readily gets sidetracked. ‘Debat kusir is just awful,’ complains one lecturer at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. ‘It is worse than useless. It has no clear objectives, no structure: it’s a mess.’

It was the structure and focus necessitated by competitive debating that made it appealing to its Indonesian founders - a group of students at the University of Indonesia in the late 1990s. They were inspired by an enthusiasm for democratic reform following the fall of Suharto, coupled with a growing frustration with street protesting. ‘It seemed they wanted to demonstrate for demonstrating’s sake, rather than effecting actual change,’ says one of the pioneers, ‘so I thought debating might be a good way to prompt reform and awareness of issues amongst Indonesians.’

Such a bold political objective risked appearing subversive to educational authorities. To make debating less risky, students stressed the activity’s ability to improve fluency in spoken English, the language of almost all international competitions. This logic sold debating to many educators and students, who saw a command of English as a passport to success in the future. However, it also created a brooding ambiguity over what debating is for.

Debating citizenship

The manual for ISDC 2005 described the tournament’s objectives as including the promotion of analytical thinking, teamwork, and respecting differences of opinion. Pains were taken to ensure that adjudication of the debates relied on accurate and objective assessment of the arguments put forward, how well they were explained, and whether they defeated the opposing team.

Under such circumstances, the setting of a debate topic can be a subversive act of civic education in itself. This year, students were asked to discuss topics such as the new draft of the criminal code (which restricts kissing in public and cohabitation before marriage) and virginity pledges as a condition of graduating from senior high school. Outside debating it is taboo - or at least impolite - to talk about these issues so candidly.

Could it be that Indonesian debates are just too feisty? Several politicians invited to watch high school debates have criticised the ‘overly aggressive’ tone of the speeches. For the ardent debaters, this merely reflects a broader problem in Indonesian politics - the woeful deficiency of debate or opposition within the workings of the government. Prast, a student in Yogyakarta, was especially scathing of the recent presidential election. ‘There were several debates between the presidential candidates,’ he explained, ‘but because there is no tradition of structured debate in Indonesia, none of the candidates had any debating ability. As a debater, I found it an embarrassment.’

For debating’s politically motivated proponents, the potential debating has for social change is one of its greatest benefits. But elsewhere, debates are conducted rather differently. In many schools, adjudication is overwhelmingly concerned with correct language and fluent delivery, as opposed to the content of the speeches. This is a particular problem in vocational schools, where debating occupies a prominent position in the national syllabus. There, it is a means of improving English and developing students’ knowledge of current affairs, not a way of improving skills in critical analysis.

Teachers are often very enthusiastic about debating, but they are also notorious for letting their own opinions on a topic override assessment of anything the students have said. When teachers intervene like this, there is no ‘respecting differences of opinion’, and certainly no challenging of orthodoxies. Indeed, often a debate may be ‘set up’ or scripted to ensure that a particular side wins the argument. This happened to Tommy, a vocational college student from Palembang. He had to debate whether Indonesian women should go abroad to enter beauty contests if this meant wearing revealing swimsuits of the kind they would never wear in Indonesia. The teacher had made it clear that the answer should be ‘no’. The exercise was to demonstrate this through a process of debate where arguments in favour were set out and knocked down one by one, all in the best English possible. Far from opening minds, this exercise entrenched established prejudices, all the more so by appearing to ‘defeat’ their challengers in an open, rational forum.

Debating futures

Debating thus remains - ironically - a point of debate, and is likely to be so for some time to come. But as Indonesians’ enthusiasm for debating grows, the format can only diversify. Some forward-thinkers are exploring its potential in other languages. ‘I’m going to get my students to debate in High Javanese,’ proposes Sri Ratna Saktimulya, a lecturer in Javanese at UGM. ‘They’re always holding back, but they need to learn how to put forward their own views to get ahead in the real world.’ Other innovators stage competitions that go against the grain of the accepted formula. ‘There was a tournament in Bogor,’ reminisces Prast, ‘which wanted to see that students with excellent English were still able to use their traditions - the principles of Islam and Koranic verses - to discuss contemporary issues in Indonesia.’ He pauses. ‘There were some great debates that day!’

Perhaps it is this last point that is most important. Whatever its various detractors may say, debate continues to delight Indonesians across the country. ‘This is my dream come true,’ said one Yogyakartan debater at ISDC. ‘Ever since I became a debater I have wanted to represent my province.’ With such pride and enthusiasm behind it, debate will surely play a powerful role in shaping Indonesia's future. ISDC’s convenor concluded the tournament by imploring delegates to go back to their provinces and ‘make debate a part of their lives’. In that Jakarta hotel, there were 96 schoolchildren ready to do exactly that.

Debating lifestyles

It can be hard being a debater in Indonesia. One of the biggest challenges is winning over parents. ‘People fear that if their kids get involved in debating, they’ll go off the rails,’ explained one former university debater. ‘There are women who smoke. There are people who get drunk or take drugs. There are people who date people of other ethnic backgrounds. And because we’re debaters, we can see why that’s actually ok. But a lot of parents worry that if their kids start debating, they’ll automatically end up like us!’

Other parents associate debate and debaters’ fluency in English with intelligence, modernity, and glamour. But this can backfire on the students at school. ‘People tend to see us as a very exclusive group. It is not a popular or fashionable activity,’ said one high school debater from Yogyakarta. The problem, she explained, was that many students feel excluded by their poor command of English. ‘They are very clever and can come up with really good arguments in Indonesian. But when it comes to making a speech in English they make mistakes and get embarrassed and just sit down. After that, they usually don't debate again.’

It’s not only talking in English that is embarrassing. Making a speech that opposes someone else’s can itself be a mortifying experience. This is a particular problem in Java where introspection and self-control are the traditionally preferred means of conflict resolution. Gina, a seasoned debating coach, remembers one student from East Java. ‘He was just unable to contradict any of his opponents. Students would cry sooner than confront other pupils in the class.’

Could it be that Indonesian debates are just too feisty? Whilst Gina and others struggle to overcome the taboos holding pupils back, many families are in no hurry to see their children adopting modern habits. ‘We have a lot of concerned enquiries from parents,’ confesses a Yogyakarta provincial education officer. ‘They worry that their children are going to start debating with them at home. The problem is that debate is one of the best ways to learn English that there is, but it’s basically incompatible with Javanese culture.’ It is also especially incompatible with traditional gender models, which see arguing as inappropriate behaviour for a woman. And the students who excel in debating and show most enthusiasm for it are overwhelmingly female.

Nick Long (njl34@cam.ac.uk) is a PhD student of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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