Election debates: Just do it!

Azly Rahman | Mar 3, 08

During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two main parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) to engage in a debate. The topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time, and some have said that elections can be won or lost based on these debates….Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens. The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience – from Wikipedia
Malaysia’s government has rejected an Islamic opposition party’s challenge to hold an American-style public debate between their leaders ahead of the March 8 general election, news reports said on Sunday. PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang recently dared Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to hold a televised debate similar to those held by US presidential candidates…But the Sunday Star newspaper quoted Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz as saying there was no place for such debates in Malaysia.. “We don’t follow the American system in our country. We (the country’s leaders) should be debating with villagers or town folks concerning local issues affecting them,” she said in the report. – from Malaysia Today, March 1, 2008
What is the problem of having televised debates? I do not see any. The politicians for the ruling party and the aspiring parties are intelligent enough to hold debates for the benefit of the people who are also getting more intelligent. We have been independent for 50 years. We are no longer colonised by the British “bloodsuckers” who wanted us to become merely tools of their Empire. We cannot say that we are still not ready.
Our politicians are mainly university graduates; some form Oxford, Cambridge, some form Harvard and Columbia, some from Monash and Australian National University, some from top universities in Asia such as University of Malaya. There is no reason why they cannot show the public that they can debate on critical issues facing the nation.
We are having an elections at the time when America is having hers too. We should take this opportunity to emulate what is good from the world’s most advanced liberal democracy. We must learn how they debate on election issues. It will be an exciting and education moment not only for the candidates but also for the nation.
Sensitive issues
I think the politicians and the people they want votes form are ready to listen to the pros and cons of arguments on the elections, I think we are even ready to talk about sensitive issues – on rights and responsibilities as citizens. Those who say we are not ready to debate are the ones not ready to debate. They are imposing their fear and ignorance on others.
In debates, not just charisma will be a plus, but wit, intelligence, and good arguments that appeal to the audience count as well. Candidates will be given the chance to be scrutinized on all these qualities. My view is that if a candidate is ready to be nominated, he/she is ready to make a stand on issues and articulate them to the constituents. Only then we will know how to differentiate between street politicians and budding statesmen.
In a debate, it is the appeal to reason, more than to emotions that will ultimately count. The outcome is how these candidates will best present the assets and liabilities of taking this or that stand.
Role of universities
I see Malaysian universities playing a role in hosting these debates. This will be a new dawn of world-classism as a standard to be achieved. I’d like to see all universities enriching the minds of the students with the “blue ocean” strategy of hosting events that will celebrate diverse political points of view.
Every day before voting day can be a time when each candidate for parliament and state seats be given the platform to debate on issues. It would be good to listen to candidates of Umno debating with those of PAS, DAP, PKR or even with an independent. We can then teach our children what it takes to be a Malaysian politician.
As an educator I have had the chance to train and groom debators. A number of them went on to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cambridge, Wharton School of Business, College de France and many top American and British universities. These are kampong kids trained in the rigour of public debates. They acquire the skills of argumentation through debates.
Political debates event should be made open to the public. Schoolchildren, government servants, businessmen and women, homemakers/housewives and househusbands can all come and be educated of the issues before they cast their votes. There is no need to give them money, kain pelikat, kain batik, sacks of rice, Gucci and Coach handbags, vacation trips, or even huge contracts to make them vote – all will be about respecting the mind of the voters by turning them into intelligent voters who use rational arguments to make rational choices.
Create debating culture
We need to broadcast, telecast, simulcast, and podcast these debates not only for Malaysians to see but for the world to enjoy as well. If we can send a man into space and groom our Mat Rempits to compete internationally or send them bungee-jumping or skydiving in the North Pole, we should be able to set up political debates.
Debates before election should become our culture. We have debating clubs in schools and in universities. We hear people debate on the streets, in warongs and coffee shops. We must elevate debates beyond these premises.
I see that we will evolve into an intelligent society if we encourage public debates before the nation votes. We will become Athenians. We may even produce our own Ciceros and Sukarnoes or even Barack Obamas. We must debate all sensitive issues and desensitize the nation into making intelligent choices at every election.
I suggest our universities host these televised and broadcast debates and show the public that our higher education institutions are not only world-class champions of diversity but also use the ‘blue ocean’ strategy to celebrate radical thinking in universities.
“Just do it”, as a Nike slogan goes.