(Written on 1st January 2016)
For those not in the know, team-based parliamentary debating, as distinct from mock parliaments, is an interesting form of debating in which being incisively logical matters more than oratory, and the adjudicators too are judged by the speakers. It has become popular internationally, and in the Indian context, especially in the IITs, leading law colleges and in Delhi University. Like in any other tournament, if there are multiple teams from a college, their team names are suffixed with ‘A’, ‘B’ and so on. There is an international parliamentary debating championship that is taking place currently, and in this piece, I intend to discuss the performance of Asian teams over the years.
Earlier today, Mifzal Mohammed and Jasmine Ho Abdullah from the MARA Institute of Technology (UTMARA), Malaysia, came 2nd among the top 48 at the World Universities Debating Championships. This is the best-ever Asian performance in the in-rounds of the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC). Four teams broke from Asia in the open category, equaling last year’s record-breaking performance. And this has been a long time coming.
For a long time, a WUDC open-break was quite elusive for Asian teams. From 2008 to 2012, only 2 teams broke across the 5 editions [Ateneo A in 2010, and National University of Singapore (NUS) A in 2011], and none in the other 3. Back then, the break was restricted to 32 teams. As a result, quite a few teams who made it to 18 points missed out on the breaks on speaker scores. Ateneo University, Philippines, suffered the worst- one Ateneo team finished between 33 and 48 in four consecutive years (2008-2011). After breaking one team in consecutive years, 2012 was particularly disappointing when 3 teams (one from UTMARA, and two from NUS) missed out narrowly.
WUDC started out in 1981 with 43 teams from 7 countries. Even though participation has expanded to 40 plus countries, the traditional heavy-weights continue to dominate participation in the semis and finals. In 5 consecutive finals from 2008 to 2012, all finalist teams were from one of only 3 countries- England, Australia, and USA. In the last three editions, two teams from New Zealand, and one from Scotland managed to make it to the finals, in addition to the big three. The disparity between the likes of Monash, Sydney, Oxbridge, Harvard and most other Universities, in terms of training, funding, and name-recall in the adjudication pool at WUDC is quite staggering. The adjudication pools of WUDCs have traditionally been dominated by the same countries.
The experiences of many brilliant debaters from Asia at the WUDC have been quite disheartening. After training with limited resources, self-funding travel to a distant country, the experience of facing at least one or two decisive rounds where the judges were less than fair in their assessment of the debate is common. In addition to dropping a few points due to bad adjudication, speaker score differences with the traditional English speaking countries have been almost uniform. The fact that all speakers with an accent unfamiliar to most judges at the tournament tend to get speaker scores that are systematically lower can’t be put down to a lack of ability. This made it nearly impossible to break on 18 points with high speaker scores. Most of the Asian teams I mentioned above missed out on the breaks due to low speaker scores despite reaching 18 points from 9 rounds.
But things have been changing for the better. In 2013, the break was expanded to 48 teams. This meant that all teams finishing on 18 points are guaranteed a break, in addition to a few teams breaking on 17 points on high speaker scores. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In 2013, two Asian teams broke, NUS A (Imran Rahim and Robin Teowho had also broken in 2011), and International Islamic University, Malaysia (IIUM) A (Syed Saddiqand Arinah Najwa). IIUM A had been ESL finalists in 2012, and with the open break in 2013, they kick-started the spectacular performances that are now becoming standard fare for their debating society. Saddiq went on to break at the next 2 editions as well with Mubarrat Wassey, and established himself as a legend of the Asian circuit. This year in Greece, UTMARA’s outstanding performance isn’t the only record-breaking achievement. IIUM has 2 teams in the open break, and one of the speakers is only in his first year. Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUIT) A put in a stunning performance in the silent rounds going from 10 to 18 points.
But the improvements aren’t restricted to South East Asia. In 2014, the Championships were held in Chennai (a mistake, if there ever was one) and Asian teams broke fresh ground: 3 teams made it to the out-rounds, one Ateneo team (Allan Cabrera and Inah Robles), IIUM A, and my partner Ritvik Chauhan and I, from IIT Bombay. This was the best Asian performance in a long time, made sweeter by the fact that IIUM broke on 17 points on high speaker points, thus defeating another structural barrier that had traditionally held us back.
This was also the year in which the underlying resentment caused by many years of unfair treatment burst-forth in the form of an infamous Facebook note by Prabhat Kiran Mukherjea- part of a long history of Indian Debaters screwed over at WUDCs. The note was unrestrained in its mostly accurate descriptions of the various structural biases that exist at WUDC, in addition to problematic elements where he accused specific people of racism. The shit-storm that ensued launched a long-overdue conversation about the need to implement structural reforms at WUDC. Regional balance in adjudication panels was made an explicit policy by the adjudication core in the next edition in Malaysia, and continued by Greece. Regional balance in the Chief Adjudicators team and the invited-adjudicator pool is another welcome step in the right direction.
Malaysia WUDC 2015 was a landmark edition for Asia- with a best-ever performance of 4 teams in the out-rounds: IIUM A, Asia Pacific University A (Moustafa Elbadwihi and Behrad Taadoli), National University of Singapore (NUS) C (Andre Kua and Bryan Chan), and Institute of Business Administration, Dhaka University (IBA DU) A (Saad Ashraff and Wasifa Noshin). IIUM A made it to the top-10 teams on tabs, and the Institute of Business Administration, Dhaka University, became the first team from Bangladesh to break in the open category.
All of this brings us back to Greece where we improved on our showing in Malaysia despite some of our best debaters not receiving VISAS, or simply being unable to afford travel to Greece. We have finally gained something we have been lacking in previous years – belief. No longer are we scared of one or two bad decisions- that’s just part of the challenge for us, something we have learned to deal with. No longer do teams on 10 or 11 points after day 2 assume that it’s a lost cause- NUS C and BUET A have managed to break from that situation in two successive years. No longer are we scared of teams with reputations- we have specialized in slaying them consistently. And Mifzal and Jasmine took the final step yesterday- proving that we are capable of being more than insurgents disturbing the established order- we are on the path to toppling it entirely. They finished 2nd, but are the only team in the tournament to have a positive head-to-head win-loss record against Hart House A, the top team whose performance at this tournament has been phenomenal.
The next step would be for Asian teams to venture deep into the out-rounds on a consistent basis. And regardless of what happens this year, the signs look good. With increasing diversity in the adjudication panels even in the out-rounds, it’s a matter of time before we start achieving seeing Asian teams consistently making it to the Quarter Finals and beyond. And as far UTMARA are concerned, Asia owes you one regardless of what happens next. But please win the whole damn tournament – watching you guys decimate the traditional heavy-weights with a swagger and a smile has been a privilege.