Monday, August 29, 2005

Annus Horribilis

This is a story that began with a simple request, which then evolved into a big enterprise. All for a common love of a place called MCKK – a notion that most people outside the MCKK circles find it difficult to understand.

The simple request was from a group of teachers, who loved the teams and the school so much that they could not bear witnessing defeat after defeat for the past 4 years, from the pinnacle of achievements in the late 90s. A big enterprise because by the time we went into our opening debates in Putrajaya in May this year – it had involved a mini HQ at the boutique Shangri-la Putrajaya, thousands of ringgit spent on training and coaching and air tickets, more than 20 coaches from 3 generations of debaters/collegians and a great yearning for a fair play and with that fair play the Prime Minister’s Cup. The last two items we didn’t get in the end.

From Four Corners

The coaches and the boys really looked forward to this year’s PPM – because no college team, from 1905 onwards, was this prepared for a PPM tournament. Preparation began in earnest from the beginning of 2005. Not enough with the readings and conventional training, the whole contingent also went for a team building exercise, knowing that only the teams that bonded as brothers ever won PPM before. We combed through every minute aspect of the team – from the mental preparedness to the soft issues between teachers-coaches-debaters – to make sure that we do not commit a single mistake this time around.

The team fulfilled all the requirements and criteria to win – dedication, brain power, wits and talents. When we were at UIA earlier this year, we were asked what did we put our boys through to get the kind of breadth of knowledge they displayed in the tournament – simple, get them to read The Economists. Not many secondary school students read The Economists in Malaysia, and we are proud that our boys were one of the very few.

The preparation for the PPM in SAS, Putrajaya took place in parallel. The boys carried out their daily discussions and practice, whilst the coaches convened two sessions in KL to prepare the case. The results of these sessions were combined in another grilling 2-day session between the teachers, coaches and debaters – from the morning to the next morning – to make sure our case was full proof. By the time the bus left for Putrajaya this May, no MCKK team had ever had a more sound case to bring to the debating rooms.

No MCKK debating team ever had a team polo t-shirt for PPM – and this one has. Not for showing off, it was a testament of the pride and the hope of this particular one team to win it both this year.

But obstacles were all over the place. Work commitments meant that the coaches had to take flights from 4 corners of the Earth to be with the team in Putrajaya. I had to take a small boat ride, then “hitch-hiked” on 3 successive prebet sapu to reach an airport, before catching a flight by a whisker (since the original flight was cancelled). Ben flew in from overseas. Canoe rushed from an assignment in Australia. Fazurin barely recuperated from a 3-week leadership program in the States, having arrived a day earlier, to be with the boys on the night of the preparation.

The boys had to carry out their daily discussions during the semester exam – sitting for the exams during the day, studying and coming up with debating points at night until the wee hours. The torment and torture could have been overwhelming if I were in their shoes, but they did great (with 4-5 debaters becoming top in their class despite the divided attention).

Looking back, all of us must have been very proud of the commitments that everyone – from the teachers, to the coaches, to the boys – had put for this year’s tournament. No other school but MCKK can summon this kind of love and loyalty, period.

The Obese Argument

But the joy and hope was short-lived, for there was one thing that we could not get hold of, regardless of how careful our preparation was – the stupidity and immaturity of the very people who were supposed to groom our children to become wise and matured men and women: the teachers who become judges.

We could make the team intact, the bonds irreplaceable, we could make them understand macroeconomics and appreciate fair play – but not the judges.

Unfortunately the judges reign supreme in debates. Their decision is unquestionable and beyond reproach. What makes things worse for MCKK – you are often debating against the judges, not against the opponents.

You see – very rarely that your opponent is better than you. Occasionally they were teams better than ours, to which we would bow down graciously and salute the team.

Most of the time, they were worse than our team – it’s a question of degree. Whether they are “sayur” or marginally worse than you. The ball park figure of 70-30 must be the only set of numbers that features prominently in MCKK’s debating teams – unless you can convince the judges that you are better than your opponent by 70% margin, you will definitely lose; because generally judges do not judge you against your opponent, but against their expectation. Often judges scout for mistakes that MCKK team makes and begin listing them – these are the grounds for making MCKK lose, irrespective of how the other team performs.

How do we know? Because it’s our team’s trait that our boys will go and meet the judges after each debate and thank them and solicit feedback from them, no matter how painful the process is especially just after they give away what is rightfully yours to your opponents. Most judges would casually give comments outlining why they make you lose, without a slight hesitation to reflect how ridiculous their comments sound.

Let me relate this to real life examples.

In the debate that crushed our BM team’s chance of winning PPM this year, the opponent couldn’t even understand that highway toll charges are independent from toll concessions given to toll operating companies. Even when the government decides to end toll concessions eventually, the government can continue to levy toll charges to road users. This understanding is important when you are debating a motion on toll charges.

The opponent, all along thinking that the charges were levied because of these toll concessionaires, argued on the concessionaires' behalf i.e. micro explaining the issues. So a debate about the merit of toll hike, became a debate about a merit of taking back the concessions from these concessionaires, which they argued would be catastrophic because “…. Who would run our highways maaaa?”

Our boys, who were fresh from discussions on the issue – argued along the macroeconomic and social perspectives e.g. the inflationary effect, the corporate social responsibility aspect as they were cash cows already making profits beyond the concession agreements, the burden on users already suffering from hikes in petrol prices etc. And their figures were intact – statistics from FOMCA, Plus Berhad’s financial statements etc. etc. (remember that they came really prepared?)

In the end, in a debate through which I was smiling because I was very confident that we would win – we lost. The opponent cried on the spot, because even they did not expect the result.

But the chief judge, a teacher from an SBP in Kedah – nonchalantly attributed koleq’s loss to our boys’ lack of command of bahasa baku! You can cheat yourself, but please do not cheat us. If a debate in the end boils down to bahasa baku, let’s rewrite the competition rule to give bahasa baku prominence of 90% of the marks.

As if not to be beaten by the stupidity of the BM’s argument, the English debate that we loss was also as comical. I need to mention here the unprofessional manner that one of the judges behaved before the debate – casually mingling and laughing with our opponents and their teachers before the debate. I know they were both from Sekolah Agama group, but please don’t do that again – it’s just mean to show your partiality even before the debate begins. To convince our opponent that she was on their side, before the result was announced, again she made signs and gestures to the teachers and debaters that they had won.

The motion was on whether Malaysians have become more caring or not. I took offence at one of our opponent’s flagship argument – that Malaysians have become less caring because “they are more fat people around now, so it’s a proof that they don’t care about themselves”. Our boys rightly stood up and pointed out that the debater himself was a bit large in size, so did he mean he too was not caring?

So a debate on values, on societal change and on sociology, became a debate on “people are more obese so they are not caring, “people smoke so they are not caring” etc. etc.

Unsurprisingly it was this team that won that debate that day, and went on to win PPM this year (I seriously hope they did not argue on obesity again, it would have been such a degradation to the prestige of Tun Mahathir’s Cup!).

A Culture of Mediocrity

I came back from that tournament shattered, as were the boys and the teachers. Cikgu Umi was quite certain she wanted to quit and switch to a sports team next year. Unlike debate, you can train and make the best of preparations because that preparations, if they are more superior than other teams', will win the game. It’s a match of stamina and strategy.

We had done all that we could this year, we had covered all grounds. I kept saying that no team was ever this prepared.

No team had spent six months preparing, with full texts and rehearsals done for both sides of arguments before PPM began, backed by an extensive research.

No team had a one to one coach to debater ratio, with the kind of coaches that we had – more than 5 First Class Honours, a few from Oxbridge, a PhD and British top university’s best scholar at 25, a few Chevening scholars, a combined multilingual talents of 10 languages, a few former PPM champions and best speakers, TV presenters, world/international debate champions, working experience from several countries, consultants, lawyers, chartered accountants, economists etc. etc. (no point reciting all the credentials as none – not the credentials, not the arguments – mattered to the judges).

Unfortunately the kings and queens of PPM are shallow minded people who do not see beyond the veil of their school identity or common hatred for elitism. "MCKK was elite, MCKK was everything that we are not, we must push one of us through, not these elite schools (same fate befell TKC, STF, SSP, STAR etc.)"

As if timed to explain the phenomena in our schools, Megat Najmuddin, in an article published a few weeks after that, attacked the culture of mediocrity that strangled our country. Mediocrity has been the raison d’etre for many instrumental people in our system, so we reward mediocrity – not excellence.

In debating tournaments like PPM, our teachers, who are supposed to groom our children to go as far as they can reach, choose to reward the dumber arguments, the inferior performance instead of showing fair play, sportsmanship and high regards for excellence – they satisfy their bias and warped mind of shallow school rivalry, but in doing so they destroy the children that one day are supposed to carry us through the future. What will become of our people one day, when we reward the mediocre and punish the excellent crops?

And it’s already happening right now – we talk about brain drain, about mediocrity and lack luster mentality, we laugh at some initiatives or crazy ideas our politicians want to carry out – because right through from the school to the highest echelon of power in this country, we reward the mediocre. And one day we will pay.

As for us, there were some quarters – MCKK old boys themselves – who questioned the level of preparation we had this year. To them we lost because we sounded too clever that the judges did not understand.

My answer to them – too bad brothers, if they are stupid, it’s not my problem. PPM is prestigious, but it is not that prestigious that we are willing to dumb ourselves down just to win. We are above it.

Let we lose for a hundred years to come, so long as we come out cleverer and better than others. Let them win for a hundred years to come, so long as one day in their workplace they realize those MC buggers who lost at their hands in PPM ended up as their bosses.

Appreciation to the debating masters 2005

Sdr Faisal (Class of 1987)
Sdr Yusri (Class of 1989)
Sdr Ben Omar (Class of 1990)
Sdr Adany (Class of 1990)
Sdr Faiz Hussin (Class of 1991)
Sdr Rizal (Class of 1992)
Sdr Hafiz Othman (Class of 1993)
Sdr Shahrol Nizam (Class of 1993)
Sdr Syahril Nizam (Class of 1993)
Sdr Rafizi (Class of 1994)
Sdr Fazurin (Class of 1994)
Sdr Hazly (Class of 1994)
Sdr Azlan (Class of 1994)
Sdr Wan Azman (Class of 1994)
Sdr Affendy (Class of 1994)
Sdr Sani (Class of 1995)
Sdr Izrin (Class of 2000)
Sdr Amir Zarif (Class of 2003)
Sdr Izzat (Class of 2004)
Sdr Afiq (Class of 2004)
Sdr Meor Alif (Class of 2004)

Annus Horribilis - PPM Journey 2005


  1. you guys put a tremendous effort, and put on a great show. that's all that matters. kudos to the coaches and our debaters! imho you guys are the winner!

    re satay outing post-defeat :'membatak' to cheer up, ahh.. what bliss.

  2. sad day indeed.. do you guys have the video of the debate? koleq should stop sending debating teams to PPM and distribute the video saying this is why we dont send the team anymore.. pure mediocrity judging.. koleq should push for a reform of the judges and ask for pro judges in the future, someone with a PHD or an expert in the field which is being debated..

    Why chose to continue to suffer of losing each year if you know the result?
    Boycott PPM! Ask for the removal of mediocre judges!
    PPM is not the only debating competition worth participating, find other events.