For thirty-two years Indonesia struggled for freedom of speech. In fact, it simply did not exist under Soeharto’s repressive regime. Opinions that differed even slightly from the official line were ignored, journalists were jailed, peace activists murdered, protests brutally suppressed and newspapers shut down on a whim.
But in 1998 came the end of state control, and with reformation came the opening of a wealth of opportunities to let one’s voice be heard. One of the many mediums that has flourished ever since then is the great art of debating, a form of intellectual combat, exercising freedom of speech and invoking awareness of national and international issues.
Those issues frequently include democracy and religion, human rights, gender and sex issues, economic policies, environmental preservation, technological advancement and the arts.
It is a popular notion that it is only citizens of developed countries, with their stable democracies and free press, who can speak eloquently and knowledgeably about various international issues.
While they may well be fortunate enough to be highly exposed to a greater amount of philosophy, political science and art, as well as being fortunate to exist in an environment that wholeheartedly recognises and encourages free debate, criticism and challenge (for Indonesia is not quite free just yet), we too can now begin bask in all of these.
In 1998, at the start of the new dawn in the country, the English Debating Society of the University of Indonesia (EDS-UI) was established in order to pioneer, develop and nurture debating in Indonesia.
It aims to proliferate debating amongst students and the society as a whole and to enhance public speaking skills, analytical thinking and the ability to address the public in a confident manner, with strong, free arguments and with a great command of English.
It is no wonder then that Indonesia now has many outstanding debaters who have made Indonesia famous on the international stage. These great debaters and future leaders, who have achieved both at national and international level, are the future of Indonesian youth, and through them, a new hope is being resurrected.
Siti Astrid Kusumawardhani:
The Powerful Debater:
At only twenty years of age Siti Astrid Kusumawadhani is one of brightest young debaters in the country. She has represented Indonesia on a number of occasions, with tremendous acclaim, ever since she first began back in high school.
Her journey really began when she was chosen as Indonesia’s delegate to battle critical thinking in the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC) 2003 in Lima, Peru. The WSDC is the most prestigious competition in the world for high school level students, and she successfully placed Indonesia 11th out of 25 countries.
Since then Astrid has taken part and succeeded beyond her wildest expectations at various competitions from Malaysia to Germany to New Zealand.
Astrid, who has worked as an interpreter for the World Bank as well as for various other national and international forums, always returns to her love of debating, explaining how interesting it is to debate such dynamic international issues.
“When there is a debate about nuclear power in Iran, for example, there are so many interesting concepts that could be included in the debate, from the theory of sovereignty, international and regional security, constructive engagement, the West and East divide, to sanctions and the roles of the Islamic world. I find it the most effective to bring up various different arguments in international topics,” she says.
She also loves debating social issues because they are very personal. For her, it is a lot easier to debate about abortion compared to stem cell research or pegging currency rates.
But after all of her achievements and international recognition she admits that she still gets nervous when she debates. “I am still nervous when I debate, but I always try to overcome it by thinking ‘they are just another teenager like you,’ or ‘you are prepared just as they are.’”
For young people who also want to become skilful debaters, she offers a few words of advice. “Being a good debater requires much practice and experience, thus ones should take every opportunity to compete and debate. I believe that the better the opponents you face, the better debater you will become, so always try to challenge yourself by debating against tougher and smarter opponents because you will learn the most that way. Don’t forget to keep up with the news. This is mandatory for any debater as the topics are usually current events. Having almanacs and trivia books are also a must.”
“Without debate and free speech, issues and problems are left untouched and ignored, making it harder to find a solution”
Now majoring in International Relations at the University of Indonesia Astrid explains how it all began. “My introduction to debating started out very simply. My best friend asked me to join a debating competition in 2002 when I was in my 1st year of high school. I was not interested at first, but after a little encouragement from my friend, I agreed to give it a try.”
After that, one thing led to another, where after becoming champion in one competition the following year, she was “discovered” by scouts from the debating world.
When questioned about the state of the current government she is very positive, believing that in terms of democracy, Indonesia has improved significantly from the previous era. But she highlights that issues surrounding weak governance are still rife throughout the government.
She also comments on the recent increase in death penalty cases. She strongly believes that whatever the reason or justification, taking away a life to pay for one’s wrong deeds is a concept so degrading to human civilization as a whole.
“Giving the death penalty will actually take away the chance for the society to get back the rights that were initially taken away from them. The death penalty will give us no tangible benefits, except a sick satisfaction that strengthens the “eye for an eye” culture. A criminal should pay for his crimes by contributing back to the society,” Astrid says, thoughtfully.
At the end of interview Astrid reiterates the importance of debating and critical thinking for the next generation of leaders.
“Debating helps structure the way we think and present our opinions. It teaches us to always look at both sides of the story and account for many factors before making a decision.”
She also explains that debating make us more aware of the magnitude of problems and motivate us to do something about them.
“For example, beforehand I had no idea that female genital mutilation was such a huge issue in Africa. After debating about it, I was suddenly aware of the problem and started to look it up in the Internet. Without debate and free speech, issues and problems are left untouched and ignored, making it harder to find a solution.”
Santi Nuri Dharmawan:
President of English Debating Society
“The value of debating, critical thinking and the plurality of opinion is extremely high and is in line with democracy, something that Indonesian people try to uphold,” says debating queen Santi Nuri Dharmawan.
From her own experience as Indonesian delegate in many prestigious international debating events such as World Universities Debating Championship (Singapore 2005) and The 10th ASEAN University Network Educational Forum (Philippines 2004), Santi says that she has learned how to present her ideas and points of view in front of public intelligently and in a refined manner.
The most advantageous skill that she believes she has acquired from debating is the fact that she has become more analytical and aware world social issues such as education, the environment, media, and gender issues and youth issues.
Santi also believes that debating can be a great medium for the younger generation, especially university students, in order for them to get in touch in with the international world at an early age.
This is the reason behind her ambitious effort to drive the regeneration of Indonesian debaters in her role as the President of English Debating Society of University of Indonesia (EDS-UI).
“I believe in the idea of regeneration. I try to keep reminding my staff to always share or transfer knowledge to junior members,” says Santi.
When she is asked about the government’s performance over the last few years, Santi gives a rather positive opinion. “I think the government is doing well enough in issues that Indonesia faces right now, such as natural disaster management, corruption, budget allocation for education, health, and investment. Although there are still some flaws in their performance I think they were quick in handling issues that have occurred during SBY’s governance.”
“I believe in the idea of regeneration. I try to keep reminding my staff to always share or transfer knowledge to junior members”
But Santi hopes that the government will continue to create efforts to improve the Indonesian economy, decrease poverty levels and to be more sensitive to the voice of the people. As for her role, she will continue to proliferate critical thinking in Indonesia by spreading the spirit of debate amongst the youth.
At the end of the interview Santi recounts a funny story about when she joined the All-Asian University Debating Championships in 2003. At the time she and the team were competing against a team from the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) in the Philippines.
“My coach was there and she said that our team was better than ADMU, because she thought they were just new kids. So I felt a little over-confident and tried to look as intimidating as possible just to scare them off. ADMU acted as the Government team and got the chance to speak first. All my confidence soon disappeared when the speaker of ADMU talked very fast and clear and the arguments he brought was absolutely perfect. My team mates and I were speechless, and after the debate ended, I found that ADMU were last year’s champions. I was so ashamed and kept blaming my coach ever since then!”
Swift in Debate, Swift in Critical Thinking
“My most exciting experience is when I was expected to give a funny speech in front of all audience from Australia, Asia and Pacific in New Zealand. I never thought of myself as a funny person. So I actually get all stressed up for hours before the time of the speech. I was terrified that people are not going to laugh at my jokes. Turns out my speech was pretty funny.”
This is what Melanie told when she was asked about the exciting debating experience she had.
The debater with excellent critical thinking and public speaking is really keen on debating. She, who knew debating since she was in high school, loves debating because it can shape her view a lot.
“Debating is one of the most interesting things I find both because the way it changes my perception of things and how it is very fulfilling.”
Furthermore, she said, “I always think that the worst thing in the world happens because people cannot understand other people. Massacre, bombings, wars usually happens not because of malicious intent, but because some people cannot accept others believe.”
Debating provides her with great community and changes the way she thinks
Talking about debating, she loves debating on social issue very much. “I really like social issue because it forces me to dig more philosophical reason behind an issue, instead of throwing practicalities.”
She then continued, “Social issue requires debaters to argue on what is right or wrong, what determines morality in society, the concept of right, sovereignty, privacy, freedom of expression, democracy etc. So, to make those philosophical reasoning works, we have to draw analogy and parallel example of many models of inter-human or government-citizen relationship from all around the world and that usually makes the debates very enriching.”
When she was newcomer she was also nervous when she was debating. But she had her own trick to overcome her nervous.
“I just kept on reminding myself that the worst thing that could happen was not so bad. What is worst, I started, I said something stupid, I completely loosed my voice, I fell off… It was embarrassing. But people had life. They would laugh at your mistake, but tomorrow they would forget it, and you would have a brand new chance to start all over again. Once you have a moment when it works, when you get your audience and they get you, stick to that memory. Remember that you have succeeded once; there is no reason why you cannot repeat it.”
She then gave advices for ones who want to be good at debating.
“The most important thing about being good at something is passion. Once you like it, once you have passion for it, you will find yourself driven and work hard for it. I am just really passionate about debating that I find myself work hard, reading books and articles, practice public speaking, practice English, etc. It is great. I often think of myself as a lazy person. But I discover, lazy or driven is a matter of passion.”
Debating provides her with great community as well as changes the way she thinks. Before she joined debating, she found herself only concerning things that had direct impact for her. She saw issues from her angle.
“Debating makes me think of the world wider than just my surroundings. I start to concern about things beyond me, such as humanity, environment, global economy, etc.
When she was asked about the performance of government currently, she said there was much room for improvement for the government in providing access to basic health and education, it is therefore the government should make more effort to make sure these concepts actually touches people in grass root level.
Furthermore she said, “But one thing that should be kept in mind, the government performance should be seen more than just result based. Some people think that price hikes equals bad governance. But that is not always true. A lot of things make price hikes – international conditions, regional tension, or even the accumulation of 32 years mistake. Therefore I prefer to see the performance not based on result, but based on what the government does”. This was what she said to close the interview.