Mr chairman, honourable judges,my worthy opponent…


A debate can tear away the mask of deceit corrupted leaders often wear to shield from the rays of truth.

(FMT) – As the next general election approaches – a do-or-die battle for both rivals – the question that will inevitably pop up is: will the standard-bearers of their respective parties engage in a debate? Since it is becoming a trend for political leaders to take to the public arena for a verbal duel to see who comes off best, it is high time that the leader of the ruling party and the captain of the opposition camp took to the platform and made their case to the people. It will certainly generate enormous interest because what they say will be reflected in their thoughts and actions when either one takes power in the highest office in the land. The outcome of a debate will shape the type of government that will rule the country in the next five years.

A public debate is nothing new. Let’s turn back a few pages of history. In 1858, the United States witnessed the great debate between Abrahim Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Lincoln was the torch-bearer for the Republican Party and Douglas for the Democratic Party. Lincoln was contesting for the first time for a senate seat to represent the state of Illinois. But Douglas was the incumbent and a formidable opponent. A series of debates were held between the two and the topic was mainly about slavery. In the end, Lincoln lost but his ideas aired during the debates captured public imagination. Later, riding on his popularity, he contested for the White House and won the presidency of the United States.

If there had been no debates, the public would not have known much about the quality of the man who harboured presidential ambition. The high-profile debate made Lincoln a national figure who changed the course of American history upon his election as the 16th president. Down the years the US saw, this time on television, another momentous debate between vice-president Richard M Nixon and a young senator, John F Kennedy. Kennedy started off as an unknown politician, “b
ut by the end of the evening, he was a star”. According to a commentator, “… without the nation’s first televised debate… Kennedy would never have been president.” Since then public debates have become a staple diet for US elections.

Verbal virus

Today the verbal virus has spread to Malaysia. Unfortunately, only small fry have taken to the stage and nothing much has come out of it. The opposition leader did take part in a debate but with an insignificant lightweight minister, who was remembered more for his spittle than mental prowess. Then there was the confrontation between current and former chief ministers who both talked about governance and accountability but never arrived at any solution. If anything, it gave more publicity to the young chief minister than the washed-out politician. Next came the recent so-called “great” debate when the DAP stalwart again locked horns with a political heavyweight – and it turned out that the verbal brawl was more noted for sound than bite.

All these debates have created more smoke than fire. They have all faded away and are no longer talking points in the public gallery. It is pointless if political minions want to lit the fuse again in the public arena because such encounters will invite more ridicule than applause. What the people want is a debate laced with substance and purpose. They want to see principal leaders eyeing the Putrajaya trophy stand before the crowd and argue their case statesmanlike: Why you must vote for me, why I make a better prime minister. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate, the duo faced off in front of a large crowd – not members of any political party – and got immediate public response to every question raised: Douglas: “Are you in favour of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship?” (No! No! Came the ethusiastic reply). Likewise, the opposition leader here can pose a similar question to the audience: Are you in favour of conferring upon the illegal immigrants rights and privileges of citizenship?

It is unlikely that verbal matches here can take place in the open. Even the recent debate in the confines of a hall saw supporters display rowdy behaviour, with one pesky figure from the floor ranting away without any sense of direction. But still a debate can be held with civility and maturity. The match can take place in front of an audience of university students on neutral ground at home or even abroad. Two Youth leaders from the opposing parties have done it in London, with some encouraging results.

A debate between the main protagonists – the prime minister and the opposition leader – can decide the final outcome of the biggest battle in the coming weeks. A debate can unlock the minds of the national leaders and let the people sift through the layers of thoughts and sort out the wheat from the chaff. A debate will give the people the chance to gauge the strength and weaknesses of the contestants. It can also tear away the mask of deceit corrupted leaders often wear to shield from the rays of truth.