On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A good verbal fight

The highly-charged atmosphere, with supporters of both sides applauding every point, also ensured that the one-hour war of words came to a fitting climax, heralding in a new political culture that will hopefully pave the way for future debates of this nature.

Questions from the floor were passionate although in some instances they deviated from the topic of the debate. But both speakers did not allow themselves to be rattled. They acquitted themselves well and maintained the spirit of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.

That the debate was conducted fully in Mandarin, even though both speakers were not Chinese-educated, reminded us of the reality that in this country we are able to understand one another, no matter the language, and the days of speaking only to a single-language constituency are over.

The fact that many of us, including this writer, had to rely on the Malay translation by Astro, also confirms that politicians have to be careful about what they say because the message will always get through, no matter the language.

But it was a jolly good show, all things considered. Dr Chua has certainly set a precedent when he decided to take on DAP strongman Lim.

Their styles are different and both have their strong points.

As is normal in all debates, zooming in on the opponent’s Achilles heel often results in the opponent doing his best to skirt around the issues. That much was obvious when Lim failed to adequately respond to Dr Chua’s questions concerning the DAP’s stand on hudud law and Pakatan Rakyat’s socio-economic plan.

The MCA president’s experience was obvious, especially as he rounded off the debate with his anecdote to Lim about the heroes in the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Lim, however, was also able to highlight the point that a viable two-party system simply means that any side can be thrown out if it does not live up to the people’s expectations.

It is common for opposition leaders to throw challenges but it is rare for those who represent the government to take them on.

In the political history of Malaysia, one can count by the fingers the number of public debates that have taken place between the two sides.

There have not been many debates of this nature because it is always easier for the politicians to take their rhetoric to ceramahs in front of their own supporters where they know their adversaries are not in attendance.

The entertainment approach appeals to the crowd and the speaker does not have to be on guard with whatever he says even if it can be outlandish.

But in a one-to-one debate such as the one we witnessed yesterday, especially in front of a televised audience, it is a different ball game.

The most recent debate between two Chinese politicians was way back in August 2008, soon after the political tsunami.

Back then, Lim and Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon squared off in a debate touted as “Chief Minister versus ex-Chief Minister” and the topic concerned a land controversy in Penang.

Another debate took place in the 1990s between the then Youth chiefs of MCA and DAP, Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat and Lim respectively, on the rather interesting topic of “Who is the political parasite?”

This writer covered the event which was carried over two nights. It enthralled a packed audience at the Selangor Assembly Hall. Everyone had their view as to who won but I think both were winners for their readiness to debate against each other.

Although it was highly entertaining, that debate lacked constructive purpose and focus and I believe both veered away from the topic, which itself was too general.

One of the most watched televised debates was between PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and then Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek in 2008. They faced off to argue about the rising price of oil and the opposition’s boast that if they came to power, they would reduce the oil price the next day.

It was quite brave of Shabery, a relatively junior minister then, to take on Anwar, given the latter’s reputation as an orator. In the end, both men actually did well although Anwar did have the edge.

But the biggest debate, unfortunately, did not take place in Malaysia but in the United States where Anwar, who was then in Umno, took on PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang at the University of Illinois in 1982. This was the period of kafir-mengkafir, where each accused the other of being infidels.

At that time, PAS followers refused to attend prayers in mosques led by imams perceived to be aligned to Umno, which was also accused of working with infidel parties like MCA and Gerakan.

But, of course, there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics. Who would have thought that Anwar would now be a PAS ally in Pakatan?

It augurs well for our political maturing process that younger leaders are coming to the fore.

Recently, Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin took on PKR’s Rafizi Ramli in the United Kingdom and the debate was conducted in a civil manner. Intellect and knowledge were the important factors in their debate.

Certainly, we hope that yesterday’s debate between Dr Chua and Lim will spur more Malaysian politicians to spar with each other in the same way.

Malaysians are pretty tired of the current name-calling politics where intellectual discourse seems to be absent.

Democracy is not just about voting once every five years. It is also about being able to articulate one’s thoughts openly. Dissent does not make one subversive and anti-national.

We as stakeholders cannot leave demo­cracy entirely to the politicians. We must be ready to broaden our minds by reading and analysing everything.

It is not just the Chinese who are at the crossroads, as the overall theme of the Asli/Insap forum indicated. All Malaysians are at the crossroads and we have to be sure which road we take. There is no room for second guessing.