In a display usually reserved for more traditional sporting contests, about 500 passionate supporters waved flags and cheered enthusiastically for their favourite team at the inaugural Junior Chamber International (JCI) Cambodia Debating Championship, held at the Royal University of Phnom Penh last weekend on Sunday, August 7.
Eagerly awaiting the judges’ decision, some in the audience screamed that the International Foreign Language (IFL) team should win, while others were adamant that the team from the University of Puthisastra (UP) should become champion.
After a nervous wait, following a hotly contested debate on the topic “Economic development is more important than environmental protection”, the judges decided that Vuthy Panchakrong, Mak Vichetsakda, and Kheng Sathaboramana from IFL were victors over the team from UP.
The result was significant not only because this was the first time that JCI had invited outstanding local teams from universities and institutions in Phnom Penh to compete against each other, but also because the winner will now represent Cambodia against debaters from around the world in the JCI Debating Contest to be held in Taiwan on August 26 to 28.
Kheang Sathaboramana, 19, a third-year student at IFL who majors in English language studies, said that her department recruited her a few weeks ago to join up with the other two more experienced members of the group. “At IFL we have had a debating club since 2003, so we already knew how to debate and how the judges would score us,” she said.
Nevertheless, the team met each other often in the lead up to the event to prepare and practice debating techniques, as well as to revise and update their existing knowledge about the environment.
While it was not easy for the team when they met opposition groups whose members had backgrounds in economics, finance, banking and environmental issues, the IFL students’ preparations ensured they were strong enough for the challenge.
“Sometimes we felt a bit intimidated when we confronted other teams who looked much stronger than us. But we just remembered that a debate is like a game, because there will always be a winner and a loser. We had to be confident and believe that our team could do it,” said Kheang Sathaboramana on the day.
Sethy Monineath, 21, a student from the unsuccessful University of Puthisastra side and who majors in finance and banking, was initially overcome with nerves when she saw the hundreds of people sitting in the audience, even though her team had been preparing for weeks.
While able to acknowledge that her team lacked enough supporting evidence to convince the judge’s with their arguments in the final round of the competition, Sethy Monineath was clear that she didn’t feel like a loser.
“I don’t think I lost in this competition. If nothing else, I gained a big experience for my future. I will not be a debater for my whole life, but the debate today builds my confidence for future public speaking in my career,” she said.
Seang Soleak, an Oxfam communications officer who helped judge the competition, said that he scored the debaters based on their explanation and definition of the topic as well as the various ideas that each team brought up to support their arguments. He also looked at the debating skills each team used to convince the audience.
“We paid attention to whether the debaters had their own voice and how they were able to convince the audience,” he said. “Some debaters here were able to deliver their argument in a way which made the audience laugh. That’s always a good way to gain the support of the audience,” he added.
Lonh Mengkheang, 22, an information technology officer at the Ministry of Defense who attended on Sunday, said the debate encouraged him and his friends to think about the topics that were discussed, and also inspired him to work on his own self-confidence.
“Debates like these are good because they inspire people like me to be curious and to be as confident as the candidates,” he said. JCI Cambodia, which was established in 2010, has the same objectives and runs similar programs to other international JCI branches. The organisation works with people aged 18 and 40 with the aim of encouraging them to take positive action to improve themselves and the world around them.
Dek Dary, the vice president of JCI Cambodia in Phnom Penh, says debating is part of JCI’s programs so as to give students and young professionals a chance to show off their talent and inspire social change.
“The debate is important because just by being involved, students will acquire various skills such as taking responsibility for social
issues, respect, and acknowledging diversity between people, as well as the determination to overcome the obstacles they may face,” she said.
The teams from IFL and UP were joined by teams from Pannasastra University of Cambodia, AIESEC and two teams from JCI – six teams were vying for the coveted trip to Taiwan.
The competition this year was limited to debating clubs already in existence at universities and institutions in Phnom Penh, but Dek Dary is hopeful that next year JCI will allow talented individual debaters to join the competition too.