FIVE years ago, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman could barely speak English. But this year, the debater won his third Asia’s Best Speaker Award, as well as a best English as Second Language (ESL) Speaker Award.
His team from International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) has won multiple awards, the latest being the Asian British Parliamentary Debating Championship where they were ranked the best team in Asia.
IIUM is the highest-ranked debate team in Malaysia, currently ranking 10th out of 440 teams in the 35th World Universities Debating Championship, above Brown and Yale.
The experienced debater never thought he would achieve such success. “When I started debating, I thought the best I could do was to be Malaysia’s best speaker, but that was it,” he said.
But as Saddiq, 23, got more competitive and went up against competitors from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, it motivated him to improve.
“The perception is that we must be inferior to them, that they’ll look down on us. But because of that perceived inferiority, I have more to prove,” he said. “So when we beat them, sedap lah (it feels good),” he adds.
Saddiq joined debating when he was 17 and studying at the Royal Military College. He recalled one of his first debating competitions where he pronounced “recipe” as “reh-sip”. In his speech, he also said Africa was a country.
“That was when I realised I’d already hit rock bottom, and I couldn’t go any lower!” He added, “It drove me further into debating because it fuses English competency and also general knowledge.”
From debater to coach
Like many of his peers, Saddiq is eager to graduate from university. He wants to work full-time on the plans and projects that he has up his sleeves, such as starting the first independent youth lobbying force in the country.
Even as a student, he is doubling up as a part-time lecturer at IIUM in a class called “Niche debating and public speaking”. He also, in his own words, “writes a lot” as a columnist for two media platforms focusing on youth advocacy and politics. On weekends, he runs debate and English programmes in various schools and universities.
The list goes on and on. In fact he was heading to another meeting after our interview to discuss another project. “I’m also a speech writer,” he explained.
Saddiq credits his success in the debate field to his coaches and mentors. But for students who may not have a coach, they shouldn’t give up so fast.
“Believe it or not, I picked up a lot of debating tips from YouTube. Today, it’s no longer an excuse for young debaters to not improve, as there are always resources available,” he said.
His new role as debate coach allows him to pass the knowledge and experience he has gained in the past seven years to others. He is currently coaching the junior Malaysian World Schools National team, the debate team at IIUM and also in various debate camps all around Malaysia.
“Debating made me a matured speaker and thinker. Since I’ve benefited from the debating and public speaking circuit in KL, I feel it is my duty to help my juniors get to where I am today,” he said.
He also has plans to start a debate training centre in Johor, his home state. “I don’t have to be the one who runs it. I just want to make sure there is a learning and training platform to ensure debating will thrive in the long run.”
Encouraging youths to speak up
While his first love is debating, his passion is in youth advocacy and spreading awareness on youth apathy. When he speaks at events such as the International Anti-Corruption Conference or even at debate training, he makes a point to tie youth advocacy to it.
Saddiq feels Malaysian youths aren’t speaking up as much as they should on social issues and politics. “It’s disappointing because it’s much easier to clamp down a sentence if there are only a few of us speaking up.” He reasons, “If youth advocates win, society will benefit at large. But if it doesn’t work out, society does not stand to lose anything.”
The seasoned debater pointed out the ways youths can make a difference. “The easiest way is through social media, and believe it or not, it matters a lot. People might trivialise you, saying you’re only an armchair critic. To some extent it is true, but at least you are taking the effort to speak up,” he said.
He added, “By putting your views out there on your social feed and inviting discourse and discussions, you’re making the effort to speak up.”
He also encouraged young people to join neutral NGOs like Transparency International and iM4U, or take up the initiative to volunteer for a cause they believe in. “Just yesterday I was speaking to about 300 people on a winter clothing donation drive for the Syrian refugees in Greece,” he said.
Saddiq is very vocal on social media, but he said it does not stop him from getting involved in government-endorsed youth programmes.
He cited the Perdana Fellows, where young Malaysians are paired with ministers for an internship programme. Saddiq was paired with Nancy Shukri, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department two years ago.
“People thought this was a political programme where you would be brainwashed or that you must be someone at the top to be selected. But two years ago I was absolutely no one, I only had my debate credentials,” he said. “I was very vocal against certain government and opposition leaders. And the fact that I still got into the programme was indicative that anyone can get in.”
There are many opportunities that involve young people, but Saddiq said one thing every youth must do is register to vote. “The amount of registered Malaysian youth voters is abysmally low. We are given very clear opportunities to make changes, and yet we choose to ignore them.”
Saddiq said debaters should be prime champions for youth advocacy, even after exiting the debate room. “Maybe I have high expectations but I believe young people should play a proactive role in making or shaping Malaysia,” he said.
“Because if we don’t, someone else will,” he said. “And maybe that someone won’t represent us as much as we’d like to ourselves.”