Malaysia's Debate Team Makes History at World Championship

Education • Youth


Aug 10, 2023

Malaysia's national debate team made history in 2023 when they reached the semifinals of the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC). The team was placed fourth out of 64, the highest world ranking in Team Malaysia history.

KUALA LUMPUR, August 10 (Bernama) -- The country’s national debate team made history when it reached the semifinals of the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC) last month.

The team, comprising 18-year-old Arjun Gunalan, Teioh Nuan Ning (18), Lee Yao Ming (17), Umar Fazlan Azri (18) and Sim Yang Min (18), took part in the 10-day event hosted in Hanoi, Vietnam from July 18 to July 28.

“We have been envisioning this moment for many years, as Team Malaysia has fallen short at the quarterfinals of WSDC for four years running,” head coach Mai Mokhsein told Bernama in an interview.

Competition was stiff for Team Malaysia as they faced teams from England, New Zealand, Poland, France, Germany, Zimbabwe, the Czech Republic, and Australia -- emerging victorious against each one.

Their winning streak would come to an end when they faced off against eventual world champions Team USA in the semifinals, finishing an admirable fourth place out of the 64 competing teams. Their fourth placing is also the highest world ranking that Team Malaysia has ever achieved in its history.

Team Malaysia getting ready for their turn to speak. (Credit: Vietnam WSDC 2023)

“This year, we went against Team Zimbabwe in the quarterfinals, who were an extraordinarily strong team, and they were the favourite underdog as the last team standing from Africa. While we thought our team had won, the chief judge initially announced that the panel of judges had a four to three split vote, and our stomachs dropped.

“Once they confirmed that four ballots went to Team Malaysia, all of us burst into tears. It was a surreal experience and as a coach, an intensely proud moment,” said Mai, 33.

Considered to be the most prestigious global debating championship, the WSDC is open for students aged 14 to 19 years old and every participating nation is allowed to send a single team of five debaters. This year’s edition of the WSDC marks its return to physical competition since the global COVID-19 pandemic pushed the championships onto virtual platforms for the past three years.

Other proud milestones had also been achieved by the debaters at the WSDC.

Team Malaysia was the recipient of the Best ‘English as a Second Language’ (ESL) Team award. Individual accolades were received by three out of the five members. Umar bin Fazlan Azri was awarded Overall 12th Best Speaker and seventh Best ESL Speaker, Teioh Nuan Ning was awarded Overall 14th Best Speaker and ninth Best ESL Speaker, and Arjun Gunalan was awarded Overall 23rd Best Speaker.

The road to such success was not an easy one for the debaters as they had devoted countless hours to prepare for the WSDC.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that these students commit almost a thousand hours in training every year in preparation for Worlds.

“We initially start with training twice a week (roughly four hours every session) and competing once a month. With every passing month, we ramp up the frequency of training until we finally train every single day in the last two months.

“In training sessions, we have debate practices and feedback, lectures and exams, specific drills to train on specific skills, and we conduct research and watch debate videos,” said Mai.

The team’s success was an extremely rewarding one for team captain Arjun for it was the culmination of three years of hard work and sacrifices.

Umar Fazlan Azri storming the awards stage with the Jalur Gemilang. (Credit: Vietnam WSDC 2023)

“Reaching the semifinals was something I had never imagined would be possible, given that Malaysia does not have an extensive track record of debating unlike other more well-established nations.

“It’s been extremely humbling and an honour to have had the opportunity to represent Malaysia on the global stage,” he said.

“I’m still reeling from the fact that our team was able to make Malaysian debating history, and I would’ve not been able to achieve this feat if it wasn’t for the support of my coaches, teammates, WSDC Malaysia alumni and family,” added Arjun.

For third speaker Umar, it had been a surreal experience to be competing at the WSDC and he considers it to be some of the best weeks of his life.

“One of my happiest moments was when I was announced as the Overall 12th Best Speaker in the world. I was not the best at public speaking as a child, and seeing my name pop up on the screen helped me realise how far I had come since my primary school days.

“It showed that I could excel as an individual member of the team, and it was extremely motivating to hear the cheers from the audience and my teammates as I walked onto the stage and received my award,” he said.

As for the future, Arjun and Umar have recently graduated from high school and will commence their studies at their respective universities soon. Both are excited to continue debating competitively at university level and hope to be able to train the next generation of debaters for Team Malaysia.

Prior to WSDC 2023, Team Malaysia had managed to make it to as far as the quarterfinals in the years 2015, 2020, 2021 and 2022 – making the semifinals finish this year all the sweeter for the team.

Head coach Mai also looks forward to continuing developing future talent for Team Malaysia.

“We will continue our work in developing the debating circuit in Malaysia and reopening the next cycle for the 2024 national debate team.

“The application process will begin this September. All details are available on our website and all our social media channels,” she said.