Debating and Philippine liberalism

Lisandro E. Claudio
Philippine debating remains a locus of liberal rhetoric. Except its focus is no longer America, but Asia.

There has always been something oratorical about Filipino liberalism. Most of the key liberals of the 20th century, from the educator Camilo Osias to the diplomat Carlos P. Romulo, were described as skilled debaters. The Philippine republic – a democracy – has always been a polemical one, and those who care for its future have argued passionately, with grit and urgency. Thus, to trace the history of debating in the Philippines offers glimpses into the history of our liberal tradition and the forms of governance that we have aspired towards. 

I started thinking about this last week when, after a hiatus of seven years, I returned as a judge to the United Asian Debating Championship (colloquially known as “Asians”). It was great to be back, accompanying a new generation of debaters from the Ateneo Debate Society—one of the most decorated debating teams in Asia and the world. I spent a huge chunk of my college life debating, and the primary appeal of my “sport” was the people. Most of my best friends were at one point in their lives members of a debating society. 

In retrospect, I now see why I enjoyed the company of fellow debaters: Not only were they more interesting conversationalists, they were also more liberal than other students. My debater friends were more likely to believe in various liberal causes, from secularism, to feminism, to civil liberties, to gay rights, to anti-racism, etc. 

Judges of debate tournaments are not meant to advocate specific views. But there is no real neutrality (can there ever be to begin with?), because liberalism is the default setting of a parliamentary debate. In a debating tournament, it is difficult to argue against human rights like free speech or to argue in favor of dictatorships. It is a bias, but it is a good one. 

The provenance of Philippine debating culture is intimately linked to the history of Philippine liberalism. The earliest Filipino debaters learned English-language debating and oratory under an American colonial system that promised tutelage in the ways of democratic citizenship. Rhetoric was crucial to this process; one must defend one’s opinions in a democracy. Moreover, English language rhetoric would prove that Filipinos had mastered the language of the colonizer. The first debating teams, which seem to have clustered around university fraternities, emerged at the same time that Filipinos like Salvador P. Lopez were beginning to master the written form of argumentative rhetoric: the essay. 

The late 19th and early 20th century was what political philosopher Alan Ryan refers to as the “high tide of American liberalism.” The great American philosopher of this period was John Dewey, whose influence was most felt in the Philippines through his students and followers: Camilo Osias (founding President of the National University), Conrado Benitez (Dean of the UP College of Liberal Arts), and Florentino Cayco (founder of Arellano University). 

Dewey saw liberal democracy as a collective experiment, needing to be tested, validated, and rethought through joint democratic experiences. For him, this required a common deliberative space, and oratory would be the sine qua non of its creation. (In passing, I would like to note the irony that the University of Vermont, where Dewey finished his undergraduate studies, has a debating team and it is now coached by a Filipino: my former Ateneo teammate, Sharmila Parmanand).  

Proving their worth

Hence early Filipino debating teams were not simply competing; they were seeking to prove their worth as democratic subjects. In 1928, for example, Carlos P. Romulo, then a young instructor at UP, brought a debating team of four law students to the United States for a 15-university tour. According to Romulo’s grandson, Roberto, CPR’s boys beat teams from prestigious universities like Stanford and the University of Wisconsin, arguing in favor of Philippine self-governance. The skill of the debaters was in itself proof of their arguments: Filipinos were worthy democratic citizens.  

Fast-forward to the present, and Philippine debating remains a locus of liberal rhetoric. Except its focus is no longer America, but Asia. In the mid 1990s, Filipino teams started to participate in the Australasian Debating Championship (Oceania and Asia) and the World Universities Debating Championship (our first appearance was in 1995). In 1994, Ateneo de Manila University won the inaugural All-Asian Debating Championship, and Philippine teams have been strong contenders ever since (apart from Ateneo, UP and UST have won Asian titles, and La Salle is always a contender). 

The new world of parliamentary style debating (in contrast to the older American styles like Oregon-Oxford and Lincoln-Douglass) was Anglophone. We learned a British style of uninterrupted 7-minute speeches and read the common newspaper of Anglophone liberalism, The Economist, to sharpen our views on everything from the conflict in the Middle East to the European Union. America was de-centered as Filipinos witnessed British and Australian teams battle it out for the top spots. Asians could beat teams from the American Ivy League, but outranking Oxbridge was next to impossible (In the 2003 World Championships, a group of debaters collected a list of the most stupid quotes from the Harvard team. I do not recall the quotes, but they pretty funny. Needless to say, Harvard did not rank well that year.). 

Back in Asia, the big three of ASEAN – the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore – dominated and continue to do so. Asian teams have engaged in bitter competition in the Asian Championships, but they have a bond, fostered by a common experience of racism in the World Championships (only one Asian team has made it to the grand final of Worlds and no team has been close to winning it).  

The shift in debating cultures has mirrored the changing geopolitical position of the Philippine state: from American reliance to an increased focus on Asian regionalism. Yet one thing has remained the same, namely debating’s liberal ethos. If Romulo’s generation saw debating as way to learn American liberalism, my generation of debaters experience it as an immersion in nascent forms of Asian liberalism. In my years as a debater, I have had the pleasure to drink with members of the Malaysian opposition, who continue to challenge that country’s institutionalized racism. I have competed against Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims, who see their debating societies as bastions of liberal Islam. And I have formed deep friendships with Singaporeans who believe in a free press. 

The last time I competed was in Bandung, Indonesia—the site of the Afro-Asian solidarity conference in 1955, the birthplace of the Third World. My teammates and I debated in the very hall where an earlier Filipino debater, CPR himself, argued against India’s Nehru and China’s Zhou Enlai on issues of non-alignment and human rights. At Bandung, Romulo mounted a defense of human rights, which would help cement the image of the Philippines as a bastion of third world liberalism. 

The stakes of our debate were not as high, and the opponents, though worthy, not as exalted (we won the championship against the National University of Singapore). But I recall the experience with pride – the pride of an argumentative Filipino liberal who knows he has a lot to live up to. –


Lisandro E. Claudio is a program-specific researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University and Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He was formerly coach of the Philippine national debating team and is writing a book on the history of Philippine liberalism























































































































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