MANILA, Philippines — At the recent World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC), touted as the Olympics of debate, Team Philippines was the most watched and was considered one of the best and strongest teams to beat, alongside European countries which have long dominated the tournament.
It’s because six Filipino high school students made history by emerging among the top four teams, alongside Scotland, Wales and England in the WSDC tournament held last month in Cape Town, South Africa.
The team was composed of Mariella Antoinette Salazar from International School Manila, Joaquin Maria Bonoan Escano from PAREF Southridge School, Donald Felbaum and Nico Lorenzo Flaminiano from Xavier School, Rico Rey Francis Holganza, Jr. from PAREF Springdale School in Cebu, and Sanjeev Parmanand from Ateneo de Zamboanga University High School.
They breezed through eight preliminary rounds of debates with six wins, and then went on to defeat Team Canada in the first round of the finals with a two to one decision, and then Team Singapore in the quarter-finals with a unanimous vote or a 5-0 score.
The team, however, was narrowly defeated in the semi-finals by Scotland.
Making it to the semi-finals was the farthest place any Philippine team has gone to in the competition. The closest it got in past WSDC tournaments was the top 16 ranking in 2009, followed by the 20th slot last year.
Team member Mariella Salazar says Team Philippines also earned high speaker points during the quarterfinals from top caliber judges.
UNEXPECTED WIN ON A CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC
Despite giving their best performance, the members didn’t really expect to defeat the big teams Canada and Singapore, 2010 and 2011 WSDC champions respectively. In fact, they only realized they were winning when the chief adjudicator was already explaining the merits of their arguments, and announced their victory!
Among the motions or topics discussed during their debates include socio economic rights, the ban on religious parties from running, rural urban migration, Arab Spring, and a feminist movement’s ban on pornography.
For Rico Holganza, Jr. of PAREF Springdale School, what sealed their win against Singapore was the motion which was really close to home, about believing that the gay rights movement should out gay celebrities.
"Team Singapore which was in favor of this motion argued that these gay celebrities who are public figures don’t have a right to privacy because they use their personality to market their brand or products. It runs counter to their values to be closeted gays because it’s deceptive. It's like false advertising. They also said they want to out these celebrities so they can be a model for gay children in conservative societies," says Nico Flaminiano of Xavier School.
But the Philippine team, who cited Hollywood and local gay celebrities in their arguments, maintained that these persons should still have some level of privacy and that they be given the freedom to come out by themselves in their own time and if they want to.
"We argued that some people are successful in creating a dichotomy between their public and private lives. This is very important in trying to protect their party, their children, family and friends from harm. We told them it's also very dangerous to mix public and private life," explains Nico.
Mariella, on the other hand, raised the issue of fragmentation between the movement itself and how outing gay celebrities is counterproductive to the movement.
"Instead of finding inspiration in this gay celebrities and making them role models, what it actually does is alienate certain people. It's like a witchhunt! You don’t have that level of scrutiny with the straight people then why do you want to have that level of scrutiny with gay people? Besides, many celebrities are happy with their lives and don’t even have to come out because they're already accepted,” she adds.
More than the arguments though, Donald Felbaum of Xavier School believes their responsiveness to the issues was what really got the judges on their side. “Both teams were really good. We just edged them out on the criteria of responsiveness and I think that's what sealed the debate more than anything," he notes.
FROM UNDERDOGS TO TEAM FAVORITE
In the earlier part of the tournament, Joaquin Escano of Southridge School says they were among the underdogs. People didn’t expect them to make it that far.
Thus when they advanced to the quarters and semi finals, the other teams began to take notice of their performance. Everyone wanted to watch them perform.
“The best feeling I had there was when we got off the bus and everybody cheered, congratulating us for beating Canada. They told us that we were the talk of the tournament. They even compared us to the Cinderella story, like we were the giant slayers!” Rico enthuses.
For Mariella, the most memorable part of the debates was when the judges announced that they won and the whole room got wild. “Our friends from Peru and Argentina started shouting Filipino, Filipino! They said we were friends with the Philippines before they even got famous!”
Joaquin cited their friendly nature as another reason for the team’s popularity in WSDC. Contrary to perception that debaters are out for the kill, he says that even when they aim for the win, teams still engage in a friendly match. Competing against a team, he adds, is one of the easiest ways to make friends with them.