Being With Debaters

Off the Ayer Rajah Expressway, through Ghim Moh housing estate (slowing down for jaywalking students), round that voluptuous curve in the road and Raffles Junior College peers out at you from behind a rather strangely landscaped and mildly overgrown island thingy in the driveway.

Homecomings thrive on immediate connections, the sort that are still relevant and apparent enough that they don’t have to be explained. So this is never quite a homecoming. It’s an amateur movie of me walking around a place I spent two years of my life, with ghostly commentators drawing arrows and circles on the screen. Here’s where Michelle and her friends would stagger after classes were over for the day. They sat in the tuckshop and drank 30-cent mugs of cool lemon tea, but they called it their “beer garden” for some reason. Sad kids. Here’s where Michelle’s class used to go to pretend to productively use the free period before PE on Fridays, but where they’d inevitably end up giggling helplessly, overcome by what they came to call the Friday madness, until the one-trick-pony librarian would come round and threaten “You can do your talking OUT-SIDE.”

I was there to judge the preliminary rounds of the national debating championships. We counted six “generations” of Rafflesian debaters among the judges alone. There was that wonderfully refreshing feeling that however outspoken or blunt I let myself be, it wasn’t going to intimidate my companions, or discourage them from being equally outspoken and blunt right back. A rare feeling for me in Singapore. My other prime conversational flaw, of assuming I know what someone else is saying before they finish the sentence, and interrupting them because I’m so eager to respond, was equally replicated in most of my companions. And again, the feeling that only here can we do this.

Here, in this smug little circle of articulate, confident, smart arses, we can cautiously lower the self-censorship screens we (or at least I) erect the rest of the time. I forget myself and interrupt you, because I know if I’ve got you wrong, you’ll correct me with the verve and wit that makes these conversations sparkle, not just keep quiet and think dark thoughts about loudmouth Michelle imposing her opinions on the world. We can all talk at each other simultaneously, but we’re all listening too. The faults that everyone else hates in us are the lifeblood of our times together, and it is nice, even if I acknowledge they’re faults to be corrected the rest of the time, to let my guard down every now and then.