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  • Writer's pictureRiver Valley Student Editorial Club

The Best Speaker in the World

By Liu Xuanyi, 23J19

Many of us probably do not know that we have a world-class debater in our midst. That is none other than Ms Chitra Jenardhanan from the English Department. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview her on her experience at the 1995 World Universities Debating Championships at Princeton, where she clinched the overall Best Speaker in the World Award.

Ms Chitra holding the giant gavel that she won as a prize!

When asked about her experience debating, she shared that she has always had an interest in various forms of public speaking.

“I started out doing a lot of storytelling. Then I got into secondary school and started doing PESA (Plain English Speaking Competition) and other public speaking competitions.

My first taste of it was PESA in Sec 4, where I represented my school in the nationals and I came in third.” Later on, she switched focus and thus began her journey as a debater in Junior College, subsequently joining the NTU debate team while in University.

Reflecting on her experience at NTU, she shared about the interesting mix of debaters across different faculties in the debate team, where she was the only one from the teaching faculty.

In fact, when asked about the obstacles she faced, she thought for a while before saying, “Actually, not very much, you know. I think I always enjoyed it.” The toughest part for her was simply the commute from the NIE campus, which used to be at Bukit Timah, to the NTU campus at Jalan Bahar in the West.

“Honestly, the hardest part for me was just really just making it to training sessions and balancing it.”

Old Campus of the National Institute of Education at Bukit Timah

From Singapore to the World

At NTU, the team “got [their] feet wet” at regional Australasian tournaments where they did very well and always ended up coming out on top. Considering their stellar performance in these smaller-scale competitions, she recounted that the NTU teachers decided to just let them try without thinking anything would come out of it. They sent two teams, each comprising two people, to the 1995 World Universities Debating Championships, which took place in the US, at Princeton University.

When asked about her experience in this competition, she dismissed it as having “happened like 5000 years ago”. She also shared that she “didn’t actually set out to do that” and she “didn’t even know it existed”. Curiously, this major accomplishment was not a goal she had set her mind to achieve, but instead a welcome surprise.

“We didn’t know that they were keeping tabs on not just the teams but the individual speaker scores.” She recalled that her team came up tops in the ESL (English as a second language) category.

“So we were congratulating each other and then they started reading the rankings for the open category. It was possibly one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had in my life. Everyone was expecting this guy from Oxford to be number one, but they actually read out his name as number 3 or number 2, and then they read out my name. I think there was a bit of a stunned silence.”

She admitted, “I wasn’t really paying attention, to be honest with you. I was talking to someone when this was going on. People were like ‘Yo, your name has just been read out.’ And I was just like, “What now?’”

A Series of Firsts

What was even more impressive was that beyond being crowned as Overall Best Speaker and beating those from elite universities like Oxford and the Ivy Leagues, her win also marked a couple of firsts.

She was the first Asian and first woman to win this title. She felt that this made the achievement “very special”, and she is particularly proud that her record actually stood for many years.

Of course, her return to Singapore was met with great fanfare. She was featured on the front page of the Straits Times and the New Paper. She even received the prestigious Excellence for Singapore Award in 1996, conferred by the Singapore Totalisator Board (also known as the Tote Board for short) for the first time that year, alongside 4 other awardees.

On the attention that she received for the achievement, she remarked, “I was glad because it helped raise the profile of debating especially in NTU because up to that point, it was NUS that had been hogging all the attention. So it was quite nice for NTU to have a little bit of that attention.”

She followed up by saying “It was quite nice to get something like that as recognition. That was quite fun and pretty amazing. It’s one of those things you put on your resume, but then people forget about it after many years, until Mr. Wee reminds people that it happened.”

(Fun fact: I found out about this from Mr William Wee who brought it up during a PW lesson. I don’t think I would have ever found out otherwise, so we have him to thank for the existence of this article!)

Unfortunately, Ms. Chitra is no longer as involved in debates as before. When asked if she missed debating, she replied wistfully, “I do. Mr. Mark and I talk about it quite a bit because we both have the same background.”

“I miss the style of debates at university. I miss the sparring. That is where all the learning happens. I miss sitting together with a team of people and discussing how we would run and structure the arguments."

"I like the research. I was doing this at a time when there had been no Internet. I know it's very strange for you guys to imagine this. We’re talking 1995, yeah, no Google, not much access to things like that. So a lot of it was really from up here," she gestured to her head. "I miss the intellectual part of it, I really do. —And coming up with rebuttals! I always loved the rebuttals part. I think it’s fun, coming up on the spot with how you would rebut an argument. I’m still using that skill even as a GP teacher.”

Tips from the Pro

When it comes to her advice for debaters, she shared three of her top tips. (Actually, these tips seem very much applicable to those taking General Paper as well!)

  1. You need to read for breadth.

“It’s vital to keep yourself up-to-date. You need to be well-read with what’s happening locally, regionally, and internationally. When you’re planning a case, you need to be able to make references to as many different countries as possible. You don’t want to make a case with no evidence at all.”

2. You also need to read for depth.

“You need to read a lot of opinion articles, editorials, commentaries because a lot of what you're doing in debating is making observations, proposing solutions. So, to be able to make a recommendation takes a lot of reading. You need to be informed.”

3. You have to be naturally curious.

“When you hear of something, you have to start asking questions. And that’s how you find holes or flaws in the argument given by somebody else. Anything and everything I read or hear, there’s a little part of my brain that’s asking, why, how, et cetera.”

Subsequently, I asked Ms Chitra about what it was that made her decide to be a teacher. She told me that she “always had two things [she] wanted to do — law or teaching.” She eventually decided against going into law, after she was told that law is mostly about paperwork, drafting out contracts and agreements, not so much using speaking skills. Shattering our romanticised views of the legal field, she said “I realised that a lot of what we think about law is very much influenced by what we see on TV. In reality, 99% of the law practiced in Singapore is really about contracts and paperwork.”

She declared that she would be bored out of her mind if all she did was paperwork. “That’s why I like teaching. I go to three different classes, I get three different experiences because everyone is different, every class is different. So it’s really hard to be bored.”

Another element that played into her decision was her own teachers, as “when you have very good teachers and educators in your own life, you kind of sometimes want to replicate that.”

She reminisced about her time as a student in JC. “I had an excellent, like really, amazing, excellent JC1 GP teacher when I was in JC. She used to show us very interesting documentaries; she used to give us very interesting things to read. So I kind of always thought I’d really like to be like her.”

On that note, I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out more about RV’s very own world-class debater, and excellent GP teacher, Ms Chitra!

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