Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2019 Round 1

It’s that time of the year again, SSSDC motion analysis brought to you by Alfred Goh, the first, and hopefully the last for this year if Reuben finally starts writing about something other than tournament gossip and his obsession with basketball and excel sheets. Writing these articles are great fun, fellow coaches have asked me how I balance writing useful content while making sure that my students don’t have their cases leaked, which is ironic because they were asking for the true secret sauce while airing concerns that I was sharing the secret sauce freely. Full disclosure, for the first time in like a decade, I am not currently coaching a team at this year’s SSSDC (i.e. I’m currently still available if anyone is hiring), and I must say that it sure feels liberating to not have to second guess myself.

I know that people are probably looking forward to this since we have heard concerns from observers that debaters across different rooms were using our arguments posted last year. Ultimately, these articles aren’t meant to gift entire cases to debaters or coaches who are too lazy to do the work themselves. If I wanted to do that, I could probably just open my office up to the entire circuit as a shameless marketing ploy. For reference, my SSSDC scripts tend to be around 900-950 words long for a 6 minute speech, and my analysis for each motion is probably going to be around half that length. (ok, sometimes I go overboard)

What I’m really trying to achieve with these articles is to provide some interesting insights into each motion and to illustrate some key learning points that can help guide younger debaters in the right direction. Hopefully, this will help improve the overall quality of arguments and debates across the board so that everyone room will have, I quote, a high level debate with six excellent public speakers each with contrasting styles and the judges will tell me that they have noticed a significant improvement from all debaters this year. (which they seem to suggest every year)

Now that I’m done with the trolling and self-publicity, let’s get down to business.

Motion 1: This House would abolish physical education lessons in secondary schools and instead require each student to join at least one sports or exercise-based extracurricular activity.

I hate to admit this, but Reuben told me something I found quite enlightening when we were having a discussion about how to teach students how to navigate policy debates. In a policy debate (which all 3 motions for SSSDC round 1 are), the arguments on Proposition and Opposition change depending on the policy which Proposition sets up. A very long time ago, when I was still a teenager, I used to witness debaters at SSSDC claim that how a policy is enacted was a feasibility issue, which matters less than the principle of whether something should be done. I really hate it when debaters say this as a lazy way of avoiding engagement, and I am glad that the debate community today generally recognizes that how a policy is implemented changes the outcomes and end goals within a debate.

In proposition, the first thing I would consider is whether this policy would replace Extra Curricular Activities entirely, or would it simply supplement existing ECAs. If ECAs were incorporated into curriculum time as a replacement for P.E. periods, it would free up significant amounts of time after school which can be a big deal for students who are struggling academically. There may be some concerns that non exercise-based ECAs, like debating, would suffer as a result, but there is  no reason why students can’t choose to take on a 2nd ECA after school hours. On the other hand, Proposition can also choose to implement a policy where the periods which replace P.E. sessions become a 2nd recreational ECA for students on top of the current compulsory ECAs which they engage in after school. This would reduce the disruption to the current ECA system while still ensuring that students have time to develop their skills in an exercise based activity which existing PE periods are not conducive for. Of course, Opposition can claim that reform can be made to the PE periods to ensure that they are more focused, so for example, students can be given 6 to 8 weeks to engage in a single sport instead of cycling through different activities each session, but that still isn’t able to replicate the experiences of having 4 to 5 years to hone your skills in a single activity.

Here is a quote from the PE syllabus written by the Ministry of Education in Singapore:

“Through PE, students are given the opportunity to participate in a VARIETY of physical activities such as sports and games and acquire the concepts and skills that will enable them to participate in these sports and games both for leisure and competition.”

For all those who have been assigned the first motion, I highly recommend reading through the entire syllabus in the URL link below:

The MOE syllabus provides comprehensive guidelines for the objectives, aims, scope and selection of PE activities, and Opposition teams will find this information immensely useful in the defense of how PE currently operates. Proposition teams on the other hand, should consider how the way PE is currently structured is not very conducive for students to attain a decent level of proficiency in any activity. Proposition should consider whether the current PE policy effectively meets the aims and objectives set up in the syllabus and perhaps even come up with a new (and hopefully better) set of objectives that their own policy can achieve. Always remember, debate is not just a discussion of what is, but analysis of what should be.

In summary, arguments change depending on what policy side Proposition chooses, so if you are Proposition, consider the pros and cons of different options and choose wisely. If you are Opposition, be aware that there may be different permutations of the policy and prepare for each accordingly. It would be best to have different prepared responses for different iterations of Proposition case and to have prepared substantives which would work regardless of the policy Proposition chooses to run.

Motion 2: This House would ban gambling on sports events

I think that the biggest mistake debaters are likely to make for this motion is to approach it as if it were a generic gambling debate. If the adjudication core wanted teams to just have a discussion about gambling in general, they would have given a motion which read: “THW ban gambling”. Of course, Proposition can still choose to run arguments against all types of gambling. I will illustrate an argument using the technique I shared in one of my first articles, titled Analysis? Can eat or not?

How do people get addicted to gambling?

Gambling is a game of risk and reward which stimulates certain chemicals in the human brain which produce sensations of pleasure and excitement (much like the effects of smoking or drinking alcohol). These sensations along with the allure of winning money without having to work hard for it can be extremely enticing for individuals. Furthermore, psychologists have documented the effects of “loss aversion” on human beings, which refers to people's tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. Therefore, the pain from the initial losses often cause gamblers to chase after their losses by betting incrementally larger amounts.

Why should gambling not be considered a free and legitimate choice?

So what? What are the consequences of not banning gambling and why should the government care?

If you are wondering why I didn’t provide answers to the other questions listed, it’s because I’m trying to get your attention regarding the central point I am trying to make. Generally speaking, any sports based motion will require both teams to engage in a discussion over the value and purpose of sports as an activity. Take note that Motion 1 isn’t a really a motion about sports as much as it is about PE and exercise.

Proposition needs to consider why gambling on sports events violates the central principles of sports which makes them valuable. This may include how it directly corrupts the integrity of sport matches through match-fixing, how it changes the way sports and athletes are perceived when significant proportions of the fanbase gamble on the result, and even a discussion on whether an activity and industry meant to promote healthy lifestyles should be used to promote unhealthy lifestyle choices (which also include fast food and alcohol advertisements).

Opposition on the other hand, should consider explaining why sporting events in the 21st century are no longer just meant to encourage an active lifestyle. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of NBA or EPL fans don’t actually play football or basketball frequently, if at all. Major sporting events serve as a form of entertainment which brings great value to fans of the sport. In fact, for millions of sports fans globally, watching sports is their primary source of recreation and entertainment, and brings great meaning to their lives. Sports gambling can heighten fans enjoyment of the sport and increase the amount of attention and resources which teams and players enjoy.

Motion 3: This House would impose a tax on drinks which have a high sugar content

For this motion, I would like to highlight a very strange argument which I hate so much that I have to share with all our readers how to respond to it.

“Panel, Proposition’s policy is problematic because they will either set the tax too high, in which case it discriminates against the poor who can no longer afford it, or they will set the tax too low, in which case it will not have any effect on consumption patterns.”

This argument presents a bizarre dichotomy, and the first time it was utilized against me, I said
“Look, I see no reason why all the top economists hired to construct this policy can’t find the appropriate tax level which is just right, high enough that it deters consumption of sugary drinks in favour of low calorie/sugar options, but still low enough such that people can afford it.”

If a regular bottle of coke is taxed at 20 cents per bottle, it is still relatively affordable, but there will be savvy consumers who turn towards diet options instead. Producers of sweet drinks will be incentivized to reduce the sugar content to attain lower costs and higher profits. Of course, a tax on sugar would definitely be regressive in the sense that the poor will suffer more because the tax forms a higher proportion of their income, but this may not be a bad thing because there is a high correlation between poverty and obesity. Obesity amongst the poor is also a serious problem because they are more vulnerable to chronic illnesses while being less able to afford treatment for them. Tax revenue from this sugar tax can also be directed towards healthcare budgets, education and awareness campaigns which have shown to be effective in encouraging less sugar intake.

That said, there are many challenges and difficulties governments have to face if they have to implement a sugar tax. According to the Department of Finance and Revenue of Ireland, a sugar tax would be both complex to design and challenging to collect. In England and Denmark, the tax revenue collected as a result of a sugar tax has also fallen short of projections because such a tax requires an immense bureaucracy to implement and imposes a heavy administrative burden. For more information regarding the problems with sugar taxes, consider consulting this document:

Most secondary school debaters may not realize this, but imposing a tax on a new product category requires the government to create an entire administrative department for the sole purpose of enacting the tax policy. This is because there are thousands, perhaps even millions of different products which all contain different levels of sugar and hence have to be taxed a different amount. This is before we even consider the cost of collecting the taxes and ensuring compliance. The government incurs significant cost when implementing a tax on items which may only be calculated in terms of a few cents per item. On balance, based on my cursory research on Google, case studies of sugar taxes suggest that it is possible to generate revenue for sugar taxes depending on how they are implemented, but the tax revenue will be offset by the administrative cost of implementing the tax.

On a closing note, having been in the Singapore Secondary School debate circuit for 14 years, I have seen many first time participants of SSSDC enter the death spiral of getting nervous, performing badly and then wailing inconsolably afterwards. I consider this last piece of advice just as important as everything else above, and I always repeat this to all of my students participating in SSSDC.

“Regardless of whether you win or lose, or how you perform in this round or this competition, none of this will matter 1 year from now, much less 10 years from now. You are getting stressed and emotionally overwhelmed because this seems like an important competition. The truth is, in the larger scheme of things, how you perform at SSSDC does not at all determine how successful you will become as a debater, much less how you will perform in life. So go out there and enjoy yourself, because 10 years later, your losses here will not matter to you, but you will remember how fun the entire process was.”

After all, thousands of readers are going to view this article written by someone who has never actually debated at SSSDC.

Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2019 Round 2

Respect the Deputy