Whipping up clashes

After the 1st round of the Singapore Secondary School Debate Championships, I predictably yet again received many requests both from debaters and coaches alike regarding how to prep 3rd speakers for prepared rounds. Generally speaking, 1st Proposition speeches are entirely scripted, while 1st Opposition to 2nd Opposition speeches are still relatively easy for coaches to script since speakers can simply mix and match responses from their rebuttal sheet with their prepared substantives.

I have always believed that prepared rounds are sub-optimal for debate improvement. Debates often descend into a battle of written scripts by team coaches who often run unconventional cases specifically to catch their opponent’s team and coach off-guard. Debaters become over-reliant on the prepared script given to them, and cease to utilize their intellectual and creative capacities. This is why many Proposition teams tend to run highly nuanced cases with a plethora of caveats, in the hopes that they are able to pre-emptively nullify Opposition’s prepared substantives.

For the SSSDC Round 1 motion: This House would impose a tax on drinks which have a high sugar content. They were rooms where the debaters in Proposition included what is essentially a GST rebate voucher (cash handout to the poor) in order to address the regressive nature of a sugar tax (consumption taxes tend to hurt the poor more). In this situation, the vast majority of debaters in Opposition will not abandon their prepared substantive about how the proposed sugar tax will discriminate against the poor for 3 main reasons.

  1. They have unfounded fears that they would anger their coaches who painstakingly prepared the substantive for them.

  2. They are not mentally prepared, or conditioned to think of a new substantive on the fly.

  3. Since most debaters operate on auto-pilot in a prepared round, focusing all their mental energies on reciting their prepared scripts with gusto, they may not even realize that caveats in Proposition’s policy have rendered their substantive ineffectual.

In these instances, experienced coaches would probably elect to run substantives that are relatively immune to surprising clarifications and caveats coming from Proposition. Reuben and myself would sometimes prepare different substantives, and even entirely different cases depending on the different definitions or policies which Proposition may set up.  After coaching at this level for a decade, I believe that prepared rounds are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they reduce the barriers of entry for new and inexperienced debaters (assuming their school has resources to hire an experienced coach), which do make up a significant number of participants at SSSDC. However, the nature of the format encourages reliance on prepared scripts which can be detrimental to the development of debaters.

Let’s face the facts though, nobody is really reading this article to hear about my rants, so let’s start by talking about clashes. You may have heard experienced 3rd speakers beginning their speech by claiming that there are a number of clashes they will seek to resolve and wondered aloud, what is a clash? Put simply, clashes are points of disagreements on both sides. In an earlier article I wrote regarding policy debates, I mentioned that most policy debates boil down to 3 clashes, namely, whether the policy proposed is:

  1. Necessary or unnecessary to solve a stated problem

  2. Fair or unfair to various stakeholders

  3. Effective or ineffective in achieving its objectives

What I’m going to do in today’s article is to showcase a 4-step method to formulating a clash, complete with very important graphical illustrations.

Example Motion: THW impose a tax on drinks which have a high sugar content.
Example Clash: Would this tax be fair or unfair?

Step 1) Reiterate, Improve or even Impact the arguments already made on your side.

Avoid repeating an argument wholesale, the aim here isn’t to remind the adjudicator of what has already been said, since that is unlikely to gain you much credit as a speaker. To the extent that you wish to refer to an argument made by your teammates, you can simply borrow the label used previously.

Moreover, skilled 3rd speakers understand that sometimes their 1st or 2nd speakers may not have elaborated upon or impacted their arguments as much as they could have. This is where you may wish to fill in the gaps to improve an existing argument made. Take note that the rules of 3 on 3 formats (WSDC, Asians, Australs) do not allow for 3rd speakers (especially 3rd Opp, or Opp Whip) to deliver “new material”, since it is considered unfair for judges to credit arguments that opponents have no opportunity to respond to.

That being said, just because you aren’t supposed to have “new material” in your speech doesn’t actually mean that your speech shouldn’t have anything new. In the WSDC format, 3rd speakers are expected to provide “evolution”, kinda like a Pokemon, which makes sense, because obviously arguments should “evolve” and improve over the course of the debate. In other varsity formats, whips can provide additional analysis based on existing arguments, which if you think about it, is pretty damn vague.



Regrettably, the vast majority of debaters and adjudicators have probably never read through all the rules of the format, and probably utilize subjective metrics based on what they perceive to be the norm. Even in relatively advanced circuits, the reliance on volunteers can mean that the adjudication pool can be relatively inexperienced, sometimes embarrassingly so. All these mean that as a 3rd speaker you should be taking measures to ensure your material does not sound like its new, even if it is sometimes the case.

“My previous speakers told you that a tax on sugary drinks promote fair outcomes in 3 ways

1) internalizing the external costs of sugar consumption

2) combating MNC attempts to encourage addiction to sugar

3) incentivizing companies to move towards lower calorie options which increases consumer choices”

Notice that I did not necessarily rehash arguments that were already made, I simply utilized relatively concise labels to refer to them. That being said, I could have easily chosen to elaborate or impact any of the above 3 points, all the while PRETENDING that my 2nd speaker had already explained them in detail EVEN THOUGH I was actually filling in the gaps.

For example, under the 1st tier of internalizing the external costs of sugar consumption, I could have easily added some statistics about what these costs are, explained further the obesity epidemic or even talked about how the tax could fund programs to promote healthier lifestyle choices. These are all ways to bolster the original argument above and beyond what was originally delivered.



Looking at the extremely professional statistical illustration above, we can see that by the time the 3rd speaker starts speaking, both teams have already amassed a certain number of points as can be seen from their respective power levels. By elaborating and impacting a pre-existing argument, you are in effect boosting the power levels of your team.

Step 2) Respond to your opponent’s attacks.

“My previous speakers told you that….

So how did our opponents respond? They suggested that consumers will continue to consume the same amount of sugary drinks because of their addiction to sugar.

1) This is simply UNTRUE, consumers are clearly price sensitive which is why many of them purchase bigger 1.5, 3, or even 5litre bottles because they are more value for money. Given that poverty correlates highly with obesity, poor people are far more likely to be obese as a result of overconsumption of sugar, an increase in prices will definitely result in a reduce in consumption as these drinks become less affordable.

2) EVEN IF our opponents are naive enough to believe that consumption of these sugary drinks will not fall, which flies in the face of decades of economic theory and statistics, the tax money collected can help to provide better healthcare services and launch campaigns to promote healthier lifestyles, which means that we can still internalize the externality costs.

3) FURTHERMORE, our opponents failed to consider that companies are likely to respond to this tax by reducing sugar levels in their drinks or providing alternative options with lower sugar levels in order to avoid the tax and secure higher profit margins. As a result of the proliferation of these healthier drink options, consumers are likely to consume less sugar overall.

Therefore, our opponents have provided insufficient response to our analysis as to why our sugar tax promotes fairer outcomes for both the consumers who now have a greater variety of options for beverages, as well as the state who is able to utilize funds raised from the tax to combat the obesity epidemic.”

Engagement is an important aspect of debating in all formats, it is what differentiates debating as an activity from public speaking. In the WSDC format, arguments or rebuttals not responded to tend to be fully credited by the adjudicator. (P.S. I am uncertain as to whether this is unique to the Singapore circuit or representative of the way the format is adjudicated at the World Championships)

Regardless, rebuttals which are not engaged with have a dampening effect on your team’s arguments. Adjudicators are likely to give your team’s arguments less credit the moment any doubt has been cast by your opponents. Consequently, appropriate responses to defend your argument will increase it’s credibility, your speaker scores and your team’s chances of winning.



If you arguments do not receive any responses, you should also highlight this to the adjudicator, who would likely consider your arguments to be more credible as a result. In fact, the lack of responses to your team’s best arguments should be considered a sign that you should elaborate or impact the argument even further to encourage the adjudicator to penalize your opponents.

“Our opponents have provided no responses to our analysis as to why our sugar tax promotes fairer outcomes for both the consumers, who now have a greater variety of options for beverages, as well as the state, who is able to utilize funds raised from the tax to combat the obesity epidemic.

Clearly, a sugar tax needed to curtail the worst excesses of big beverage companies, who have abused their market power to get consumers hooked on sugar through larger serving sizes and clever marketing campaigns. It is unfair that consumers should suffer the consequences of obesity as a result of their manipulation, it is even more unfair that the state has to bear the additional healthcare costs and productivity losses as a result of obesity while companies continue to profit off the health of consumers. Our policy is perhaps the best way to right these wrongs and our opponents have thus far provided no analysis to prove otherwise.”

Step 3: Respond to your opponent’s arguments

Note that this is different from responding to their rebuttals to your argument. Step 2 defends your arguments from attacks, whereas Step 3 attacks your opponent’s arguments.

“Our opponents argued that a sugar tax is unfair because consumption taxes are regressive as they constitute a greater proportion of the poor’s income.

I have several responses to this.
1) Our proposed tax on drinks with high sugar content is a limited tax on very specific items. It is unlikely that any increase in prices of these drinks will drastically affect anybody’s disposable income.

2) To the extent that these sugary drinks become less affordable, consumers as rational actors will likely turn to alternative options with lower sugar content or simply reduce their consumption of such beverages.

3) If there is really a concern with the tax being regressive, we can use a portion of the tax revenue as direct cash transfers to the poor, just as Singapore provides GST rebates to low income citizens to offset the consumption tax increase.

4) Given that there is a high positive correlation between poverty and obesity, poor people are actually better off if they consume less sugar anyway, as they will enjoy greater savings on healthcare costs and increased levels of productivity.”

“Clashes” are called as such because they signify points of disagreement between both sides of a debate. In the example used across this article, both teams have arguments which represent a clash over whether a tax on sugary drinks creates fair or unfair outcomes for various stakeholders.



Just as your opponents rebuttals cast doubt on your arguments and hence serves as a dampening effect on your argument’s power levels, your own rebuttals do similar damage to the power levels of their arguments.

Step 4: Comparisons



Here’s a quick summary to go over everything again:

Label the clash as a trade-off between two opposing viewpoints, X or Y
E.g. Is our policy effective or ineffective?
Do children have a right to privacy?
Will legalizing sports betting cause a significant rise in addiction to gambling?

Step 1: Reinforce your team’s arguments

“My team told you that X is more true than Y for a number of reasons

Reason 1) Provide concise label
Reason 2) Provide concise label
Reason 3) Provide concise label”

Consider introducing additional examples, elaboration and analysis to bolster the argument, all the while pretending that your teammates had already done so.

Step 2:

“How did our opponents respond?”
Defend your team’s arguments from attack.
Explain that since your opponent’s response fails, is insufficient/non-existent. Your argument remains standing, proceed to elaborate on the impacts of the argument and explain why your team’s arguments are powerful and winning in the debate.

Step 3:

Rebut your opponent’s argument. I may or may not post another article on responses depending on whether I feel like it.

As seen in the above illustration, once all of the above steps have been taken, it becomes self-evident that your team’s power level triumphs over your opponents, now all you have to do is to explain this:

Step 4:

“We were able to prove XYZ, our opponents had no/insufficient response, and their argument could not withstand out responses, therefore, we have justified to trade-offs and weighed the clash in our favour.”

It’s that simple.

Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2019 Round 2