by Jeanne Tan (17A01B), Samuel Loh (16A01A), Hari Kope (16S06H)
The relevance of marriage, one of society’s most sanctified and cherished of institutions, is often left unquestioned and taken for granted. In the first of many to come, the inaugural installment of the Hodge Lodge Debate Series, held in conjunction with this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March, walked members of a captivated audience along the fine line between a marriage of love, or as proposition speaker Ashish Kumar puts it, modern-day sexual slavery.
Organized by the Raffles Debaters, the Series seeks to raise awareness of critical perspectives and foster an acute sensitivity to pressing, real world problems – all through a battle of wits and words. Four seasoned debaters were invited to debate the motion “This House regrets the institution of marriage.” The proposition bench was represented by Ashish, a recent Cambridge Law graduate and best speaker of the 2015 World Universities Debating Championships, and Rebecca Tan, who completed her education at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and has since been coaching the debate teams of various secondary schools, such as Raffles Girls’ School. Their opposing number comprised Adil Hakeem, who in 2012 was awarded the President’s Scholarship and now studies at Yale University, and Dr. Vernie Oliveiro, a civil servant, Harvard alumnus, and an active member of AWARE. After the debate, Dr. Oliveiro and Vanessa Ho, founder of Project X, led a panel discussion on women and modern relationships. Project X is an advocacy group that seeks to protect sex workers in Singapore from abusive behavior.
The night began with an audience vote, and the entry poll showed 70% in favour of the opposition. Faced with these odds, the proposition speakers spoke with expected vigour, determined to persuade the audience otherwise, offering arguments such as how marriage entails crushing societal baggage and creates discrimination against children born out of wedlock. These issues are undeniably relevant in our society. The proposition also brought up the issue of marital rape in more conservative societies, a perspective that is often overlooked through the lens of privilege. We as Singaporeans often forget to think outside of our immediate surroundings, especially forgetting those less easily reached in our ostensibly interconnected world.
The opposition speakers opted for a more emotional approach, bringing up marriage as it is viewed by different groups today. In particular, Dr. Oliviero raised relevant examples about the LGBT community in the United States. She recounted anecdotes of friends and acquaintances for whom marriage stood for belief and a mutual surrendering, remarrying even after bitter divorce, making for a strong case for marriage as an institution representing the triumph of hope and redemption in the face of rising divorce rates.
In the closing reply speeches, Ashish delivered a memorable message to the audience, encouraging them to “think about people who live under the tyranny of society, who have to sign up for an institution they don’t want to.” And indeed, this impassioned appeal seems to hold much water in the context of liberal societies’ struggle against their more conservative counterparts. On subjects such as these, one cannot afford to simply consider the wants and needs of those in liberal societies alone. Ashish’s exhortations were resounding and quite clearly taken to heart, with exit polls reflecting a stunning change in audience sentiments: now, 70% were in favour of the proposition instead.
After the debate came the discussion panel, which provided insight concerning the maltreatment of and discrimination against sex workers in Singapore, as well as issues of gender equality at large. Ms Ho challenged the audience’s assumptions about rape and emphasised the difficulty in speaking out. She discussed her experience working with some sex workers who live in fear of persecution for their occupation, or have to hide the true nature of their employment lest they lose custody of their children. She encouraged people to view sex workers and women whose fates are decided by society’s judgements on their profession with empathy rather than condescension.
The panel then moved into a wider exploration on advocacy. The role of the media was an area of great contention, with passionate interjections from the speakers and the audience alike. The Bechdel Test was raised as an example of identifying female representation in media, in the midst of concerns over the presence of female characters in the movie industry. Mad Max: Fury Road was raised by Adil as a positive example of how women can be portrayed in media, and how its novelty is an indication of the lack of variety in current media roles for women, as any fan of modern cinema should be able to identify. The discussion rounded off with introducing intersectionality, the sociological idea that many traits of social disadvantages can and often do overlap. There was a lively exchange from both ends, creating a charged atmosphere of strong opinions – no doubt an intellectually stimulating experience, no matter which side you were on.
If anything, the enthusiastic and fervently participatory crowd were sure signs that the inaugural Hodge Lodge Debate had gotten Rafflesians to think critically about the world around them: the dramatic shift in audience opinions was remarkable. Experienced debaters were put on the spot with tough and thought-provoking questions from the students and the ensuing discussion was most enlightening. The debate was a great sneak peak into the enriching world of debate and social issues, and Raffles Press strongly recommends future editions of the Series to its readers.
As part of the Hodge Lodge Debate Series, the Raffles Debaters frequently invites experienced and knowledgeable debaters, both past and present, to discuss pertinent social issues that affect us all. The next Hodge Lodge Debate will be held on 3 May 2016, on the topic of Press Freedom.