Sat, 12 Apr 2003

Battle of wits

BBC television viewers may have been caught by surprise when its correspondent covering the Iraqi war Rageh Omaar, at one stage likened the sudden disappearance of the Republican Guard defending the city of Baghdad, which puzzled the coalition forces quite a bit, to a "battle of wits" between the warring parties' commanders.

Omaar's description of the war scene reminded me of a weekly television program aired by the state television TVRI initiated by students from University of Indonesia (UI) and by young intellectuals by the same rather misleading name "Battle of Wit" to promote critical thinking.

According to the initiators, the program confronts two groups debating topics of national and international interest in English in the fashion of the British House of Commons. The objective is to train young Indonesians to present their cases or defend them with arguments and counter-arguments supposedly before an international gathering. Such initiatives, indeed, must be commended since Indonesians are not the best speakers or debaters in international fora, in particular when it comes to true debating skills, such as in raising objections, or interrupting proceedings and proposing amendments by using polite but effective expressions or idioms.

I am impressed by the richness and variety of the vocabulary and idioms used by most of the speakers given the fact that they have been members of the House of Representatives only recently. Most, indeed are learning hard to master the language which takes a life-time to accomplish even among seniors and journalists.

However, what they should not overlook is that "wit" is more than knowledge, Vernunf in German or the power to know. The participants of the program have succeeded in exchanging, presenting and defending their views while attacking the opposition with sharp arguments.

But "wit" also implies the power to join ideas in an unusual way so as to produce surprise and pleasure. It is in this respect that the participants of the television program "Battle of Wit" should look for improvement. "Wit" may be described as something between sense of humor and criticism, often bordering on animosity.

It is advisable to guard against speaking in a foreign tongue while using native (Indonesian) logic or ways of thinking. To address your audience, of course, you cannot say: "Fathers and Mothers". Ladies and Gentlemen sounds very polite among student circles. Why not change it to Mr. Speaker! Occasionally you may say: "I'd like to draw your attention to...!"