Better Debates For A Better Singapore

Text and photos by Gaurav Keerthi

There is a difference between a debate and an argument. A debate is a clash of arguments; an argument is a clash of individuals. In a debate, it is possible to disagree without disrespecting because debaters are trained to respect both sides of any issue, even if they disagreed with the other side personally. In an argument, the disagreement stems from (or leads to) disrespect. We need more debates, and fewer arguments, in order to progress as a society. This epiphany took me many years to realise, and now that I have, it has become a consuming passion and driving force.

I started as a student debater in secondary school. I was terrible, and lost often. It was only in junior college that I started winning. After graduating from university, I came back and helped coach and judge young student debaters during my free time. I began to notice that the national champions usually came from the few top schools in Singapore, and that irked me (even though I was an alumnus). I believed then that learning to debate was important because it taught public speaking, critical thinking, and gave students self-confidence. When I was elected as the President of the non-profit volunteer-run Debate Association (Singapore), I made it our team’s mission to pivot and to bring debate to every school in Singapore. A few years later, we had brought almost every secondary school in Singapore in to the debate community, and we even saw some neighbourhood schools defeating top schools. Internationally, our team also did exceedingly well. I was thrilled at the progress on all fronts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stepped down in 2010, in order to reframe my passion for debating from just focusing on students, to thinking about the population at large (which was beyond the scope of our society). I began to think of debate as a critical tool to support societal progress: as our population became more diverse and views started to differ, we needed a better way to discuss the various perspectives and sides for important choices. We may not always come to a consensus, but the beauty of debate is that it is not an argument; we can disagree without disrespect. This was an important cultural shift that many Singaporeans sought. I thought I could bring my passion for debate into the adult world, so I tried to popularise debate among the masses through television and a book. Then I noticed a new, growing problem: comments on the Internet.

Commenting on the Internet was an absolute horrorshow. Websites like Youtube were a cesspool of hurtful and unproductive comments. Respected online journals turned off their commenting sections because trolls would poison the atmosphere of their website with their comments. Ordinary moderate people grew afraid of leaving their thoughts online, lest the trolls attack them too. Facebook created echo-chambers (studies showed that users rarely left comments when they disagreed with a friend, hence the friend would only receive positive “likes” and reinforce a potentially incorrect world view). Comment sections on blogs and news websites were unproductive, stretching on for hundreds of comments that nobody would read, with no useful insight at the end.

I decided that this had to change, and started studying the problem more earnestly. In 2013, I took a year off work and attended Harvard Kennedy School, where I studied negotiation, public communication, governance and democracy, and even game theory, so that I could build a better commenting system to promote more respectful, rational, and responsible debates.

I launched a prototype for a new commenting tool in mid-2014 to test it among my classmates, and it immediately caught the attention of my professors (and even tech blogs). My unique patent-pending algorithms, peer-based pre-moderation system (which allowed people to comment anonymously while still keeping out trolls), and real-time comment improvement hints for users had a demonstrable effect on the quality of conversations on tough issues. In mid-2015, I launched http://www.dialectic.sg publicly for the Singapore audience. The website is growing, and has attracted interest from policymakers, politicians, and mainstream news agencies. Most importantly though, it is attracting readers and commenters who are willing to courageously step forward and share their opinion.

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With no real budget, only a handful of earnest supporters, and limited time, the future of dialectic.sg did not seem hopeful to many. I am often asked why I have taken on such a thankless and (possibly) futile task, and whether it is worth the time and effort (and money) that I am spending on it. There are tough times, when I fear that intelligent Singaporeans are too shy or afraid to participate – and I may not be able to overcome their hesitation no matter what tool I build. I worry that the dialectic.sg will remain a niche product that appeals only to the already open-minded, instead of helping to open the minds of people who previously only saw one side of an issue or did not understand the facts behind it. I am not worried that somebody else will build a better tool – in fact, I am extremely happy that there are other online initiatives to make the Internet more balanced, because my hope is not for my website to do well for its own sake, but for our online space to become healthier, regardless of who achieves it. That perspective freed me up to be a lot more collaborative, open, and trusting. I am not here to win the Internet, or to make my riches from this tool. I am here to help, and anybody else who shares that perspective is a partner on a difficult journey. And that there are already a few who have stepped up to help me as volunteers gives me the strength and courage to keep pursuing my vision.

I envision dialectic.sg playing a part as an educational tool, for teachers who want students to learn how to robustly debate and comment on contentious policies online (private password-protected debate rooms will be supported soon). I envision dialectic.sg playing a part as part of the policymakers arsenal of feedback and opinion-seeking tools; where my comment analytics help a young civil servant understand the arguments for and against their policy (and perhaps even highlight a useful policy tweak that they did not consider earlier). I envision dialectic.sg transforming Our Singapore Conversation from a once-off effort to a regular, sustained, deliberate policy feedback process. I believe that this will make us a more balanced society, because voters could understand the difficulties faced in making policy choices, and policymakers could receive useful feedback to improve their policies.

Above all, I envision a society where the dialectic.sg’s motto can be achieved: better debates for a better Singapore.

About the author:

Gaurav Keerthi is an active volunteer in the debate community. He was the President of the Debate Association (Singapore), wrote a best-selling book, co-created and hosted an Emmy-nominated TV debate show, spoke at TEDx at Harvard, and most recently founded www.dialectic.sg, to make online debating respectful and rational again. Gaurav received scholarships to pursue a Bachelor of Arts at Stanford and a Master in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School.

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