The GREAT DEBATE Project : How to Break New Ground and Capture The Attention and Support of the Public(s) at Large

During the two years of my presidency of the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia (IPRM) in 1988 and 1989, there were a number of milestones that certainly merit mention. However, before I get to those milestones let me just say it was a pleasure and an honour serving alongside such a group of PR colleagues.

These selfless individuals willingly agreed to devote, considerable time, energy and expertise by serving on the standing committees of the IPRM. Even today, some twenty plus years later, I marvel at that sense of mission and commitment that my fellow committee members displayed.

For many among them, this service was not just in the committees but also in the council of the Institute.

Establishing IPRM Chapters in Sabah and Sarawak

One of my priorities as president was to bring the benefits of having an IPRM Chapter established in Sabah and Sarawak during my tenure. It was no point calling ourselves IPRM when the needs and interest of members and potential entrants to the profession were not being served in the two East Malaysian states.

I persuaded my fellow council members on the need to take this proactive step. In addition, I remain grateful to my then vice president, Jaafar Abdul Manap ( Jeff ) who was manager of corporate communications at Malaysia Airlines and Tan Sri Abdul Aziz, managing director for their ready support of this initiative. They provided complimentary passage for two IPRM officials to travel to these states for that sole purpose.

With solid support from the PR professionals in the two states, we were able to establish chapters in both states. In Sarawak, Aloysius Dris the general manager of Sarawak Tourism Board was elected the chairman while in Sabah, Joseph Leong a PR professional was elected the chairman.

We also made an effort to host PR programmes up north in Georgetown, Penang and down south, in Johor Bharu. In these instances, we ensured that one of the speakers at the event was a local PR professional and the other was an IPRM Council Member from Kuala Lumpur. The idea was to create greater awareness of the value of PR as well as to energise the local PR professionals to network.

Review and Revamp of IPRM’s Education Programmes

This was another milestone. This major undertaking was carried out by the Education and Training Committee under the dynamic leadership of Marlene Cheong, then a senior lecturer at Institut Teknologi Mara.

Marlene and her team did a wonderful, painstaking job and successfully integrated all three IPRM programmes into a certificate and a diploma programme. At a later stage, we also ran a distance education programme for those out station participants who were based in the various states of Malaysia.

Introduced Fellowship Conferment Ceremonies

In a professional body like IPRM, a potential member had to fill up a detailed application form and thereafter submit the form duly sponsored by two members together with the appropriate fees to the IPRM secretariat.

There were then three classes of membership that one could be admitted into: Affiliate Member ( no voting rights ) for those with no experience or credentials in the PR field; Associate Member (AMIPR) for those with a minimum of a year’s experience in PR and/or for those with an acceptable qualification in a related field; and Member (MIPR) for those with five years or more experience in PR and/or with a master’s degree in a related field. Both Associate Members and Members could exercise full voting rights in the affairs of the Institute.

There were also two other special classes of membership. These were Fellow (FIPR) and Honorary Member. Conferment of honorary membership was an honour bestowed on worthy individuals who had made a significant contribution to the PR profession. The person could be a captain of industry, an outstanding mayor or even a cabinet minister. For this honour to be granted, it required the support of two thirds of Council who voted on the nominated candidates in secret ballot.

In the case of elevation to fellow membership status, this was a decision made by the Council of the Institute. No more than two outstanding individuals could be conferred Fellowship in any given year for their services to the profession and/or the institute. Here too, it needed the support of two thirds of Council who voted on the nominated candidates in secret ballot.

I made a conscious decision to hold appropriate conferment ceremonies on such occasions. One of the awardees in writing to me thereafter said: I salute your inspired idea on how the fellowship occasion should be conducted and your steadfastness in seeing it through as envisaged. Also your address was outstanding for it traced the membership accreditation process and highlighted the fellowship as an award of recognition and honour.’

The Great Debate Project

The Great Debate project that IPRM undertook was easily the finest example of a milestone. The proposal to organise and sponsor the Great Debate was made by Jaafar Abdul Manap. Jeff, as his friends used to call him, made the bold proposal during the first year of my presidency. As chairman of the active and extremely energetic Professional Practice Committee, Jeff was enthusiastic and confident about organising this major, ground breaking event successfully.

The Great Debate project concept was actually modelled after the famous debates between undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the United Kingdom. These intellectually absorbing and humourous events were seen as a good way to entertain Malaysian audiences from all walks of life.

It was also an excellent way to promote the use of the English Language to a wider cross section of Malaysians. They would get to see and hear how to go about making your points effectively, humourously ( occasionally ) and persuasively in a proper and courteous manner.

Jeff informed us that he had received full backing and support from his boss at Malaysia Airlines for this project. The Council of IPRM discussed the project at some length and thereafter endorsed the proposal and gave Jeff the go-ahead. Although we had great confidence in Jeff and his hard working team, we were sufficiently concerned about the financial implications!

To his credit Jeff and his merry men and women pulled it off brilliantly. The following changes were made to the Great Debate format to ensure that it was financially viable and also to add a Malaysian touch to it.

First, we invited two debaters each from Oxford and Cambridge universities and provided them with complimentary flights to Kuala Lumpur and back To London.

Second, we had also enlisted the Hilton Hotel Kuala Lumpur ( the venue for the major event ) to provide accommodation for the four debaters on a complimentary basis.

Third to add spice and variety, we invited two distinguished Malaysian leaders to be a part of the Oxford and Cambridge debating teams! Both were easily twice the age of the English debaters but had earned degrees from Cambridge University and Harvard University in the United States. One was female and trade relations director at Shell Malaysia and the other was a deputy minister and a vice president of a political party from the ruling coalition.

Fourth, we made provisions for two classes of attendees: those who were prepared to pay for a sumptuous dinner; and those who only came in after the dinner for the debate itself. As it turned about 80 per cent chose the first option! This was a pleasant surprise indeed.

Fifth, the event was officially graced by HRH the Sultan of Perak, who was a former Lord President of the Federal Court.

The format changes that were made were widely publicised by the print media. They also carried out interviews with the English debaters before the event as well as gave wide and excellent coverage for the whole event.

The inaugural Great Debate drew a record crowd of close to 1000 people. These individuals were not just from Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. There were attendees from up north in Penang, from Perak, from the east coast of Kuantan, from Seremban and Malacca and even from down south in Johor! Such was the appeal and attraction of this ground breaking event.

Feedback from a Public Relations Professional

In a letter to me dated 6 April 1988, Paddy Bowie a former vice president of IPRM and a legend in the Malaysian PR world said inter alia: ‘ I must congratulate the Institute on what I consider to have been the single most successful venture ever undertaken by IPRM in all the years that I have been associated with it. We are an ideas profession and this was a winner. And what more appropriate than for a professional association whose trademark is communications to organise a contest of oratory. As hardened professionals, we know that it would not have seized the media’s attention the way it did had it not had news value for breaking new ground.’

 

IPRM went to on to organise the Great Debates for a few years with considerable success. It even managed to organise a spin off event called the ‘ Battle of Wits ‘ with some success. The ‘ Battle of Wits ‘ too was organised for a few years.

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