A Tea Time With Kak Boby

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Hi kak Boby! We hope that you are well and healthy. And thank you for the opportunity to interview you kak. We are really excited to interview you as one of the finest debaters Indonesia has! Hahahaha!

Boby Andika Ruitang Indonesia debater


Kak Boby, you are a living legend in Indonesia’s debate realm. Debaters have known and are either inspired or perhaps intimidated by your countless debate milestones and achievements. Hahahah. And of course every debater has their own starting point to their journey. May we know when and how was the first time you fall in love with debate?

Hi! First of all, thanks so much for having me! It’s an honor to do this interview. And you’re way too kind in describing me, really.

Answering this question, I would have to say it was during High School. I was enrolled in Kolese Kanisius in Jakarta and we were mandated to take up at least one extracurricular. There was the Canisius English Forum and one of its members was part of the WSDC Indonesia Team in 2006. When he promoted the club, I was mesmerized. The way he spoke and the charisma he exuded was simply amazing – and I told myself, “I want to be like that”. So I decided to join!

But loving debate isn’t really a smooth journey for me. In fact, I initially hated it so much. During Grade X, I was always behind compared to my fellow club mates from the same batch. I couldn’t speak to 5 minutes. I always stutter and talk in circles. During weekly practices I would always lose the debates. It was very frustrating and I had seriously considered to quit the club and find another extracurricular the next semester. But one of my seniors convinced me to stay and offered to let me join Speech competitions instead. Surprisingly, I won all 3 Speech competitions I joined that following semester. I gained a lot of confidence from there and that’s when I started to believe again in debating. I started to join debate competitions in Grade XI and it became my monthly activity – I was always in a competition!

Debaters have their own reason to be one, whether they believe debate will help them change society, debate as platform to express themselves, or to the very least, for decorating their curriculum vitae. What does debate mean to you?

Initially, debating became the ‘thing’ I’m known for. KoleseKanisius is filled with so many smart and talented kids, it’s really hard to stand out. I didn’t come from a particularly wealthy family, I couldn’t afford to take extensive after-school tutoring like most of my classmates. Debating was my way to show everyone that I matter and that I too have competence. I remember trying out for team Jakarta selections for ISDC (back then that was NSDC’s name). My senior denied me to join the selections, saying that I wasn’t good enough and that debating wasn’t for me. I was really determined to prove him wrong. By the time I graduated from High School, I’ve brought home 20+ trophies – the most any student has ever done in history of my school.

But as I grew, debating was more than collecting silverware and certificates. It was an avenue to be my authentic self. I was raised in a very religious conservative family and I had certain understandings of the world, a lot of which were bigoted. Debating helped me see that those views are not only problematic, but also wrong. A lot of the hatred in the world stems from ignorance and a lack of understanding. I now see debating as a form of political activism. I strive to proliferate debating in everything that I do – organizing competitions, coaching teams, filling in workshops, even tweeting about current affairs. My goal is simple: if I’ve changed just one person’s mind about something, I see that as a win for progress.

A person may view his mom as a hero, or to some, Iron Man. Is there any particular person that inspires you to do great in debate activities?

My mother is the absolute inspiration for me. One thing that I admire from her is the level of honesty she displays about just anything. Initially I thought it was just an Ambonese thing — my Mom is 100% Moluccan, who are known for rapid talks and quick wit!. But it wasn’t. She was the rebel in her family – she had 12 siblings, and according to my late grandmother, my Mom is the most difficult child to raise because she refuses to do anything that she was told to. Sometimes I was afraid of her outspokenness cos I feared it would get her in trouble: she often talked back to traffic police officers, she isn’t afraid to call out people in public who are annoying, and so much more. I guess deep down, I aspired to be a person who can just speak their mind freely without having to feel guilty of thinking a certain way. My Mom was that person for me.

Also, when most parents disapprove of their kids doing debating (“It’s a waste of time and money!”; “Why bother shouting into the wind?”), my Mom was very supportive of it. She often drove me to competitions when I was in High School and she made time to drop me off at airports whenever I was about to go on a debate trip. She never belittles what I do and that is what makes her so amazing.

People will try hard to know how Gordon Ramsey makes his Wellington dish. Your debate experience has grown from being a debater, into a well respected adjudicator, and now a dedicated coach. What does it take to have such a stellar debate career? And what are the differences of being a debater, adjudicator, and coach?

So I would say first and foremost that a lot the accolades I have are products of layers and layers of privileges.

Firsly, I lived in the US for ~2 years during my primary school days which allowed me to have a strong foundation in learning English. For many Indonesian debaters, the language is the primary struggle they had to overcome. I was privileged enough to not face the same difficulties as some others out there. Secondly, I was a high school debater from a reputable private school which had constant funding for students to participate in competitions. We didn’t have a proper university debater coach back then, but our alumni pool is very strong – they would help coach us during their semester breaks and they always instill the mindset that if you are a senior, you have a duty to coach the younger members. That in itself is a massive privilege.

When I entered EDS UI, I was relatively advantaged compared to my fellow freshmen friends because I had the initial high school debating experience. I made the A team for IVED the following year, teaming up with 2 incredible seniors who carried me through the competition. EDS UI itself is an incredible family that contributed a lot in my success – the seniors and alumni coaches are extremely dedicated, they are very supportive and encouraging, which I felt was another privilege on its own. One of the reasons people don’t ‘survive’ in debating is because they felt that they could never improve and largely their seniors didn’t do a good job in building up their confidence. I never faced that problem in EDS UI, because I always felt welcomed.

Even for judging, the reason why I have a strong track record is because of the constant training and feedback I get from my coaches and most importantly, the opportunities to judge in competitions. During my early college years, seniors would be CAs in high school competitions and they would extend an invitation to me to judge there. I often felt insecure because I was so young and experienced, but those seniors did not care – for them, what mattered is that I was capable in their eyes. I guess the conclusion to this part is: build a strong foundation in your debating community. Yes, winning is definitely a goal. But it will never be achieved if members aren’t getting support from each other – financially and psychologically. If you have benefitted from your seniors coaching you, then pay it forward to the next generation. Don’t ever let that chain stop, no matter how busy you are, because your seniors took time for you even when they had no time for themselves in the midst of their packed schedule. That’s a key element in succeeding in the sport.

As for your second question: I think the difference is the goal and the responsibility attached to it. I’m quite privileged to have done all three roles, so I can empathize with concerns that others may raise from different positions. As a debater, my goal is obviously to win. To do that, it means practicing and training. I often do individual speech practices at home. I create a matter box to read up on before competitions. As a judge, my goal is to give the most satisfying explanation of why a team win and loses – because I know how hurtful it is to be a debater who have put in so much effort in preparation, only to be met with a mediocre level of judging. To do that, it means I have to listen carefully to the speakers and be as objectively fair as possible. As a coach, my goal is to bring my kids to victory (or whatever targets they have set for themselves) – and because I know how to be a debater and I have been in the judges’ shoes, these help me in crafting the most appropriate coaching content possible.

We have understood that you have made debate coaching and adjudication as your professional career instead of others that are, well, let’s just say more mainstream and promising one, at least that’s what some people think of, that we should leave debate realm behind and look for mainstream, professional job when graduated from varsity life. What do you think about that perspective? Why did you choose the path that you have taken? And is it fulfilling? How?

I would say that the perspective is definitely a valid one. As a professional debate coach, there are obvious trade-offs that I experience compared to if I took a corporate job. For instance, my income is definitely less stable – there are what I call ‘high seasons’ specifically when nearing NUDC and NSDC, where I would be offered multiple Adj Core work in Kopertis, Provincial Selections, and Nationals. I often get asked to coach institutions to prepare for their respective selections. During those periods, I make around 50% of my income for the year, where I save up so that during the ‘low seasons’ I can still manage to pay the bills and live comfortably.

But the perks of it is a more work-life balance – I get to set my schedule when coaching my students, I get to travel a lot (most of them paid for by the organizers!), and I have more freedom to take up other jobs (I also do a lot of freelance translation work). In the end, I think it really comes down to what individuals want and what they value the most. I personally don’t like working in a corporate structure where there’s a lot of hierarchy and office politics – even if I get paid more, it will take a toll on me and I don’t consider that a worthy trade-off for myself. This doesn’t mean coaching work is easier – there are times where I have economic anxiety, especially in these times of COVID-19. But thankfully, I still have financial security from online coaching and judging which allowed me to stay afloat – especially when many people I know are getting laid off from their corporate jobs.

The other reason I pursued this path is basically the old saying of, “Do what you love and you won’t feel like you’re working”. I have a big passion for debating and teaching has been something I’ve done since High School (when I coached my juniors for tournament prep). There’s a particular joy when I see faces of new students light up upon hearing new explanations during training or when they manage to break or even win in a competition. Knowing I had a part in it, no matter how little, gives me a great sense of satisfaction — that I have contributed something meaningful in someone else’s journey to success. I guess that really is the joy of being a teacher/coach – seeing your students discovering their talents and sense of worth. And that to me is extremely fulfilling.

While people either travel for business or pleasure, you often travel to be involved in debate activities of countries, although at the same time that may also be business and pleasure too for you. How is the experience to have such opportunity? Did you acquire new perspective? And in your observation, how does Indonesia’s debate realm differ and similar to others? What lessons can we take and what can we be proud of ourselves?

Oh, the experience is AMAZING. I have never thought in a million years that I would be afforded the chance to travel around the world for debating on a consistent basis. Even till this day, I still can’t believe how insanely lucky I am to have the opportunities I had this past decade. At first, it was truly scary. My first international tournament being a judge was the 2012 Asian BP in Jakarta, hosted by Binus International. I was very insecure especially when I was allocated to judge great debaters who I’ve heard about by reputation. After one of the rounds, a reputable team came up to me to ask for feedback and when I was done they said to me, “Thank you so much, you were very helpful! Honestly, the best judge our team has seen this entire tournament.” That very simple statement helped boost my confidence, where my inner self was saying, “Hey you actually got this, bitch!”

I guess that was the one important lesson I learned and what I noticed as a major difference from our circuit: we have an inferiority complex problem. As Indonesians, we easily get intimidated when faced with teams from other countries. I think it’s a combination of different things: their institutional reputation which make us shaking in our boots; their English proficiency which make us feel so small when speaking; and their sheer number which make us often feel so alone during international competitions. This is why I make it a point to be the ‘Mother Goose’ for Indonesian teams at major international tournaments like Asian BP, UADC, Australs, and Worlds.

Another thing I noticed as a difference is how our country prides on meritocracy in doing things – which is a superb plus point. For example, we have a robust accreditation system for judges in Nationals/Classics, which is used as a credible basis in measuring someone’s judging skills. We select people based on their judging capabilities and experience, because being a good debater alone is not enough to prove that one is a good judge as well. In many other circuits, they have a bigger emphasis on connections – how well does the CA team know you and your capability? This results in a tendency to prefer those with big debate achievements or those who you know personally. I’ve encountered some big names in other circuits who has achieved many speaking achievements but has shown to be a poor quality judge – but they constantly get judge invites. When I saw this, it created a cognitive dissonance for me: my experience says this person is a bad judge but many competitions keep having them over as IAs or CAs which says they are a good judge – what should I trust? Ultimately, I still find our meritocratic system superior compared to that of connections, because we really get good judges that are accountable and trustworthy.

This difference in system made it initially difficult for me to get through in the international circuit. Nobody knew who Boby Andika Ruitang was. They probably knew Universitas Indonesia, but even then, who are we compared to the other big names in Asia? I was just another random name on the tab. In 2012 Asian BP, they used the numerical method to decide the judge breaks and I broke quite high (5thon the Judge Tab if I recall correctly). I went on to judge in 2013 WUDC Berlin, where I did not break. WUDC judge break is hand-picked by the AdjCore — given I didn’t have much credentials outside of Indonesia and nobody on the AdjCore knew me, my chances were slim. However, it all changed when I become an IA for 2013 Australs in UT MARA – I broke and judged until the ESL Grand Finals. I was quite surprised because I didn’t expect it (and Australs had similar method of hand-picking breaking judges like WUDC). From there, the door burst wide open and the opportunities came flooding in – that year alone, I got invited to 2013 Asian BP in Beijing and 2013 Hong Kong Debate Open. The following year, I managed to AdjCore in 7 (yes, SEVEN!) different competitions outside of Indonesia. Ultimately,thissymbolizes the culture out there – once someone recognizes you for an achievement, you get offers, and then your CV will naturally multiply because of it.

The lesson learned here is: get yourself out there if you want to venture outside of the Indonesian circuit. I used to be the person who only ranted about how unfair the reputation system was in other circuits, how it only favors those with inside connections – but eventually, I learned to be pragmatic and played their game. When the opportunities knocked on my window, I kept saying yes to solidify my position in the circuit. And finally, when I was recognized enough, I have the ability to then elevate fellow Indonesians by inviting them as IAs because now I’m their connection and I can vouch for their credentials – something that was constantly overlooked.

Eras and debaters come and go. Your era, my era, and others’ era of debate may be different. What do you think that have changed? And in your perspective, what are the challenges and opportunities ahead for Indonesia’s debate community?

Oh, how I love this question! As someone who lived in-between generations and have witnessed so much changes in the circuit, this is something I love to discuss with my fellow debaters. I think what changed is the power dynamics. Back then, it was the “three Javan powerhouses” that dominate competitions. Now, the playing field has shifted for the better. It gave me immense joy to see the first Sumatran team reach the Open Final of NUDC in 2018 and a massive Medan-domination in the Novice Final of the same competition. There has been many upsets in Classics breaking rounds which has made people shooketh to their core – and I for one love it, because things should really be shaking up.

The reason for the change is because back then, there was a limited number of competitions and hence these institutions became very guarded in sharing their training regimens with other institutions (it was an unspoken rule not to coach outside your own club). Now, many debaters from more established institutions are willing to coach other institutions and share the knowledge. I was one of the first UI debater to have coached multiple institutions before finally settling monogamously with Atma Jaya Jakarta – and it’s good to see many other debaters doing this too. Sharing knowledge is important, especially for younger debate societies who don’t have a clear blueprint yet on how to conduct training. Having more local competitions has also been a game-changer, because now many institutions can train their members, build up confidence and skills, before going to National competitions.

As for the challenge, I see that Classics or National level competitions have experienced reduced participation over the past few years. I suspect it may be because many institutions prefer to invest in joining more local competitions which are cheaper rather than an expensive Classic that requires a lot of expenses like travel and accommodation. It may also be because of other factors that I have yet to know. I think as a community, we need to have a serious conversation about why this is the case and what can be done to address it. Classics have been as old as parliamentary debating in Indonesia – it’s a legacy made by the first debaters of this country. I think we have a duty to keep that going, because if we isolate ourselves to only local competitions, we are not growing together as a circuit. Whenever I see Indonesia’s finest at NUDC National, it gives me great joy to see debaters from different cities and islands interact in the debate rooms. I want to see that happen more than just once a year – and Classics should be the platform to do so.

It is such a joy to behold that some debate communities have developed well and are constantly regenerating talented debaters, participating in various debate tourneys, and winning them. Unfortunately however, some debate communities are still struggling to achieve such development, moreover to sustain it. Can you share some thoughts about this and how to address the problem?

I responded to this a bit on my answer to #4, but to add on, I think it’s a complex issue that involves a lot of variables. Firstly in terms of interest – many debate clubs die out because they run out of members. This is an internal organizational issue that has to be addressed: how do we get people to not only join us but also stay? The answer to this varies from each institution – but the conversation definitely must be had, especially with those who quit, so you can evaluate. Secondly in terms of funding – when we do have enough members, how do we get them to join competitions? For students, paying 150k rego fee is equal to 1-2 weeks’ worth of allowance. Many campuses don’t provide much support to debating clubs — until they bring home trophies. This is the catch-22 really: you need money to join competitions and then to win, but in order to get the money you need to join the competition and win. Explore fundraising methods – doing garage sales, accepting translation work, finding sponsors, etc. It’s a freaking difficult task, I know. But it’s one that’s necessary. Finally in terms of competitions – strategize your delegates accordingly. Is the purpose of sending delegates to gain experience or to win? If the former, then send in as many novices as possible so they can get exposure and build up their skills. If the latter, then focus on the strongest team composition you have and invest in them. Another reason clubs die out is because there’s a mismatch between the expectation from the club and the delegates – and this causes tension. Avoid that at all costs!

Being a debater or to be involved in debate has its pros and cons. If one day you will have a kid of your own, will you introduce debate to him or her? Why?

Honestly, I’ve thought about this a lot – and my conclusion is no. I think debating is a passion where you have to discover it yourself. I will definitely be teaching my kid a lot of critical thinking. If they find passion in debating, then I’ll be happy to support them. If not, I still support them either way. Because ultimately, debating is an activity where if you don’t have internal motivation, it’s not gonna work out. When you are externally motivated, you’re unlikely to handle the pressures well and it’ll break you down. I’ve seen people who joined debating cos they think it’ll look good on their CV when they want to apply for college or even work – and then get shocked at the amount of dedication required. But really though, deep down I wish my kid won’t enter debating cos I cannot imagine a household where my authority is constantly undermined with three layers of rebuttal each time.

Do you have any message to debaters that are struggling out there to be do their best, or to people that are considering to be debaters?

Yes. Debating is fun! Honestly. Competitions are great, I’ve made a lot of friends through debating. When you feel burnt out, it’s okay to step back and take some time off from debating. Then when the flames reignite, go jump back in! And if at any point you feel debating is no longer fun or exciting – it’s ok to stop entirely and find something else instead. Don’t stay in just because you feel you have to. It’s ok to leave the sport with some good memories intact, rather than staying in the game with all those memories tarnished with resentment and regret.

Closing Remark

Thanks for answering the questions kak. Really appreciate that! May the readers find inspirations to do great in debate, and also to contribute back and help the debate community to grow well because a sustainable, productive, and competitive debate community will definitely be supportive to the development of each individual debater and their club.

That’s all for the written interview folks. Please keep supporting Debating404 so that we can host this kind of content, and other useful debate related writings as well!