Had the opportunity to share the stage with Gaurav at Ardor Buzz recently and that was when I first heard his message about speaking up on things that matter.
As we progress to become a more affluent society, bringing up difficult conversations and asking hard questions are inevitable.
Here’s a snippet of a recent interview by Mr Stephen Sackur for BBC’s HARDtalk with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to set the context of this article.
Let’s get Gaurav to share with us his experience in this arena and what it takes to stand up, be proud and speak out.
1) Hi Gaurav, thanks for taking this interview! Share with our readers who you are and what is it that you do for a living?
Thanks for having me on the site Ranford, I’m truly flattered.
My full-time job also involves trying to make Singapore a better place, although it’s quite different from the volunteer work I do with dialectic.sg. During the day, I work in the military. On the weekends and evenings, I spend a lot of time in the debate community. I used to be the President of the Debate Association (Singapore) for many years.
We aspired to bring the skills of debating to every student in Singapore regardless of background. I’m most proud to say that we expanded what used to be an elitist activity into one that is now part of the basic school curriculum and can be participated in by almost every school in Singapore. Nowadays, I still volunteer as a debate judge for competitions and an occasional trainer for less-privileged schools.
2) Tell us more about dialectic.sg and how this idea came about?
Many years ago, I was told young people were very disrespectful when they spoke up – they asked good questions but didn’t know how to ask those questions in a respectful way.
Today, I think youths are able to express themselves very persuasively in person. I’ve been impressed many times when I hear young people argue for a cause they believe in or question something they doubt. However, I noticed a new problem that was growing: online commenters were becoming very disrespectful.
Unlike in real live conversations, people were more rude online. There appeared to be no easy solution. Some respected websites even turned off their commenting feature to prevent “trolls” and rude commenters from ruining the page because there was no good commenting tool.
I decided to use my year off in Harvard to research the problem a bit further and design a better system for online commenting. After a lot of trials and research, dialectic.sg was born.
A “dialectic” is a process of intellectual discovery, where a thesis (an argument) is considered with its anti-thesis (the counter-argument) in order to determine the synthesis (the “truth”). Through this process, we’re moving closer to the truth by assessing both sides of a controversial topic in a structured manner.
The goal was to address the disrespectful, divisive and unproductive nature of online comments and to build a website that encourages respectful, rational yet robust debates on important issues.
The prototype took a lot of coding effort but once the idea was validated, we set about building the full site. Today, we have supported debates on controversial issues such as the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others debate with PM Lee, on racial harmony with Minister Janil Puthucheary, among many other controversial topics.
Our volunteer researchers ask difficult questions that few others do because we believe it’s important to ask people the right questions and have a safe space for a robust debate.
3) Was it difficult getting people to speak up on controversial issues?
Yes, and it still is. We’ve got over a thousand active members, and have peaked at over ten thousand visitors a month but most people are unwilling or afraid to leave a comment behind for various reasons.
I’ve polled my audience before and some felt they prefer to read comments rather than leave their own. Others worry their comments are not intellectually developed enough and don’t have the time to research and prepare a good comment to meet the standards of the site.
Others have a perception they will be “black marked” for leaving dissenting opinions on existing government policy (although I tried to address this by allowing them to leave comments anonymously once they register). So yes, it’s difficult.
Fortunately, we have enough people who are willing to step up and be courageous enough to try to leave a comment because they understand that a democracy only gets stronger when the people in it are willing to express their views and engage with each other in the process of an intellectual debate. I hope that more people will continue to try and participate in the conversation, for all our sakes.
4) What are some of the challenges people face when talking about difficult topics or asking controversial questions? How did you help them overcome this?
The first challenge is many people don’t have time to read all the articles about an issue. We make it easier for them by doing a simple background brief or highlight the key facts and figures with some international examples of similar policies in action.
This helps frame the issues and is based on the famous Harvard Business School “case study” method of discussions.
The second challenge is many people don’t know what the questions are. They understand an issue is complex but may not be aware of the reasons why. We address this by highlighting the policy dilemmas at stake.
For example, when we debated whether to implement an English Language entry requirement for all immigrants , we highlighted the policy dilemma that many of our own elderly who came to Singapore during pre-independence did not speak English or any of the official mother tongue languages but were arguably “more Singaporean” than those who came later and spoke English.
When we raise these dilemmas in the background brief, people are made aware their comments should address the dilemmas if possible.
The third and final challenge is teaching people how to comment better and the site does it in two ways; one, we have simple lessons available online for commenting techniques and two, we built a real-time commenting engine that is quite unique. Essentially, as a person writes a comment, we assess how persuasive the comment is based on our database of “persuasive” comments and we provide immediate feedback on how they can improve it, as they are typing!
5) Why is it crucial to speak up on important matters, knowing the risk that one might get into trouble? Isn’t it easier to let things remain status quo?
Yes, it’s definitely easier to let things remain status quo. However, no good change ever happened in the world from people who just “accepted the status quo”. The world and our society will only improve when people believe that we can be better and are willing to put in the effort and courage to make that change happen.
This is true for dialectic.sg and for many other social causes out there. Change requires courage; it requires people willing to believe that the change is important enough to work for.
Singapore is at a point of transition today. Society is increasingly fragmented along many different lines (class, race, religion etc…) and we need to be able to handle disagreements better in order to thrive. I spoke about this at TEDx at Harvard previously and explained why a platform for socio-political debate needs to exist in Singapore.
6) What are your thoughts on the concept of “agreeing to disagree”?
We’ll not always agree unanimously on all issues. Society is much like any relationship; there won’t be unanimous agreement always. We must therefore find a way to disagree respectfully, find good balances and compromises.
Every question has at least two sides and we try to ensure that reasonable arguments from both sides are treated equally. This is not the same thing as saying both sides must always be equal. It’s clear that in some cases, one side is much stronger and deserves more attention because of that.
However when designing policies, we need to listen to all opinions fairly and then weigh our own assessment of the “truth” objectively. We must try to agree on facts and disagree on opinions. Today, I find it worrying that some are disputing even basic facts from science without any basis. This is unhealthy and dangerous.
7) Can you give advice to individuals who are keen to speak up but are fearful of being ridiculed or insulted simply because of their differing opinions?
A more general response is this – The key is to be able to listen to dissenters without being dissuaded. Take their criticisms and ridicule and re-interpret it as a challenge or feedback on what can be done differently or better. Use their negative energy to fuel your positive energy on your own personal quest.
When I first discussed the idea of building a website from scratch with a unique commenting engine that nobody had ever seen before, I was obviously chastised by many well-meaning friends. Many said that if such a thing existed, Google would have already built it!
I felt otherwise. Clearly Google had not already built it (look at how awful the Youtube comments were!). I told them that it was worth trying because even if I failed, hopefully I will inspire others to follow in my footsteps and try to build something even better.
What made me “immune” to such criticism was my personal conviction and belief. I didn’t care whether it succeeded or failed, I only wanted to try to make a difference. I believe it was important for me to use my blessings in life to give back to others in whatever way I could.
If you want to make the world a better place, you have to learn to be a bit thick-skinned and take criticism and ridicule in your stride. Once you’ve succeeded, you can look back at those events and laugh it off. Until then, keep persevering. Don’t be afraid to comment on an issue because of the fear of ridicule.
On a side note, you really shouldn’t worry about this happening on dialectic.sg because our system is designed to defeat such rude trolls! 🙂
8) Where do you intend to take dialectic.sg in 2017 and how do you see it helping the public hold better debates?
I want to continue asking difficult questions about important issues. Some of the topics debated on dialectic.sg were subsequently debated in Parliament and many of the views expressed there echoed comments received on the site, which is wonderful.
This means that our site is relevant to the national discourse and we’re part of the wider conversation that is making a difference. I hope to continue that mission. I’m also trying to recruit more volunteers to help write topic briefs for the site. The site is powered by the energy and passion of our volunteers and I’m grateful for that.
9) In your own words, what does it mean to “Love the Life You Live and Live the Life You Love”?
We must follow our own path with purpose and passion. We shouldn’t be afraid of ridicule or criticism along the way and we should take the feedback in our stride.
Each of us has a different path in life and it’s important to believe that you’re following your own path and enjoying that pathway. It may not always be easy and we’ll all stumble along the way but we must learn to pick ourselves up from each failure and stand up stronger.
Love is also best experienced with other people so share your blessings with others, be a part of their lives and remember that accolades are meaningless unless you give them meaning by using them to make society a better place.
Oh, and have fun along the way la.
I’ve always wondered how one can “agree to disagree”. Although I did write about this, I find it sometimes hard to put into practice. A great point to note is to agree on facts and disagree on opinions.
“No good change ever happened in the world from people who just accepted the status quo” and I think this sentence alone is a good enough reason for us to start looking into issues and speak up on them.
Like what Gaurav said, in order to make the world a better place, we have to learn to take criticism and ridicule in our stride. Keep persevering and don’t be afraid to comment on an issue because of the fear of ridicule.
Thanks Gaurav for sharing your knowledge and insights on how to engage in a constructive conversation. I have to agree with you that it’s definitely an uphill task but as long as each of us play our part and respect each other in the process, it’ll not be as hard as it seems.
Founder of dialectic.sg Gaurav Keerthi volunteers actively in the debate community during his free time. He has debated, coached, moderated, and judged since 1992. He was the President of Debate Association (Singapore) from 2006 to 2010 and a founding Fellow of the Raffles Debate Academy.
In television, he co-created and hosted Mediacorp’s Emmy-nominated student debate TV show, The Arena (2007-08) and was the moderator for Channel News Asia’s Bridging Asia: The Singapore Debates (Season 2, 2012) and The Year Ahead (2014).
He published a local bestselling book in 2011 titled Think Speak Win (with a foreword by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan) and is the founder of www.dialectic.sg (a patent-pending website which aims to make online debating respectful and rational again).
Gaurav did his undergraduate at Stanford University on a government scholarship and his masters at Harvard Kennedy School of Government on the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship where he graduated as a distinguished Littauer Fellow. He also enjoys running, playing guitar, singing karaoke badly and having long debates with his wife (who usually wins, since she’s a lawyer and better debater).
Dialectic.sg is a reinvention of online commenting. Websites, forums, and social media currently encourage comments that are divisive, disrespectful, and unproductive. The site uses patent-pending algorithms to help users write better comments, improves the quality of conversation through peer-based pre-moderation and structures the conversation to be balanced and open.
Our vision is to help build a society where we can have rational, responsible, respectful conversations about important issues facing Singapore. We want to catalyse moderates, educate commenters and influence decision makers. Dialectic.sg has been featured in The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia, the Boston Business Journal and has been showcased at Harvard University and TEDx at Harvard. The dialectic.sg currently has 1,062 members who have left 1,224 comments on ninety-one discussions. And we are growing every day.