When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high

AUG 26 — Courage and confidence, with them the world is your oyster, my son.

I’ve heard that before, in different retelling, but I’ve always been tempted to ask what’s the difference, are they — courage and confidence — not the same thing?

They are, almost.

A wiser man helped me understand this way; courage is the gumption to act in the face of challenge, the more devastating and life-threatening the challenge, then the greater the courage required. Courage is not determined by outcome, but by the human spirit.

Confidence is the manner in which you act. That you are assured, calm and act naturally — stamping your mark, saying you belong. 

Ill-advised courage might cause harm to yourself and others. And the confident are not necessarily courageous.

Our hopes are for our heroes to have courage and confidence equally, in quantity. To be the knight who has the courage to slay the dragon, and while doing so exhibiting panache — usually a smile, and if it’s a Disney production, with wry humour. To look like you’ve always killed dragons, that’s confidence.

I’ve always looked for confidence, particularly in my adolescence. My fixation with grand moments in history — far more dramatic than they probably were — gave me belief that all men can be confident.

It’s probably in the head.   

Herman Melville’s novel “Billy Budd” gives great insight. A young sailor who is loved by most is persecuted by an officer on board their ship, which leads to an encounter. Young Budd is unable to defend himself in the face of a more qualified, educated and cultured man even if he is cruel. His stammer grows as he is further hemmed in by officer Claggert and he hits him, and the blow kills him. Budd is eventually hung.

A lack of confidence undoes Budd. I saw that in myself growing up, and maybe even now.

After leaving a modest primary school, where my working-class background was a non-factor, going to a secondary school with a sizeable number of egos was revealing.

All things considered at the end of schooling, there was no insurmountable gulf between our products and those from the other public schools. Kids are kids. But we were constantly encouraged to be confident. And when you are a teenager it makes all the difference.

Our national system, media, work environment and a government that denies the average Malaysian full participation in nation-building makes confidence hard to come by.

And as captain of my university debating team you get close encounters of the various kinds all the time, all terrifying.

University debating requires you often to walk into a make-or-break round facing people you’ve never met with accents not common in HBO and judged by indifferent-looking judges. The whole experience has traumatised many, including some successful personalities. They rather admit they are serial killers than say they used to do some international debating.

In my early experiences I used to waffle in my opening minutes, as I was always the first speaker. Usually in my summary or reply speeches I would have sorted myself enough to sound half decent.

After a while I found my stride. You can’t speak in front of people if you don’t want to be there. You speak because the message is valid. Not speaking silences the message, and in time invalidates it.

Messages and ideas are far more important than our own insecurities.

Which was my epiphany, my breakthrough. I was not only interested in continuing to think, remodel and crystallise my thoughts over and over, which did not sate me enough. I had an obligation to my thinking.

That was my way of building confidence, but soon I was in a coaching role and now asked other young people raised in Malaysia to show courage while oozing confidence.

Debating is subjectively marked and therefore perception far more than reality decides how judges decide. Which is not a bum deal since politics is all about perception, with the voters taking the role of judges.

So they are being prepared for the real world.

The Malaysian creature is an oddity. He grows up with the usual young person’s list of insecurities — dating, social awkwardness, acne and ugly T-shirts. But here he is saddled further with national insecurities — a chess piece in the minority-majority game, a constantly qualified statistic and living with a Malaysia Book of Records which is set up just to convince us silly records make us indestructible as a nation.

So you can imagine the horror the students endure trying to cope with even the most average debaters from average universities, and without an undisputed national culture or spirit he is more at sea.

So for me, the transformation of Malaysians into world-class debaters was always a dual-track game plan — developing their debate skills and helping them develop a sense of identity, and for me I feel a sense of national identity helps plenty.

Which is why we casually — but constantly — say German work ethics, America’s “can-do” and Swiss precision as means to describe them. Despite Germany starting out with 100 states and principalities; the US and Switzerland still having their 50 states and 26 cantons respectively.

We can all have a national culture or spirit.

So national pride, an unshakeable faith in where you come from is a major part of your confidence. It is no coincidence that in any sport most teams fancy beating Malaysia because somehow many times we just don’t show up. The national psyche is weak, and as a result we become defensive and turn on each other. No matter how weak you are, you are quite happy to point at another Malaysian and assert he is weaker.

But then again we were after all just a debate team, we are not about to change Malaysia, well not today.

I used to ask my trainees to look for where their pride is, to trace back their upbringing without censorship. The strength is in the past. Most could relate, but a few dived into its depths.

The last Malaysian team to break into the world’s top 32, an elite measurement of whether you are from a top debating university, carried their fathers’ old briefcases to every debate round.

For me, especially on big evenings with an auditorium packed I get the nerves. You overwhelm your fear not remove it. Fear gives you the adrenaline.

You can’t walk out to a hockey pitch facing world champions Australia by forgetting who they are. You hold your own by remembering who you are. And that you matter.

For me in those big debates, just before they call my name, I put away the debate topic. I remember where I come from, my parents, and the good people of Hulu Langat who are about to have their local boy speak, their representative.

After that you get calm. You realise the moment is bigger than you but so important to so many good people. I guess that is how knights get their courage and confidence equally, in quantity.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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