When Jimin Kang of Chinese International School spoke about the hardships that refugees face, one of her South African opponents said he was deeply touched.
"We have a similar problem at home, where people are being abused because they come from another country," said Dalingcebo Maseko from Michaelhouse School. "It is interesting that we are far away from one another, but we face similar problems."
Jimin, a Year 13 student, was impressed by the variety of young public speakers competing. "I find it really amazing to see people from around the world gathering in such a small place like Hong Kong to discuss the same issues," she said. She finished eighth in the competition - the best result by anyone from Hong Kong.
Students from 11 countries came to Hong Kong last week for the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships, an international English language debating and public speaking competition for individual high school-level students. The countries included South Africa, the mainland, the United States, Australia, India and last year's host, Lithuania. This was the first time Hong Kong hosted the annual event, which began in 1988.
The contenders were challenged in five areas of public speaking: parliamentary debating, impromptu speaking, interpretive reading, after-dinner speaking and persuasive speaking. The overall winner was Samantha Starkey from West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, Canada.
Samantha and Rebecca Mqamelo of Clarendon High School for Girls in East London, South Africa, competed as a pair arguing for the motion that would send a female ambassador to a country that has discriminatory policies against women. Opposing the motion were finalist Olivia Tailton from Country Day School, of King City near Toronto, Canada, and Philip Balson from Roxbury Latin School near Boston in the US state of Massachusetts.
The affirmative side said a female role model would be an inspiration for women who are being suppressed, but the opposition argued that a Western female role model would fail to connect with its audience because of cultural differences.
While exchange in the competition can be heated, students valued the cultural experience more than anything else.
"It is a fantastic way for me to be able to experience other cultures," said Dalingcebo, the boy from South Africa.
The competition actually began on April 5 with an opening ceremony at St Paul's Co-educational College. Preliminary rounds of the competition were held at La Salle College, then St Paul's hosted the Finals on Friday, and the Grand Finals were on Saturday at Diocesan Girls' School.
Convenor of the event Michael Evershed said it was an honour and privilege for Hong Kong to be chosen as the host for the championships. "The success of the event was a joint effort of all the schools, and it helps build up a sense of community among the schools," he said.
Evershed also pointed out there has been a movement in recent years to promote debate and public speaking in Hong Kong.
"Debating is a highly valued pursuit, to equip students with skills they need for the future," he said. "Debate and public speaking give students a voice to express ideas and develop a sense of justice. I am glad to see this young pool of talent at these championships."
Roy Allen, chief adjudicator of the event, said debate "has become more popular in Hong Kong ever since the Education Bureau named debate as part of the English syllabus".
"This is one of the best ways for students to learn liberal studies, thus there has been hunger for debate in schools in recent years," Allen said.