Ateneo debate team makes history | Inquirer Business

Ateneo debate team makes history

(First of two parts)

Preparing for competitive debate is a bit like studying for math,” says David Demitri Africa. “Some consistent effort must be applied to the accumulation of true and useful knowledge over time, such that its retention, recall, maintenance is second nature.”


David and Robert Nelson “Tobi” Leung made history by winning the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC), the most prestigious tournament of its kind, in Madrid last Jan. 3. David and Tobi majored in applied mathematics at Ateneo de Manila. A week after, they also won the Asian British Parliamentary Debate Championships in Bali.

“Much foundational work was ingrained when I was in the Ateneo high school debate team, where I cultivated the habit of reading articles with interesting headlines and keeping updated on political developments,” says David. “Debate motions are in part similar to math tests. In math exams, there’s no way to know [in advance] which concept will be needed—which limit test, convergence theorem, statistics distribution, etc., since this pattern of multiple tools arises often in Ateneo math courses.


“In debate, there’s no way to know if the motion will be about carbon taxes or postcolonial art. We must cover all grounds. For WUDC, we go through more intensive preparation, with preparatory tournaments to hone ourselves with recent trends.”

Tobi began debate at Philippine Science High School-Baguio and became gold medalist and best speaker at the World Schools Debating Championship, “the equivalent of an international Olympiad.” Tobi trained intensely, too.

“The most important part was to read and catch up on current events,” says Tobi. “Anything under the sun can come up. You’re forced to keep yourself informed.”

In the week-long WUDC, Tobi and David competed with more than 250 teams from all over the world, including Harvard, Stanford, National University of Singapore. In the final round, arguing against the proposition that it is better to have a world where “all persons have a strong belief in the philosophy of Ubuntu,” they bested teams from Princeton (US), Sofia (Bulgaria), and Tel Aviv (Israel), marking the first WUDC victory for a Philippine—or a Southeast Asian—team. Tobi was second best overall speaker (the highest achieved by a Filipino), and David, eighth.

The African philosophy “ubuntu” means “I am because we are,” with individuals being shaped by and being responsible to their communities. From Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to Madonna and the Boston Celtics, ubuntu is proclaimed because it supposedly fosters community. After all, “no man is an island,” said the team that opened for the pro side at the WUDC.

Following the British parliamentary format, Tobi and David had only 15 minutes to brainstorm and less than 10 minutes each for countering such contentions.

Ubuntu alienates you from your own sense of self, they said. It discourages you from discovering your own preferences and happiness. Having the choice to stay (or not) in a community often leads to better outcomes, because not all communities are good, such as families that treat LGBTQ+ as outcasts. Even communities that are not outright harmful are strengthened by individuals who can make their own choices—they are able to disagree with and critique each other, healthy for functioning societies.


Ateneo has a strong debate tradition. Through the decades, students did well in various tournaments. But as I mapped out David and Tobi’s arguments, I realized that a contributing factor to their victory was their math training.

Previous teams were also eloquent, well-read, passionate. But in 2021, for the first time, four Ateneans finally made it to the WUDC finals, with David, a math major, helming one of the pairs. In 2022, David and another math major, Mikko Carlo Vitug, likewise reached the finals. This year, David and fellow math major Tobi at last took home the prize.

Next week, I describe how they used math—inadvertently or not—in their winning argument.

(More next week)

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