By Rachel Chang
IT HAS been a good year for 24-year-old Li Shengwu. The Singaporean graduated five months ago as the top economics student at Oxford University.
And as the decade turned the corner, he was crowned Best Speaker at the just-concluded World Universities Debating Championships in Turkey.
Mr Li, a master's student in economics at Oxford, took the top individual honour at the event - known colloquially as the 'Worlds' and regarded as the most prestigious debating tournament in the world.
He is the third Singaporean to receive the award, cementing Singapore's status as a debate powerhouse. Since 1981, when the competition began, all Asian winners have been Singaporean.
The Best Speaker prize goes to the tournament's most consistently exceptional debater and adjudicators were yesterday full of praise for Mr Li.
'Without doubt, Shengwu is the finest Oxford debater of his generation,' said one judge, Mr Daniel Warents. 'This is a fact now recognised by the whole world.'
Country-wise, Singapore is ranked fourth in terms of Best Speaker winners, behind Australia, Canada and England.
That is very good for a country of five million, the competition's unofficial historian, Mr Colm Flynn, noted.
Bringing together 800 debaters from top universities, the 'Worlds' ended on Sunday after six days of verbal combat between 400 two-man teams.
Singapore's three universities sent seven teams altogether, although none made it past the preliminary rounds.
The first Singaporean Best Speaker winner was Ms Chitra Jenardhanan in 1995. Representing Nanyang Technological University, she was also the first woman and the first Asian to take the trophy.
She is now head of project work at River Valley High and has been an on-and-off debate coach throughout her career as an educator.
In 2003, Dr Tan Wu Meng, representing Cambridge University, won it. He is now an oncologist at the National Cancer Centre.
Mr Li and his university colleague, Briton Jonathan Leader Maynard, were second overall in the competition, losing in the final to a Sydney University team.
They were the hot favourites, having taken top honours at other championships, such as the European University Championships in August last year.
The high expectations helped rather than hampered, said Mr Li, who is the son of Fraser & Neave chairman Lee Hsien Yang and corporate lawyer Lee Suet Fern, and the grandson of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
One judge told him he won Best Speaker because, in addition to cerebral arguments, he marshalled rhetorical style. He knew how to play the crowd, and how to use the cadences of argument to his advantage, said the adjudicator.
What gave him the confidence to do so, Mr Li said yesterday, was an audience already expecting excellence: 'It gave me leeway to be more stylish, to do things you need the audience to trust you to do.'
He got into debate in secondary school and represented Singapore at the 2003 world championships when at Raffles Junior College.
Mrs Geetha Creffield, head of Arts at Anglo-Chinese Junior College and Mr Li's coach in 2003, said what sets him apart is his ability to make arguments seem new. It is a skill Mr Li is proud of.
To him, debate is a game of strategy, like chess. But unlike chess, where a player uses rules of the game to win, he said, the rules of reason are ever amorphous. The creative debater can find an argument that takes his opponent by surprise.
For Mr Li, it is his most prized weapon in verbal spar and parry: an argument the enemy did not see coming.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.