On July 12th, I had the honor of serving as a judge for a high school debate competition that was part of the National Government “Law Day” on Yap. This annual event since 1991 has brought together students from each of the four States for a series of friendly debates over issues of legal, political and economic significance important to the FSM as a developing nation. This year, these future lawyers and leaders argued the pros and cons of a controversial issue: Whether the FSM Constitution should be amended to allow a State to secede from the Federated States of Micronesia.
The debates were broadcast live on the radio throughout the FSM, but given this potentially contentious topic, the event was also well attended. People from across the island converged on the Yap State Legislature building where the debates were held and filled it nearly to capacity.
Even though my work frequently requires me to go to the Legislature for meetings with Senators or to participate in public hearings, I hadn’t ever stopped to just look around the place. The building is up on a small hill, with a stone stairway rising to the front door. I was told this hill is actually the foundation of a former Japanese government complex from when that country held Yap during World War II.
At the front of the building are a traditional raised stone platform and a few pieces of stone money surrounded by local plants and flowers. There are also a few small stone statues as a visible reminder of the Japanese influence.
As a side note, I learned that the entire peninsula where the Legislature and most of the State government offices are currently located used to be underwater! Both the sites of the Legislature and my office at the State Administration building (which itself is built on top of an 8-to-10 foot high brick and mortar foundation from a centuries old Spanish fort), used to be “donguch”, the Yapese word for tiny bits of land that jut out above the waterline. I’m sure there’s a more technical description. At some point in the recent past, the area between these points was reclaimed from the sea and connected to the natural shoreline, which is actually near the center of the town in Colonia.
A little later than the scheduled start time for the debates, the spectators and participants went inside the main chamber of the Legislature where the Senators usually conduct their business. For the occasion, the entire room had been decorated with sweet-smelling flowers and palm fronds which added to the festive atmosphere.
Seated in folding chairs beneath a miniature sailing canoe that hung from the ceiling of the chamber were a varied assortment of high school students brought along to cheer on their respective teams, politicians and bureaucrats from all branches of government, and what seemed to be nearly every lawyer and judge in the entire country. It was gratifying to see that some parents brought their young children, who patiently sat and listened to their friends or relatives competing in the event.
At the start of the event, officers from the Yap State Police ceremoniously entered bearing the flags of the individual States and the FSM. The National Anthem was sung by a student in both Yapese and English. The music of the hymn was much more upbeat than the U.S.’s dated “Star - Spangled Banner”, and the lyrics were just as inspiring: “Here we are pledging with heart and with hand, full measure of devotion to thee our native land. / Now all join the chorus let union abide, across all Micronesia join hands on every side. / We’ll all work together with heart, voice, and hand, Till we have made these islands another promised land.”
After the anthem was a brief invocation from the pastor of the Yap Baptist Church, followed by introductory remarks. As with most government functions, all of the esteemed government and traditional leaders in attendance were identified by name and applauded. The Chief Justices of the State Court and the FSM Supreme Court each then gave speeches about the importance of these debates. One speech gave a brief history of how secession often led to costly, violent conflict. With those thoughts in mind, the Judges encouraged the debaters to firmly argue their positions, but to be ever mindful to still be respectful to one another.
Throughout the actual debates, all of the teams did a remarkably good job. Many of the students clearly have promising careers in politics or law ahead of them, not only because of the clarity and persuasiveness of their arguments, but also the passion they showed in delivering them. Faced with a audience full of friends, family, and high ranking leadership, there were a few nervous stumbles by the competitors, but even compared to experienced public speakers, they all performed admirably.
Given that the audience was full of many actual government decision makers, those teams arguing in support of a constitutional amendment allowing for secession never once backed down from raising even the most sensitive issues. These teams pointed out that most in the FSM first consider themselves to be Yapese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, or Chuukese, and rarely (if ever) “Micronesian”. They stressed that each island has distinctly separate languages, traditions, and customs. They even boldly declared that the experiment of national government had failed. Teams arguing against allowing for secession emphasized the financial benefits of unity (including the negative effect that secession of a State might have on the financial support provided to the FSM by the US), the impact on the FSM in the eyes of the international community, and gave many other compelling arguments.
Throughout the day, teams argued for and against the stated proposition in round after round of debates. In the end, their efforts were judged on the quality of their arguments, the evidence presented, and their delivery. Here, one of the judges prepares for the debates to begin.
After the total scores were tallied up, the Yap State team came in at a very respectable 2nd place, with the grand prize going to the debaters from Pohnpei.
Winners of the competition received scholarship funds for college. If their performance in these debates is any indication, I have no doubt that in several years they will be well-prepared for positions of responsibility and leadership.
Perhaps a few of them will even consider a career in practicing law within the FSM. While I would never, ever advocate for any college-bound student to take up lawyering in the U.S. (where the for-profit legal education industry happily churns out far too many poorly prepared lawyers to fight over too few jobs), there is drastic and immediate need for home-grown litigators and legal advisors here. The current practice of importing lawyers from abroad is expensive and unsustainable in the long run, and the best alternative is to start developing the future lawyers of the FSM at the earliest possible age.
I sincerely hope that Law Day will contribute to that, and that some of participants take up the call of justice, get their legal education, and are persuaded to return back home to contribute to the development of their country as a whole.
Whatever dreams they pursue, I wish them all the best and much success.