February 15, 2020
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The Eye Of The Beholder

South-east Asia is divided on the ethics of holding beauty contests

The Eye Of The Beholder

CAMBODIA has resurrected a 1,000-year-old tradition of beauty pageants. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the Hindu kings of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor had an elaborate system of choosing the most beautiful apsara (chief dancer for the Khmer court). And present day Cambodia has followed tradition by embracing every sponsored beauty contest—from Lux to Konica. In contrast, neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a hardline attitude to promoting the female form in beauty contests.

Women’s Affairs Minister of Indonesia, Mien Sugandhi, stated President Suharto’s position clearly in May this year when she slapped an Indonesian law student, Alya Rohali, 20, who donned a swimsuit during this year’s Miss Universe Pageant in Las Vegas, calling her swimsuit pose ‘vulgar’.

The student’s actions sparked off a fiery debate among the traditionalists in what is the world’s largest Muslim nation, where 85 per cent of the 195 million population follow Islam. "The conclusion from President Suharto is: no foreign beauty contests for Indonesian women.... It is not in line with Indonesian culture," said Sugandhi.

However, pageants that are indigenously Indonesian seem to be acceptable. Jakarta is slated to hold the next Elite Lux Model Pageant and will have pretty faces from all over the nation. The top scorer is likely to be agriculture student Humbelina Borro-meu Duarte, 23, who represents East Timor, a territory Indonesia annexed in 1976, in a move still not recognised by the UN.

In Malaysia too, the out of bounds demarcations seem to have been drawn even tighter this year. Two schoolgirls who won a beauty contest earlier this year had to leave their school. The girls, from Pen-ang, the idyllic little island on Malaysia’s west coast, were expelled by the Penang State Education Department (PSED) for taking part in the national beauty contest.

According to Ismail Salleh, director PSED, the Education Act does not allow students to take part in beauty pageants. If they do, their schools are allowed to expel them.

Singapore, on the other hand, seems to be the front runner in the Asian beauty business with a cache of prestigious contests that run throughout the year—The Miss Singapore Chinatown Contest, Miss Universe Pageant, Singapore Model Awards and several others.

The Miss Chinatown Contest, for instance, held last week (November 24) in the island republic drew a total of 520 contestants—all wishful contenders for the $100,000 grand prize and a chance to land a couple of television contracts in Hong Kong and Singapore. The winner of this contest will be chosen in December, in a final round of 12 shortlisted girls, and will represent Singapore in Miss Chinese International 1997, to be held in Hong Kong. Said Mr Alex Liu, managing director Metromedia Marketing, organisers of the Miss Chinatown Contest: "Miss Singapore Chinatown must be able to keep her head on her shoulders. This is the image I’d like all Miss Singapore contestants to portray." Not unusually, the concept of beauties not necessarily being bimbos found apt expression in the words of a shy Cambodian beauty, Oung Sopharap, 17, an eighth grader at Wat Koh High School in the capital Phnom Penh, and a winner of the Miss Konica contest in Cambodia.

Her statement reflected a streak of feminism: "I am not in this contest to snare a rich husband. I wanted to prove to myself that I could win it. The man I choose as a husband, will have a 100-year friendship with me, a real job, an honourable reputation and be emotionally honest with me."

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