Photo courtesy of Miss MalaysiaIndian Global.

My obvious lack of saree was standing out. Surveying the waiting area outside the ballroom, I found myself automatically scanning for any other Chinese people in the space. There was barely a handful present.

From school textbook to billboard, the ideal image of Malaysian racial harmony is depicted as Ali, Bala and Chong; each major race occupying its quota-bound place in our nation. We are brought up to be aware of our skin colour even while being taught that it shouldn’t matter. Tonight, at the Miss MalaysiaIndian Global (MMIG) 2013 pageant, that ingrained awareness is considerably heightened.

This year the intersection of race and beauty has been making waves. In July, three Malay women were forced to drop out of Miss Malaysia after a fatwa ruled against their participation. In the US, a woman of Indian descent won the title of Miss America and along with it, racist comments that she was Arab and a terrorist.

Paradoxically, as I watch the MMIG pageant, I can’t help but notice how “truly Asia” it is:  the contestants stream out for the evening wear category in dresses designed by a group of Malay designers (from Malaysian Official Designers Association and Bumiputra Designers Association) while we eat from a typical Chinese dinner menu. After the spicy Szechuan soup bowls are cleared away, there is a classical Indian dance accompanied by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s English-Italian duet “The Prayer”. There was clearly a freer hand in the planning of what this Indian beauty contest should look, taste and sound like.

Photo courtesy of Miss MalaysiaIndian Global.

MMIG started out as a pageant franchise in 2000 that sent its winners to compete on an international stage. Now in its 14th year, its main organiser Mrs. Pushparani Thilaganathan (Regional Editor of Free Malaysia Today) decided in 2003 to be independent of the franchise and convert the pageant into a more humanitarian-focused one. The winners no longer compete for an international crown but devote themselves to charity work and empowerment programmes under the Miss MalaysiaIndia Care Association (MMICare Association).

 

As well as Miss MalaysiaIndian Global, there’s a Miss Malaysia Chinese International Pageant. This year, Malaysia also had a representative at the World Muslim Women Beauty Pageant for the first time.

 

Race exclusive beauty contests are not too much of an anomaly in Malaysia. As well as Miss MalaysiaIndian Global, there’s a Miss Malaysia Chinese International Pageant. This year, Malaysia also had a representative at the World Muslim Women Beauty Pageant for the first time. All these divisions don’t raise eyebrows in a country whose very foundations were built upon a triumvirate of UMNO (United Malays National Organization), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress). But as the country strives for a deeper unity, is there still a place for a race exclusive beauty contest?

The girls (aged 22 – 26) contesting at the MMIG pageant are probably of the same generation as I am. Our great-grandparents were most likely immigrants that came to Malaya seeking jobs and better lives. The ties that bind us to our ancestral home-countries are stretched four generations thin, making race, culture, and heritage a murky thing that is probably defined in many a different way in each girl’s head.

When asked about what they think makes an Indian woman beautiful during an interview, this year’s newly crowned winner Sangheetaa Phary replied: “I think the culture that we put forward makes us very beautiful. A saree makes any woman beautiful”.  Echoing her sentiments, another finalist, Grace Earthiam lists, “the culture, the sarees and then maybe going to temples” as hallmarks of a beautiful Indian woman.

More telling are the names cited as aspirational figures to their childhood. Hong Mai Yeng, Priya, a 22 year-old finalist of mixed Chinese-Indian parentage said that as a girl, she thought Aishwarya Rai was “the most beautiful actor in this world” while 25 year-old lawyer Sangheetaa Phary lamented that “growing up, it was very rare to see some Indian woman in the media.”

The under-representation of local Indian women in mainstream media has been an issue, but the founder of the pageant, Mrs. Pushparani notes that there has been a change in the past ten years. “We’re not pigeonholed anymore, we’re everywhere. It’s just that because we’re in smaller numbers, you don’t see us”. Sangheetaa also points out that things have progressed and she is now able to identify women like Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan (chairperson of Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections – Bersih) and Vanajah Siva (Malaysian astronaut programme finalist) as current public figures she looks up to.

 

“There is vast difference between the way they look at beauty in America – they’re less discriminative about the skin tone.”

 

Meanwhile, when Nina Davuluri won the crown as Miss America this year, it not only caused a stir in America but also in other Asian countries. While a small but visible minority of Americans went into Twitter frenzy over how un-American she was because of her skin colour, the rest of the Asian world were also split into two camps. One celebrated the inclusion of her into the roster of America’s Accepted Beauty Conventions and one chose to call out the long practiced silent rule of darker skin tone discrimination Asians have towards Asians.

Having lived in Europe for six years, 26 year-old doctor and MMIG finalist, Harkirenjeet Kaur, remains optimistic about the issue of skin tone: “There is vast difference between the way they look at beauty in America – they’re less discriminative about the skin tone. Yes, the hate comments surprised me but at the same time, look at all the support she got. And it’s a very proud moment for us Asians because not only her, but the first runner up was a Chinese too.”

Yet in Asia, the marketing and sales of skin whitening cream to project the myth of fair beauty. The New York Times published an article in 2006 that cited Synovate’s survey results showing that 4 out of 10 women in Malaysia use whitening creams to lighten their complexion. “I think that perception is perennial because of business; commercial value,” stresses Mrs Pushparani. “Advertisements are constantly hawking the need to be fairer than fair so there’s an obsession for white.”

Mrs. Pushparani adds that what MMIG is trying to provide are “mentors for other young Indian girls” who are willing to guide and inspire them. She started the pageant to offer Indian girls “a little bit of leverage”. But if media representation of Indian women is really improving, I wonder if there will be a day when MMIG – or any other race-based beauty pageant – has any further need to exist.

For now, MMIG strives to strike a balance between culture and glamour, heritage and progress. Among the girls at this year’s pageant, there was a doctor, some nurses and a HR executive. Some are here for the charitable element, others out of a sense of belonging. Over the years, the winners have in turn become role models for aspiring pageant queens. No doubt, this process will keep repeating as the women of MMIG fill the void where overtly glamorised Bollywood actresses cannot reach and India’s heroines are too far away to touch.

CORRECTION: The original article stated that one of the participants was a PR executive. This has been amended to HR executive (4/4/2013).