Miss Universe Malaysia pageant contestants 'look too western'

Mixed-race Malaysian contestants trigger debate over finalists who look 'too Western'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 11:24am

Malaysia prides itself on its racial mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribes, something apparent among the 17 finalists competing for the next Miss Universe Malaysia crown.

Women from a wide range of races posed for the cameras just outside Kuala Lumpur.

"That is what is so great about this competition. Everyone looks so different," said one contestant of Indian origin, Kelsey Rabindran.

But when it comes to the ultimate standard of beauty, Malaysia still can't seem to help looking west. The last three winners of the local pageant have been Eurasians.

That prompted the International Business Times to run an article on Malaysian beauty ideals headlined: "The politics of beauty: Is Malaysia's Miss Universe contestant too white?"

Fair skin makes features stand out and you look more flawless

The article in the US publication focused on the appearance of reigning Miss Universe Malaysia Kimberley Leggett, describing her as "75 per cent white".

The Miss Universe Malaysia Organisation has strongly criticised the suggestion.

"You can't discriminate against a girl with western looks who is Malaysian from taking part," said national director Andrea Fonseka, who is herself Eurasian. "It was done fair and square. Even the public was part of the voting last year."

It is tough to choose a Miss Universe Malaysia who reflects most of Malaysian women.

That's because Malay-Muslims make up over half of the country's 29 million population, but are banned from participating in beauty pageants because of a 1995 fatwa.

"We have Muslim girls who are unaware of this fatwa asking to compete, but we had to turn them away," said Ms Fonseka.

That's why Eurasians seem to be over-represented in the competition, she said.

But a general bias towards fairer skin in the former British colony is clear. Flip through any local newspapers and advertising campaigns often show white or Eurasian models.

In the latest offering from the Asian satellite channel Diva Universal, two-thirds of the men featured in the show Hot Guys Who Can Cook are Eurasians.

It's also difficult to find skin products that do not contain ingredients that whiten.

But it's not simply because Malaysians want to look like white people, said Sarah Jade Schipper, a Miss Universe Malaysia 2013 finalist who is of Malaysian Chinese and Dutch heritage.

"Fair skin makes features stand out and you look more flawless," she said.

But her rival for the title, Naomi Chandrasegar, 24, said Malaysians were exposed to a steady cultural diet of Hollywood movies and Eurasian beauties on the front of magazines. "We are conditioned to want to look like them," she said.

The prominence of western standards of beauty may also be motivated by local brands wanting to appear more international.

It's true for a new cosmetic surgery clinic in Kuala Lumpur. The name of the centre, Beverly Wilshire, combines the Beverly Hills district in the US and a well-known street name in that area.

The centre's medical director, Dr Mohamad Nasir Zahari, said: "In Malaysia, unfortunately, we still think if you give something a sort of famous English name, then it must be good."

His centre provides regular cosmetic services, as well as skin whitening and double eyelid treatments. But the most common surgery requested by his local patients is a nose job.

That's because the noses of many Malaysian Malays, Chinese or Indians are flat and wide, said Dr Nasir. "Somehow it becomes a gold standard that a nice nose should be like a western nose, with a high bridge, sharp tip, narrow nostrils," he added.

But there are small signs of change. For the first time, the Miss Universe Malaysia Organisation has done away with the height requirement of 163cm for the beauty pageant in the hope that more Asians will enter.