A Pageant to Highlight Beauty’s Depth

By Ian McIntyre

May 2024 FEATURE
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THE SAYING THAT beauty is only skin deep is evident in beauty pageantries. But one stands as an exception in Malaysia as it calls attention to the self-empowerment of young women instead of relying solely on how they look and speak. Each year, towards the end of August, a group of 25 to 30 ladies are transported to the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS) in Penang for their community and environment boot camp.

It is a no ramp, no glam programme for the national semi-finalists of the annual Miss MalaysiaIndian Global pageant. Here, they undergo a rigid routine from 6am until 10pm. The drill includes hands-on activities and lectures culminating in a series of tests and challenges that help determine if they are shortlisted as the finalists.

Herein lies the uniqueness of this personal empowerment pageant, which began in 2000. Its primary concern is to stir and stoke the minds of its participants, exposing them to as many valuable experiences as possible in their journey towards self-discovery and personal growth.

According to the founder Pushparani Thilaganathan, the pageant is a “seeding programme” that actively focuses on self-esteem, financial literacy and environment awareness alongside poise, adding that their challenge is in “ploughing through the preconditioned minds of our participants”.

Unlike conventional pageants, the winners of the Miss MalaysiaIndian Global do not represent the country in an international pageant. Instead, they are contracted to develop projects that will directly benefit a marginalised community or a social cause of their choice. While the winner is awarded a postgraduate MBA or MA scholarship from Veritas University, all the Top 5 winners also receive international flight tickets with predetermined destinations from Batik Air.

“It was a difficult decision at the time— to drop the international franchise for the US-based Miss India Worldwide competition which we held from 2000-2003. We were doing extremely well at the international pageant then. Still, we felt that all the money spent on one person was better given out as small scholarships for the girls struggling in public universities in the country and for some of our participants who have financial issues,” said Pushparani, who is also a former journalist.

She explained that when the pageant began in 2000; there was no social media and the issues girls faced then were different. “At that time, 60% of our girls were making it to tertiary institutions, but upon graduating, jobs were a challenge mostly because they lacked self-esteem, had poor delivery at interviews and other inadequacies. We understood this and worked on these essentials.” Pushparani also added that contestants were usually aged 18 to 28, with SPM as a minimum entry requirement.

The pageant has been organised by the Miss MalaysiaIndia Care Association (MMICARE), also known as Persatuan Prihatin Ratu MalaysiaIndia, since 2002, and is wholly dependent on the annual pageant’s grand finals for its funding (collected through sponsors, table sales and public support from their on-the-ground projects). All members of MMICARE are past finalists and winners of the annual pageant, and every year, the pageant provides the non-profit NGO with a regular and fresh pool of volunteers for its ongoing community work.

The pageant’s Small Education Grants programme began in 2006, the same year they started collaborating with CEMACS. Pushparani felt strongly that focusing on empowering young women on a personal level made more long-term sense than just an image makeover.

“We are committed to uplifting the minds and spirit of the girls. MMICARE’s work is broad-based and covers all communities. We have ongoing meals and tuition for B40 children and conduct empowerment workshops at schools and tertiary institutions on invitation. We are currently actively involved in the National Cancer Society’s HPV vaccine rollout for girls in the B40 community.”

Over the years, the Miss MalaysiaIndian Global and MMICARE grassroots programmes have been a subject of dissertations in public universities and case studies at international conferences in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and most recently in Hungary.

A majority of the participants have graduated high school or are diploma holders and, after taking part in the pageant, are inspired to further their studies. Most of them hail from Penang, Klang Valley and Johor, and MMICARE is keen to expand its reach to other states in the country.

"We also have lawyers, doctors and other professionals interested in taking part as they can learn about many social aspects such as environmental care,” Pushparani added. The pageant also difers in the sense that it cannot aford to pay for much publicity, so a majority of the sessions are done privately.

Seasoned pageant judge, Francis Yip Hon Cheng, highlighted that it takes hard work to participate in a pageant. “One needs to undergo training, have a fitness regime and eat right, often for months, to stay competitive for the judging process. Why? Well, its net value for beauty pageantry is worth millions with many multiplier efects from tourism to retail and consumerism,” Yip, who is himself a journalist, remarked.

Miss MalaysiaIndian Global is an exemplar of pageantry in Malaysia, which is fast evolving as it is no longer just about models strutting down catwalks and smiling before countless flashing cameras, but is also filled with substance, sacrifice, inner beauty and, more importantly, a cause to promote. The Miss MalaysiaIndian Global pageant draws an average of 100 participants annually and will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

Evident from the recent Mrs Earth Malaysia beauty pageant in Petaling Jaya, the contestants were hard-pressed to dwell more on empowering the environment against the threat of climate change rather than on their bodies or swimwear.

Co-directors of the pageant, Ammetta Malhotra Bergin and Previtha Rajah, said that pageant contestants must now advocate for a cause, such as women’s rights or conserving the environment. The seven finalists of last year’s Mrs Earth Malaysia were asked to base their presentations on conserving the environment and conduct activities to appease Mother Earth.

They had to learn about what makes the environment tick, and how, as a beauty contestant, they could contribute towards warding of climate change. Ammetta also spoke about organisers discussing how the pageant’s winners could become an indirect environment and tourism ambassador for the country.

“We want our beauties to have a good sense of what is happening in the world. They cannot be disconnected, but conscious of what our society wants or aspires for.”

With a growing focus on intelligence and personal well-being, Malaysian beauty pageants are contesting against traditional notions of beauty. This shift shows a renewed focus on what truly matters, demonstrating that beauty is not just “skin deep”.

Ian McIntyre

is a veteran journalist with over 25 years of experience reporting from mainstream and alternative media. He subscribes to a belief that what is good for society is likewise beneficial for the media.