A revealing
beauty quest

It shows how much Singapore has changed. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Apr 16, 2006

(Juliana Chan's letter follows)

FOR a long time now, I had been struck by the steady advancement of the emancipated Singaporean women - in line with the world - but it took a beauty contest to hit home just how fast the changes had been.

When a Miss Singapore quest rolls into town, my interest is usually confined to looking at the photographs, maybe a couple of times, without learning about the contestants.

As a result, I failed to notice how much the educational level of the aspiring beauty queens has gone up or Singapore's reliance on education to define quality - yes, even female beauty.

The quest for Miss Singapore Universe has steadily evolved not only around the desirable physical forms, but on testing contestants' poise, knowledge and conversational skill, too.

I'm sure this applies elsewhere, too, but Singapore probably takes it further than others. At any rate, it has a larger graduate base to work with: women outnumber male students at the universities 60-40.

In recent years, some 70% of the entrants have been degree or diploma holders, compared to the past when they could hardly utter a full sentence of English.

This year, the trend reached unprecedented heights. The 18 finalists for Miss Singapore Universe 2006 last week included:

* Juliana Chan, a PhD in Biochemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), after a first class honours at Harvard,

* Michele Tsai, 22, who is pursuing a master's degree in marketing, and

* Ginnie Goh, a Master of Arts in Media and Communications, University of Melbourne (a 10-pointer in O-level exam).

In recent years, they have included a nominated MP, a lawyer and a vet. The 1999 winner, Cheryl Marie Cordeiro, held two degrees and was pursuing postgraduate studies.

A reporter covering the event wrote, "We don't want bimbos. And it looks like bookworms need not apply either.

"In a bid to distance itself from the perception that beauty pageants are only for the brainless, this year's Miss Singapore Universe loudly trumpeted its historical haul of three post-graduates.

"They weren't the prettiest girls, but everyone expected them to be the smartest."

In the past, contestants had looks and little else. They could hardly answer a simple question like "What do you want to do with your life?" It could draw out a "to help the people" answer.

This year, the biochemistry researcher Juliana said: "I hope to find a cure for cancer. Even if it's not me, I can inspire many young Singaporean girls to find a cure or a vaccine, you never know!"

That sort of reply wasn't necessary, but organisers want the winners at least to be knowledgeable, quick-minded and witty.

The emancipation of women here has stretched into the male domain.
At university, they dominate in courses like media, accountancy and law but also, at times, excelling in physics and engineering.

At work, they command police divisions, help train helicoper pilots, run corporations and occupy top posts in the civil service. This year, they're making big inroads into politics.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is fielding the highest number of women candidates to contest in an election, 17 out of 84 candidates - or 20%.

The opposition, too, has attracted an increasing number of women into its ranks.

The new chairman of the Workers' Party is a lecturer in a polytechnic, lawyer Sylvia Lim. Three other well-educated candidates could also be fielded.

More women scientists are working in A-Star, the state agency for biotech research. Juliana Chan, the Harvard-MIT Miss Universe contestant, works here.

About 54% of the workforce here are women. Evelyn Quek, a certified work-life auditor for the Ministry of Community Development, said of the Singaporean women: "They are smart. They are strategic."

Some have preference for the rough and tumble, like running marathons, climbing Mt Everest, taking part in kickboxing or engaging the guys in sports like rugby or taekwando.

Predictably, the concept change in beauty quests hasn't gone down well with some men, who prefer beauty queens to be just that - beautiful.

"We are supposed to find the most beautiful girl in the universe, so let's just stick to this agenda. If we treasure Harvard qualifications, hold another contest for it," said an IT bachelor.

When asked, a girl with a diploma said, "I'm quite tired of hearing so much about 'beauty with brains', because I think the emphasis should be 'beauty with a purpose'."

The contrary view comes from people who believe that a good-looking girl without character and conversational skill is no beauty, and should not represent Singapore.

"When she stands in the world forum, she has to project Singapore in the proper light, a modern city with sophisticated people," said a fashion designer.

But organisers should keep the right balance and not be too carried away by academic achievements. After all, it is a beauty contest."

An observer has observed that this year's finalists, while "not bad looking", are no knock-dead beauties either. But they certainly are smart.

So who won, brains or beauty? Neither the Harvard-MIT woman nor the two post-graduates scored, but the winner is no bimbo either.

She is Carol Cheong, a 24-year-old art director who graduated from Australia's Curtin University. She also won the Body Beautiful award.

(This was published in The Sunday Star on Apr 16, 2006)
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(Letter from Juliana Chan correcting some misinformation. Apologies.)

Hi Mr Seah,

This may be extremely belated, but I read your article today on the Miss Singapore beauty pageant. I heard from a few Cambridge Malaysian friends that an article came out mentioning me in Malaysia. They brought it to Singapore and I got hold of it.

I proceeded to read some of your articles and felt you were very observant, if not slightly harsh on the scholarship system. My opinions on the scholarship system will of course be biased since I come from within, but if you are interested I would like to offer a spin on your take.

Just a note, you gave me two more degrees from Harvard *and* MIT. I graduated from only Cambridge university last year. I have yet to start my Ph.D. degree at MIT, which will take a total of six years. Your article makes me the youngest Ph.D. Biology graduate of MIT at the age of 22, so thank you, I had a little chuckle about it!

Cheers and continue your good writing.
Best,
Juliana Chan