It shows how much Singapore has changed. By Seah Chiang
Apr 16, 2006
(Juliana Chan's letter follows)
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.
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.
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
quest for Miss Singapore Universe has steadily evolved not
only around the desirable physical forms, but on testing
contestants' poise, knowledge and conversational skill,
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.
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.
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,
Ginnie Goh, a Master of Arts in Media and Communications,
University of Melbourne (a 10-pointer in O-level exam).
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.
covering the event wrote, "We don't want bimbos. And
it looks like bookworms need not apply either.
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.
weren't the prettiest girls, but everyone expected them
to be the smartest."
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.
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!"
sort of reply wasn't necessary, but organisers want the
winners at least to be knowledgeable, quick-minded and witty.
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.
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.
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%.
opposition, too, has attracted an increasing number of women
into its ranks.
new chairman of the Workers' Party is a lecturer in a polytechnic,
lawyer Sylvia Lim. Three other well-educated candidates
could also be fielded.
women scientists are working in A-Star, the state agency
for biotech research. Juliana Chan, the Harvard-MIT Miss
Universe contestant, works here.
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
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.
the concept change in beauty quests hasn't gone down well
with some men, who prefer beauty queens to be just that
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.
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'."
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.
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."
has observed that this year's finalists, while "not
bad looking", are no knock-dead beauties either. But
they certainly are smart.
won, brains or beauty? Neither the Harvard-MIT woman nor
the two post-graduates scored, but the winner is no bimbo
is Carol Cheong, a 24-year-old art director who graduated
from Australia's Curtin University. She also won the Body
was published in The Sunday Star on Apr 16, 2006)
(Letter from Juliana Chan correcting some misinformation.
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
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.