Unduk Ngadau: inspired by a global trend & an expression of idealized local beauty standards

It’s the month of May. Everyone in Sabah knows what season it is. It’s Kaamatan (Harvest Festival). When there is Kaamatan, there is Unduk Ngadau. Unduk Ngadau is a beauty pageant that is held every year. It has been held for half a century. It’s the kind of tradition that is unique to Kadazandusun culture. Or is it?

Let me first start off with the year that Unduk Ngadau started. Before the pageant was called ‘Unduk Ngadau’, it was first named as ‘Miss Kadazan’ (you can refer to Wikipedia for clarification). Miss Kadazan was first held in the year 1960. Why am I mentioning the year that this pageant was first held? Coincidentally (or is it?), Miss Universe and Miss World were held around the same era or decade which was in 1950s. As the world entered the 1960s, globalization started to happen. As an effect of globalization, beauty pageants seem to be an idea or a trend that began to have global recognition during that era and Sabah (in 1960 it was still called ‘North Borneo’) seems to be one of the places that adopted this idea and incorporated it into one of its ethnic celebrations.

What is Unduk Ngadau? People would normally say, it’s a beauty pageant that has female representatives from each districts of Sabah as contestants who were also the winners of Unduk Ngadau pageants held at the district level. How is it significant and unique to the Kadazandusun culture? People would say, it is to appreciate the sacrifice done by Huminodun. As for me, I would personally say that Unduk Ngadau is just a beauty pageant that idealizes Kadazandusun beauty standards that is being masked as an ethnic cultural tradition. The legend of Huminodun is the element that is being used as a justification for this beauty pageant to be held.

We can look at this phenomenon both positively and negatively. On the positive side, it is a form of entertainment for the average Sabahan to engage in. For many of us, Unduk Ngadau is the long awaited event whenever Harvest Festival is drawing near. They would look at the winners from each district and perhaps support those that hail from the same district as them. It is an event worth waiting for if you’re in it just to kill boredom. The event also acknowledges the beauty of Kadazandusun women. Of course, what constitutes as beauty is subjective to each and every individual. Thus, this forms another side of the argument. Beauty pageants promote idealized beauty standards that further degrade women who do not possess beauty standards that are perceived by the society. Unduk Ngadau is not an exception from indirectly promoting this effect. Even among the Unduk Ngadau participants, with the utilization of social media for displaying the images of the contestants, the public will still comment on who is prettier and who is not. It is evident in the comment section. This is the kind of behaviour that we instil upon the society when we have this kind of competitions going on.
To compensate this negative side of the argument, there is a feature in the Unduk Ngadau pageant that can present women as not only having to offer a pretty face but also intellect. This is determined during the Q&A session. I believe with all the external beauty that they possess, their right to own the Unduk Ngadau crown will still be determined by whether they are ignorant or aware of particular issues. Personally, I would look forward to them answering questions that engage in their critical thinking process and not just by retrieving facts. However, just by retrieving facts of particular issues does show that they have some sense of awareness of current issues albeit the level of questions asked could be improved by applying Bloom’s Taxonomy. Unique to Unduk Ngadau pageants, participants could answer the questions whether in Malay or in their mother tongue. With regards to this, many of the participants are below the age of 25 and it is a fact that in this current generation, many Sabahans under that age group are not as proficient in their mother tongue as the older generations were. There were participants that I have observed in the past that have executed the Q&A session in their mother tongue quite flawlessly but even that was a rare occurrence. Even if women who see themselves as not possessing the facial features of the standardized beauty ideals, they could always aspire to cultivating the internal bits of their mind.

If the Q&A session was to solely measure the intellect of the participants, then this aspect of the competition does serve a kind of purpose for the pageant, which is to evaluate or judge a woman not only for her looks but also for her brain. In terms of native tongue proficiency, since the participants had been given an option to answer whether in Malay or in their native tongue, then I don’t think the purpose of the Q&A session was to evaluate native tongue proficiency. Besides, a display of intellect is not determined by the language but by the content. It would be a plus if native tongue proficiency was to be made as an obligatory requirement though but I personally think that organizers are well aware of the level of proficiency of the current younger generation of Sabahans and thus have decided not to have the language aspect as an obligatory requirement.

Sadly, from my observation, what will still remain as the content of the public’s discussion about the Unduk Ngadau contestants will always be about comparing looks instead of the contestants’ level of thinking.

With all of this being said, the idea of Unduk Ngadau pageants is not unique to Kadazandusun culture. However, organizers have incorporated local elements into the competition to make it distinct from other beauty pageants. Even so, its idealized beauty and its effect on society is the same as other beauty pageants elsewhere. Other than that, although Unduk Ngadau pageants promote beauty ideals to an already superficial society, the Q&A session helps elevate the contestants to a thinking woman instead of just having a pretty face. However, majority of the society’s comments and discussions regarding the Unduk Ngadau pageant will frequently be about the external aspect of it.

I welcome any constructive comments regarding my essay on this issue.

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