By Mariam Mokhtar
Ipoh is famous for its limestone hills, pomelos, groundnuts and beauties like Amber Chia, Anna Lim and Michelle Yeoh.
When Ipoh-born Sara Amelia Bernard entered the Miss Malaysia World 2013 contest, she hoped to win the coveted Miss Malaysia World 2013 title and represent Malaysia in the Miss World finals, in Bali.
In the sixteen years that have passed since this writer first met her, the pretty four-year old, with doe eyes and porcelain skin, has blossomed into a beautiful young woman.
Melia, as we used to call her, has had her dreams shattered. Following a controversial intervention by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi), she and three other Muslim girls were threatened with a fine and possible jail sentence.
Their crime? They were deemed to be insulting Muslims by entering the beauty contest and to have committed a sin. The hysteria against these four girls grew, and even after their disqualification, they were barred from attending the final of the Miss Malaysia World contest as invited guests.
Melia went to primary and secondary schools in Ipoh until she enrolled at Taylor’s College in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur. She comes from a competitive family which has produced victors. Her father Bernard Radin, is a martial arts champion and has represented Malaysia in Muay Thai, Wushu and Tae Kwon-do. Melia wanted to prove that a girl from Ipoh could be successful like Michelle Yeoh, who gained worldwide success as an actress. She wanted to put Ipoh on the map and in an interview with a Malaysian daily, said that joining a beauty contest was one way to expose true Malaysian beauty to the world.
“A beauty queen is not merely a pretty face but is intelligent, cultured, well-spoken, kind hearted, warm and friendly. She uses her title to help others and participates in various charities worldwide.
“In school, I had friends of every race and had the opportunity to learn about their customs and beliefs. I also love the variety of food in Malaysia, my favourites being popiah, banana leaf (rice) and ayam masak merah!”
It was during the audition that Melia met the pageant organiser, Anna Lim who presented her with a copy of her autobiography. On reading it, Melia found that Anna was also from Ipoh and was involved in charitable works. She was impressed that after she retired from competition, Anna had gone to London to study, became a stockbroker and later opened her own interior design company.
“I dreamed of following in her footsteps… (Anna is a) true example of beauty with brains!”
Melia said that she was motivated to work with underprivileged children and the less fortunate.
“I saw it as an opportunity to promote intellectual women as well as participate in various charities worldwide and help the underprivileged.”
Melia knew that as a Muslim, she would not be wearing a bikini in the swimsuit round but said that current competition rules dictate that entrants would have to dress modestly, anyway.
Ever since this controversy broke, Melia has had to cancel her Facebook account because “trolls” posed messages containing expletives and nasty comments.
“It really opened your eyes to the number of extremists out there,” she said.
Melia claimed that both she and 19 year-old Wafa Johanna De Korte, had been ridiculed and criticised as they were the most vocal of the four Muslim participants.
When asked for her views, Yasmin Yusuff, who represented Malaysia at the 1978 Miss Universe pageant in Acapulco and who successfully launched her career as an actress, singer, radio presenter, event host and businesswoman, said “The pageant could be called ‘Miss Malaysia Non-Malays’”.
The Pengerang MP Azalina Othman Said said that the four Muslim girls shouldn’t have joined the beauty race in the first place because “…it is a sensitive environment right now especially during the fasting month”.
Perhaps, Azalina should be reminded that even before the fasting month, Malaysians have been subjected to an extraordinarily sensitive environment, where both non-Malays and Malays must tread on egg-shells for fear of incurring the wrath of the authorities.
Most people are not aware that a fatwa is just an opinion or guide to how one should lead one’s life as a good Muslim. Only under Shia rule can a fatwa become a law, without first being enacted by parliament.
Melia is a beauty with brains. She and the other participants were not going to bare their bodies. They were prepared to dress modestly. They were going to compete on an intellectual footing with poise and an inner beauty, with the best that Malaysia and the world has to offer.
This spat is not about religious values. The girls did not insult Islam or other Muslims. The girls stood up for their individual liberties, and for that we should commend them.