Is it possible to distill the essence of a country into a single entity like a flag, or an emblem, or an anthem? Every nation tries but none has achieved a consensus on whether any of these symbols or songs are truly reflective of the face and soul of the country.
Little wonder, then, that when a nation chooses a woman to represent it in the annual Miss Universe pageant, there is often a great deal of disagreement about whether her beauty, poise, charm and talent are the perfect amalgam -- the flawless fantasy -- of what an ideal woman, particular in that nation, would look like. After all, she is going to have to stand pump-to-pump with the representatives of prototypical perfection offered up by almost 100 other nationalities around the globe. If she doesn't measure up, it may not be as bad as losing a war, but to some it's close.
Indeed, for many countries -- especially developing nations that are trying to overcome the stigma of being economically inferior to the West -- beauty contests represent identity, not vanity. They are prideful events; and the row over which woman embodies the country's paradigm can often be contentious, even cutting directly to the heart of the social fissures that lie just under the surface in day-to-day life.
This year, Malaysia is one of those countries. There, the question of which ethnicity emblamatizes Malaysian beauty is pitting local racial heritage against Caucasian blood.
Who's That Girl?
Miss Malaysia 2012 is a 19-year-old model named Kimberley Leggett.
"I was born in Penang. Born and raised," Leggett said in a video interview posted on YouTube by the Star Online after she won the Miss Malaysia crown last year.
Her words belie her appearance. Leggett, with her hazel eyes, fair skin, and long dark hair, could easily pass for a citizen of the euro zone. Her fluent English is a mix of dialects -- it sounds a bit like the oft-stereotyped American valley girl accent, with hints of British.
Leggett's actual background is a varied one, as she explained: "My dad's British and my mom is Malaysian -- but she's a mixture, so she's Serani [half Malay and half European]. I think I represent the younger generation of Malaysian women, but at the same time, because I'm young, and because of my mixed background, I think that I represent a wider range of Malaysian women."
Affirmations abound, but you can hear the defensiveness creeping into Leggett's statement.
"It's just that my background just happens to be [of] European descent," Leggett said. "It's just that my physical features may follow the European descent, but I don't think that takes away from my Malaysian identity."
Racial division is a matter of great importance in Malaysia, where the main political parties are organized according to ethnic ties.
The leading governmental coalition, Barisan National, is made up of several political parties. Of these, the three most powerful correspond to the three most prevalent ethnicities in Malaysia. There is the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Organization, or MCA, and the Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC.
The UNMO, representing Malays, is the most powerful party. Every prime minister since the country gained independence in 1957 has been an ethnic Malay of the UMNO, including current Prime Minister Najib Razak. The party's hold on power is based on the fact that Malays constitute a slim majority -- and easy plurality -- of the country's population, 50.4 percent, as noted by the CIA's World Factbook.
Malaysians of Chinese heritage make up the next-largest ethnic bloc, about one-quarter of the general population. Then come indigenous Malaysians, whose loyalties are divided among several smaller groups, followed by Indian Malaysians, constituting about 8 percent of the population.
The strong link between politics and ethnicity is one of Malaysia's most pressing problems, as the arrangement does nothing to create a sense of national unity. But the country has made some progress of late, with a new generation of voters showing more interest in practical issues instead of old allegiances, as chronicled by the Malaysian Insider.
One key point: Caucasians do not make up one of Malaysia's dominant ethnic groups. Not by a long shot. That Leggett's heritage is 75 percent white raises interesting questions about Malaysian standards of beauty. Are Western norms changing the game?
I Love A Parade
The 61st annual Miss Universe Pageant will take place this December.
Donald Trump and NBC co-own the Miss Universe brand. According to the competition's website, this year's judges will include Arsenio Hall, the famed talk-show host who won the most recent round of Trump's own reality-television show, 'The Apprentice"; Marilu Henner, the former actress who is now known for a mysterious neurological condition enabling her to remember every detail of her own life since the age of 11; and Rob Kardashian, whose claim to fame is his sister Kim Kardashian, a socialite whose own rise to prominence was accelerated by a leaked sex tape in 2007.
In other words, this global competition is a Western production staged on Western terms. And that filters down to the selection process in countries all around the world, even where Western values have little to do with national culture.
Malaysia's Miss Universe pageant has tended toward fairer-skinned candidates only lately. In 2008 and 2009, the contestants had no Caucasian heritage -- one was a mix of Thai and Chinese, and the other was a mix of Chinese and Indian.
But in recent years, the contest came under new management. Former winner Andrea Fonseka -- who took the crown in 2004 -- became the national director for Miss Universe Malaysia in 2010. In addition to experience as a model and television personality, she studied law at the National University of Singapore, according to her biography on the Live the Dream site.
Like Fonseka herself, the last two countrywide pageant winners were fair-skinned and of mixed ethnicity. Miss Malaysia 2010, Nadine Ann Thomas, was Chinese, Indian, and white. Miss Malaysia 2011, Deborah Priya Henry, was Indian and white.
Now Leggett holds the title, and she has a stronger Caucasian heritage than any Miss Malaysia the country has crowned in recent memory.
Even the selection process has been Westernized: Last year's Miss Malaysia contest was broadcast in a six-episode series called "Beauty Camp," a reality-TV competition show much like the popular U.S. program "America's Next Top Model."
Constantly followed by cameras, 19 girls participated in challenges and faced gradual eliminations until the season finale on Nov. 10 of last year, when Leggett was crowned the new Miss Malaysia on national television.
For The Win
Now, Leggett is gearing up to take the stage for the Miss Universe contest in December. The odds are stacked against her: Malaysia has not won a Miss Universe contest since 1962. During the past half century, the country placed in the top 15 only once, back in 1970.
But Leggett doesn't sound fazed.
"I've always watched [Miss Univserse] on TV, and it's always been a dream of mine to be on that stage and to represent Malaysia," Leggett said in her video interview.
In terms of her country's ongoing ethnic struggles, Leggett is diplomatically cheerful.
"I'm proud of being Malaysian because of the different races that we have here, and I think it's great how we have so many holidays, different religions, different races celebrating different holidays," she said. "For example, you have [the Indian festival of lights] Deepavali, you have Chinese New Year, you have Christmas, and we all celebrate that without any discrimination."
The reality isn't quite that simple. More than four decades have passed since race riots erupted across Malaysia on May 13, 1969, as recounted by the Associated Press via the Seattle Times. The violence, mostly pitting Chinese citizens against Malays, lasted for more than a month and killed at least 196 people. Things are much better today, but old prejudices die hard, and divisions are still evident. Prime Minister Najib pays lip service to racial unity, but many Chinese and Indian Malaysians are wondering when, exactly, that might translate into a prime minster from any party other than the Malay-dominated UNMO.
Leggett's European heritage removes her from this national conflict. And, in some ways, standing apart may be better than choosing a side. This Miss Malaysia 2012 is pretty, charming, and ambitious -- if she demonstrates enough poise on the world stage, she might finally win a long-sought title for her small country.
And in the end, a win is a win: A crowned Malaysian is a crowned Malaysian. Those who would prefer a more representative beauty can do little but wait until next year.