If you were to ask the average Malaysian on what their definition of “beautiful” is supposed to be, without a doubt, “fair skinned” would top the list for most people. Local female celebrities like Neelofa and Vivy Yusof are undoubtedly beautiful and have worked hard for their well-deserved success, but one thing they have in common with pretty much most of the other female Malaysian celebrities who exist within the sphere of Malay pop culture of today is this: their light coloured skin.
Prior to writing this article, I spent quite a while searching on Google, “artis Malaysia berkulit gelap” (which literally means, “Malaysian artists with dark skin” in Malay) and (un)surprisingly, found only one article which spoke positively of Malaysian celebrities who were dark skinned. Simultaneously, I conducted an informal survey on my personal Instragram account in which I asked my followers for their opinions on which celebrities they found the most attractive. Also unsurprisingly, names which I received as pretty much all of my replies turned out to be fair-skinned Malay celebrities.
From Insta-famous local models to popular Malaysian teenage girls who have captivated a significant audience on social media, and even the average “pretty kid” in school, the majority of them undoubtedly portray the image of what “beauty” is supposed to be, with milky white complexion and somewhat caucasian features, and it has proven that in a Malaysian society, it’s easy to captivate people with your beauty if you look white.
Although some people might inherently disagree, most of this preference to fair-skinned Malaysians as the faces of beauty (regardless whether they are Malay, Chinese or Indians), is significantly due to cognitive biases and inherent white supremacy that dates all the way back to our roots as a country that has once been colonized, and not to mention the fact that we already live in Euro-centric world in which the Western media indirectly dictates and influences our thoughts, and our local media as well.
The influence of Western media and colonialism has done pretty much enough damage in most parts of the world.
Malaysian children grow up watching TV shows that portray caucasian actors and actresses with light coloured skin, light coloured hair and light coloured eyes when they seek entertainment from Western-produced films.
But funnily (and also sadly) enough, tuning into a locally-produced TV show or movie will also pretty much show you the same thing: light skinned actors and actresses with light coloured hair and light coloured eyes, who despite the fact that they are local Malaysians themselves, they still somewhat conform to standards of beauty that have been set by Western media and its influence.
Hence, it’s only natural for someone living in a society like this to sub-conciously grow up believing that Euro-centric beauty standards is what true beauty is supposed to look like, because it is something that we often see in the media. The human mind also likes to sub-conciously fall prey to the media as a social pedestal which influences us
Although there are many other successful female Malaysian celebrities who have made global and international breakthroughs such as Yuna and Kiran Jassal of Miss Universe Malaysia 2016, who are endlessly applauded for their success and celebrated for their beauty without succumbing to Euro-centric beauty standards, what’s problematic is not how these women look, but instead, how there is something vital in our local society which has failed to exist which is a widespread culture of self-love, self-appreciation and expression of one’s Malaysian heritage.
From a personal perspective, I genuinely think that our Malaysian society significantly lacks the existence of a culture which emphasizes the celebrating people for who they are and what they look like, regardless of their race and skin colour.
I spent the past two years in a Malay majority school, and it was saddening to find that most of the kids in my school used derogatory words such as “hitam” (Malay word for ‘black’), “nigga”, and “keling” (a derogatory term used in reference to Malaysian Indians), to discriminate against the students who were dark skinned or came from minority ethnic groups such as Indian and African descents. Although they mostly said those words with the intention to joke around, it is needless to say that for multiple times, there were feelings which ended up hurt, and senses of self-esteem feeling attacked and threatened.
Needless to say, I spent the past two years before my years in a Malay majority school in a multi-racial school instead, and I pretty much witnessed the exact same thing.
The fact that racial insults and slurs are thrown around without thinking twice in casual conversation “only as a joke and without the intention to offend” is alarming enough to prove that Malaysians still lack awareness on the significant dangers of racial segregation and discrimination that can occur merely through words, and the fact that Malaysians also lack awareness on how their actions can be seen as verbal abuse and bullying.
Personally, I find that a significant number of Malaysians are still inherently unaware of their sub-concious cognitive biases and often think that joking around with the usage of racial slurs as something lightly, without realizing how their words can be linked to a much more harmful part of systematic and historical oppression.
If you are Malay and you claim to have an Indian best friend, it does not make you any less of a racist if you still include words like “keling” and “hitam” in casual conversation without realizing the historical significance of how that word is linked to racial and systemic oppression.
We are all guilty of sub-concious, internal and cognitive biases, regardless in Malaysia or in other parts of the world; but realizing these biases and attempting to rectify them is what’s important for us to progress into a more accepting society that celebrates diversity and culture towards a world with much, much less discrimination than the one we live in right now.