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KUALA LUMPUR, June 3 — Bring people together and not drive them apart.
That is what Miss Universe Malaysia 2004 winner Andrea Fonseka opines public figures should be using their platforms for.
The 35-year-old National University of Singapore law graduate said:
“Malaysians recognise that there is an obligation of people in power to have sensitivities and consideration as to the effect that their message might have.”
“As a public figure, you must intend for your public messages to do good, and not harm,” she said.
Fonseka was among the beauty queens who shared their opinions after Miss Universe Malaysia 2017 winner Samantha Katie James sparked outrage for her comments on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States.
Fonseka added that many in the country were deeply affected by James’ hurtful comments because they lacked empathy towards the plight of marginalised communities and persons.
Calling James’ comments insensitive, Fonseka said she missed the point by dismissing why the protests were occurring in the first place.
“It implies that the reason for their suffering is a result of choices that they made consciously as individuals,” Fonseka told Malay Mail today.
On Monday, James shared a series of comments on Instagram Stories telling African Americans to “relax and take it as a challenge” and that they “chose to be born as coloured (people) in America”, angering Malaysians and making headlines abroad.
James subsequently faced a barrage of negative comments from the public, including homegrown celebrities who expressed their disappointment.
Fonseka reminded people to refrain from cyberbullying James but instead use the opportunity to educate her instead of pushing her away.
“As outraged as Malaysians are, some have resorted to cyberbullying Samantha. That is wrong.
“Call her out, sure. But do not bully, hate or be nasty.
“There is already too much evil in this world, we need to be part of the solution and not perpetuate the problem,” she said.
Although the BLM movement was taking place in a foreign country, Miss Universe Malaysia 2012 Kimberley Leggett said Malaysians’ anger over James’ statements reflects the fact that race is still a reality in which people are still judged, vilified and affected by.
“It’s embarrassing more than it is disappointing that someone who should stand for multiculturalism can pass off such insolent remarks and think there would be no consequences,” Leggett said.
She added that the public backlash James received was a consequence of poor social media etiquette and that a pageant titleholder’s clout doesn’t diminish after the crown is passed on.
On the lesson that can be learned for those who want to share their views on social media, Leggett said: “Don’t use it to impress, use it to impact.”
When Leggett won the title as a 19-year-old, she faced public backlash for her European heritage, with many claiming the Penang-born beauty looked ‘too Caucasian’ or that she wasn’t ‘Malaysian enough’ to represent her country, prompting her to justify her ‘Malaysian-ness’.
It was the polar opposite to James, who is of Malaysian-Chinese-Brazilian heritage and raised by a Malaysian-Indian family, for saying she identifies as a white person in her posts instead of Malaysian.
What then does this degree of race-consciousness say about us as a society?
“This brings to light the difficulty in actualising a colour-blind ideal in our race-conscious reality,” Leggett said.
“Race and racism exist because we individually and collectively create, enforce and sustain it – without thinking, talking and using the concept of ‘race’, it loses its social function.
“We are ultimately race oppressors and until we assume the role, we will continue to experience such bigotry.”
Miss Universe Malaysia 2012 Nadine Ann Thomas said James didn’t fully understand the oppression and dark history America has had.
Comparing the injustices James faced as a mixed-race child growing up in Klang to decades of systemic racism in the US was what triggered Malaysians.
“Racial bias and discrimination happens especially in countries that have multi-races, it particularly hits countries like Malaysia and the US where there is that spectrum of races and when you’re talking about skin colour, we have that full-spectrum,” said Thomas.
The mother of one, who is married to an American, said she was impressed to see so many Malaysian defending the movement and taking up this cause.
“Back then, racial discrimination is something not many would want to talk about but the more the world progresses, the more these topics have become open and it’s become something good to discuss,” she added.
Like Fonseka, Thomas also spoke out against berating James for her actions and take the route of constructive criticism instead.
She added that James probably isn’t feeling great reading hate comments and being bullied online.
“I did see a lot of our local celebs reposting comments like ‘You’re dumb’, that’s really easy to say but she’s not understanding right now why what she said is dumb,” Thomas said.
“People need to be more careful with their words and a bit more constructive.
“As a user, you also need to think about how she’s feeling – you may not want to because you might be angry and you have every right to be – but that’s the only way we can change that mindset.”
A keen campaigner against cyberbullying, Miss Universe Malaysia 2018 Jane Teoh spoke of the importance of empathy in such situations and to channel feelings of anger and injustice toward effective impact.
“I would like to encourage people to speak the truth with love and respect.
“Regardless of any comments that were made, I stand by my belief in not practising cyberbullying,” Teoh told Malay Mail.
Miss Universe Malaysia 2019 Shweta Sekhon said that titleholders, be it present or past, are told to always maintain their dignity and carry their sash with utmost pride.
Like many others, Shweta also pledged her support for the BLM movement through a series of Instagram stories and posts.
* Milad Hassandarvish contributed to this report.