Sunday, March 11th 2001
Life section

Tongue-tied Beauties

Speaking up for Everywoman

Have a heart, people. Beauty contestants come from the populace where eight in 10 Chinese speak either Mandarin or dialects at home

'IT hurts me to confess this,' said the Nobel laureate Albert Camus, 'but I'd have given 10 conversations with Einstein for a first meeting with a pretty chorus-girl.

'It's true that at the 10th meeting, I was longing for Einstein or a serious book.'

He added: 'How often, standing on the pavement involved in a passionate discussion with friends, I lost thread of the argument being developed because a devastating woman was crossing the street that very moment.'

He could say this without causing offence in his time. Born in 1809 in Bordeaux, he died in a car accident in January 1960, just before the advent of the 1960s counterculture and the rise of feminism in the West.

Had he been around to utter these words today, he would be put right by the piously politically-correct, even in Singapore where, as our more articulate women have said many times, 'feminism' is a dirty word.

I thought of Camus when I read the bullying reports on the Miss Singapore/ Universe contest, shown live on Channel 5 last Saturday.

I said bullying, because here were all these highly-educated, articulate women - and a couple of sensitive new-age guys - who showed how furious they were that the contestants appeared to them so 'dumb' and could not even speak grammatical English.

The New Paper on Sunday's banner headline declared: 'They couldn't even speak good English...It was terrible, horrible...'

Its reporter, Yeoh Wee Teck, the pleasant boy who used to be on radio, wrote of the show: '... the most riveting thing was the appalling spoken English'.

'All night long, I was on the edge of my seat, ears grating, holding my breath.'

Poor, poor man. But 'ears grating'?

In Project Eyeball on Tuesday, in a report headlined Survival Of The Dumbest, Serene Goh, whom I know as also someone with a pleasant disposition, wondered aloud how Darwinian natural selection had allowed these 'descendants of Jurassic bimbos (insipidious maximus)' to slip through its rigorous weeding process.

'A more reactive response to a 'live' broadcast has not been seen since Orson Welles' War Of The Worlds in 1938. Welles' fake news bulletin of a Martian invasion sent millions of Americans scurrying a la Chicken Little...

'Similarly, Singapore's panic-stricken denizens were devastated after the show.'

Woah! Thank goodness I didn't catch the show, or else I would have suffered a bad case of paroxysmal auricular tachycardia, or palpitations, in English.

I don't know if I have read all the wrong interpreters of Darwin, but I have always thought natural selection favours men and women who have symmetrical features, shiny hair and good skin, because these are the most easily discernable certificates of health. These people are more likely to have mates and to reproduce.

Our brain evolved very slowly, like a stone in a brook being shaped by the running water, over four million years. Modern man emerged only 200,000 years ago, fully-adapted to a tribal, hunter-gatherer existence in the savannah. And it was only 45,000 years ago that modern humans had spread all over the globe.

Because evolution time is measured in millions of years, many evolutionary scientists agree that our brain hasn't changed much from our ancestors' from the hunting-gathering days.

We are still ruled by primitive emotions, although we like to believe that we always act on rational reasoning.

Human nature has not changed. The hitherto accelerating IT revolution has come to a sudden pause because it has come up against human nature, and as dotcom companies flounder, techno-gurus like Nicholas Negroponte are now calling for computers that can read human emotions.

Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, has just come out with a book called The Unfinished Revolution that, in essence, says computers must be human-centred.

But I digress. On Wednesday, writing from Brandeis University, the columnist Soh Wen Lin in Project Eyeball dismissed those who chose to take part in beauty contests, and pointed out that 'our nation's physical and intellectual knockouts are buried in a book at Borders or the National Library...'

Presumably seeking self-actualisation, to borrow a term coined by the noted Brandeis alumnus, Abraham Maslow.

These are my younger colleagues, and I'm an old irredeemable male chauvinist pig, and I shouldn't be quarrelling with them. But Camus had said that a writer's first duty is to articulate for the inarticulate.

I'm just a scribe, and if the beauty contestants like Coco Ng were inarticulate, it is really because they are more comfortable with Mandarin; but I guess I should speak up for them, however unqualified I am.

Many of our educated and cosmopolitan young do not realise, or cannot accept, that vernacular languages continue to be the most common ones spoken at home.

According to a recent Department of Statistics release reported in The Straits Times last December, eight in 10 Chinese Singaporeans speak either Mandarin or dialects, nine in 10 Malays speak Malay, and four in 10 Indians speak Tamil.

A. C. Nielsen's latest radio diary survey shows that 93.3 FM, the Chinese channel, has the largest listenship - 28.4 per cent. The closest English-language channel is Class 95 FM, with 18.9 per cent. People like Serene and Wen Lin would probably belong to the 11.8 per cent group who tune in to 98.7 FM, or the 6.5 per cent who listen to News Radio 93.8.

Zoe Tay cannot articulate herself as well in English as she does in Mandarin, but she is still the most popular TV star, even if not the highest-paid (that's the more cosmopolitan and slicker Fann Wong).

When Zoe first took part in Star Search years ago, she was as awkward and stricken by stage fright as Coco Ng, but look how far she's come, through sheer application. Her looks gave her only a headstart.

The media is staffed by bright, young people. My wish is that they don't write or go on air for one another, but for all the good folks out there.

I've got to go now, there's this babe at the Newsroom Bar my friend Conrad wants to introduce to me...

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