Wed, 17 Jul 2024


Unduk Ngadau not an ordinary pageant
Published on: Saturday, June 01, 2024
By: Bernama
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Unduk Ngadau not an ordinary pageant
Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan participants doing their bit for charity. (Pic: Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan / Facebook)
Kota Kinabalu: One of the most awaited events of the month-long celebrations to mark the Kaamatan festival is Unduk Ngadau or “beauty” contest.

Previously known as the Kadazan Dusun Harvest Festival Queen pageant, Unduk Ngadau has now evolved into a platform that showcases the rich spectrum of cultures and heritages in Sabah.


As Unduk Ngadau Committee Chairman Joanna Kitingan aptly puts it in the Kadazan Dusun language, “Au kotutun nogi au muhang” (loosely translated, it means one cannot love something if one is not familiar with it). In short, to truly appreciate Unduk Ngadau, one must understand its underlying intentions  

Kaamatan is the harvest festival celebrated in May every year by the 35 ethnic groups and 217 sub-ethnic groups inhabiting the Land Below the Wind, with the celebrations culminating with various events on May 30 and 31.

Relating the history of Unduk Ngadau, Joanna said the event is held in honour of Huminodun – the daughter of the deity Kinoingan and his wife Suminundu – who, according to a Kadazan Dusun legend, sacrificed herself to save her people from a disastrous famine.

The story of Huminodun symbolises loyalty, willingness and sacrifice which are some of the essential qualities participants of the Unduk Ngadau pageant must possess.

“Officially, this year marks the 64th year of Unduk Ngadau. This is not an ordinary beauty pageant but a contest steeped in tradition and focuses on the preservation of Sabah’s ethnic heritages and cultures.

“Unduk Ngadau empowers our women, giving them the confidence to speak about their culture, heritage and life in their mother tongue, while simultaneously showcasing their heritage and culture to the broader society across the country and even the world,” she explained.

According to Joanna, the contest also serves as an avenue to instil in the younger generation an interest in their respective ethnic cultures and traditions, which they can promote on their social media accounts.

“We won’t be around forever, so we hope our younger generation will carry on showcasing our heritages and cultures,” she said.

Referring to Unduk Ngadau, she said physical beauty alone will not secure a participant’s victory; they should also be smart and knowledgeable about their cultures and heritages as well as possess qualities that can be emulated by other young people.

She said when compared with other Malaysian beauty pageants that have “come and gone”, Unduk Ngadau has endured because of its unique objectives and purpose, namely empowering women and preserving the cultures and heritages of Sabah.   

Another factor that makes Unduk Ngadau special is the requirement for the contest participants to wear their respective traditional attire featuring, among others, the linangkit traditional embroidery and pinangkol beadwork.

“Watching them (contestants) parade in their traditional attire is one of the eagerly anticipated parts of Unduk Ngadau. We are happy when our children and people outside of Sabah learn about our ethnic clothes because this will ensure it doesn’t fade into obscurity,” she said.

Joanna added the contest organisers have also managed to acquire the traditional attire of the Milian ethnic group, who live in the Kinabatangan area, for the Unduk Ngadau participants.

“We want our contestants to wear traditional attire made from materials woven by ethnic weavers. Some clothes can be made from machine-made fabrics but we want to support women who have weaving skills which they learned from their elders.

We don’t want their skills to disappear due to the production of machine-made patterns and motifs,” she said, adding to enhance their economic prospects, the weavers’ creativity can also be utilised to produce contemporary designs.

She added most of the traditional weavers are found in Matunggong, Kudat, Tambunan and Tuaran and hoped future Unduk Ngadau contestants will be able to showcase clothes featuring ‘tinongkupan’, which is the Rungus ethnic group’s most expensive woven design.

Meanwhile, a total of 51 contestants are participating in the final round of this year’s Unduk Ngadau in Penampang on May 31. The winner will take home prizes worth over RM100,000.

The contestants comprise 41 winners of Sabah district-level Unduk Ngadau; eight from the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA) branches in the Klang Valley, Putrajaya, Johor, Melaka, Perak and Penang, and Bandaraya and Kapayan (both in Sabah); and one each from Labuan and Sarawak.

Joanna said the peninsula-level Unduk Ngadau contests, organised by the KDCA branches, have been taking place since 21 years ago. Television personality Daphne Iking was one of the well-known branch winners who went on to win the Unduk Ngadau crown in 2003.

Dr Ramzah

Institute for Development Studies Sabah Chief Executive Officer Associate Prof Datuk Dr Ramzah Dambul said outwardly, the term Unduk Ngadau was derived from “tunduk om tadau”, which means tender shoots and the sun.

This is a manifestation of the spirit of the padi from the Huminodun legend narrative to celebrate life.

“It signifies that Unduk Ngadau is rooted in socio-cultural elements… it’s not just a beauty contest but more of a quest for an ethnic ambassador.  

“We don’t want a Barbie Doll look-alike. We want a role model. So, we must transcend the physical aspects of the formulated ‘beauty’ criteria. Primarily, we are seeking an intellectual ambassador to dignify our nation’s image,” he said.

The Unduk Ngadau contest has two crucial segments, modelling and public speaking.

Advising contestants how they should conduct themselves in the public speaking segment, Ramzah said they should not speak like a beauty queen, instead, they must talk confidently and be knowledgeable and strive to be a charismatic ambassador who aims to showcase her heritage and culture to the world.

He said the contestants should be exposed to socio-cultural knowledge and taught to be more confident and mentally resilient.     

“Teach them how to embrace their natural qualities and to make peace with all their flaws. Motivate and inspire them to be really comfortable with being who they are,” he added.


Pointing to Unduk Ngadau 2021 winner Maya Hejnowska, Ramzah said she was every inch a charismatic ambassador who exhibited the qualities of a role model.

“Just look at her during the question-and-answer session. I think she was probably among the first to break the stereotype. She didn’t just speak but persuaded and educated (the audience) as well. She really conquered the hall, and projected herself strongly and confidently,” he said.

Ramzah said he was also impressed with the public speaking skills of Charity Jimis who participated in the 2022 Unduk Ngadau contest.

“She was able to take control of the stage, and the audience was not only captivated with her beauty but her aura as well,” he said.  

When interviewed previously, Maya said the most important aspect of winning the contest was the responsibility that came with the title and being a role model for the younger generation, particularly girls.

“When you win Unduk Ngadau, you represent Sabah and its people. It’s about responsibility to the people and learning to become better. After winning the contest, I learned many things after meeting the ‘Bobohizan’ (high priestess or ritual specialist in Kadazan Dusun pagan rites). I also learned more about our traditional ceremonies and traditions in Sabah,” she said.

This young woman of Kadazan-Polish descent hopes the Unduk Ngadau tradition will continue and become a platform to strengthen unity among the people of Sabah while empowering the younger generation.

Sabah Deputy Chief Minister II Datuk Seri Dr Joachim Gunsalam, who is also KDCA Deputy President, said one of the highlights of the Kaamatan festival is the Unduk Ngadau contest.

He said Unduk Ngadau should not be described as a beauty contest, adding the person winning the title should embody the charm and spirit of Huminodun and embrace the pure values of tradition as well as be an exemplary role model and respected icon of society.

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