Unduk Ngadau: Beauty or Cause?

The anticipation is over for the Kadazandusun community of Sabah as May has arrived and it is the month of Kaamatan, the annual Harvest Festival. It’s where different Kadazandusun ethnic groups around Sabah gather to celebrate a good harvest, to strengthen the bonds between these communities and just to have a good time.

It is also the time where the Unduk Ngadau will be crowned, celebrating the beauties that Sabah has. But, nowadays, is the Unduk Ngadau all about beauty or the cause?

2011 State Level Unduk Ngadau.

2011 State Level Unduk Ngadau.

A friend approached me and asked whether she has a chance of winning the title in the district level. But I asked her back, what’s your cause in joining the competition? What do you want to stand up or fight for? For instance, encouraging the youths to learn the Kadazan language. She doesn’t have any answer to that.

* * *

A long time ago, the Kadazandusuns expereinced a shortage of food supplies. Kinoingan was worried and felt sorry for his people. It was said that Kinoingan sacrificed Huminodun, the only child of Kinoingan and Suminundu. She was the most beautiful maiden during her time. She was also kind-hearted and blessed with wisdom beyond her years.

Huminodun was willing to be sacrificed and be an offering to the great Earth so that there will be seeds once again for planting and there will be food for the people. There was nothing the people could do to change her mind.

So it was then Kinoingan sacrificed Huminodun the whole world turned dark and there was thunder and lightning. That year, the people has never seen such a harvest.

Therefore, to this day, the Kadazandusun people have included the Unduk Ngadau pageant as a grand part of their Kaamatan festival. It is a manifestation to the deep sense of respect and admiration the the Kadazan Dusun people have for the legendary Huminodun. It is a sacred title ascribed to Huminodun, to her obedience to Kinoingan, so much as to be a willing sacrifice for her father’s creation. Unduk Ngadau is then a commemorative term in the phrase of Huminodun’s eternal youth and the total beauty of her heart, mind and body.

The term ‘Unduk’ or ‘Tunduk’ literally means the shoot of a plant which, in it most tangible description, signifies youth and progressiveness. Likewise, in its literal meaning, “Ngadau” or “Tadau” means the sun, which connotes the total beauty of the heart, mind and body of an ideal Kadazandusun woman. In essence therefore the “Unduk Ngadau” is a processual event of selecting from among the Kadazandusun beauties, one who would resemble the ascribed personality of “Huminodun”.

For the full version, visit Borneo Today

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Thus, the excerpt suggest that the Unduk Ngadau is more that just the physical beauty but it’s the beauty from within that embodies the wisdom and selflessness qualities that Huminodun has. But has today’s Unduk Ngadau became superficial? Commercialized to the extent that the pageant has lost its essence? Is it more about beauty than the cause the contestants could stand up for?

Miss Kadazan (Unduk Ngadau) 1964 - (Datuk Hajah Rita Bagong).  Then, there weren't any elaborate make up and hair do as well as over sequined traditional costumes.

Miss Kadazan (Unduk Ngadau) 1964 – (Datuk Hajah Rita Bagong).
Then, there weren’t any elaborate make up and hair do as well as heavily sequined traditional costumes. Simplicity at its best. *

“The Unduk Ngadau to me is essentially like Easter. Unduk Ngadau means “girl crowned by sunlight.” The festival commemorates the day when Huminodun, the daughter of god saw the people starving and suffering and sacrificed herself for them” Nadira Ilana, a Sabahan filmmaker told me when I asked her opinion on the pageant. She added, the Unduk Ngadau is meant to embody the spirit of Huminodun whereby she represents kindness, wisdom, humility, generosity, selflessness and those are the origins of her beauty. Not just her looks, which is why she felt it’s abhorrent to think of the Unduk Ngadau as a mere ‘beauty pageant’.

She is concerned about the growing number of ‘pageants’ that only focus on women’s physical appearances. “I can’t think of any female-centric awards or competitions in Sabah that aren’t beauty pageants.” She worries that this contributes to gender inequality because it creates an impression that women should only be rewarded for their beauty, not their skills or intelligence.

 On Unduk Ngadau has become more of beauty than cause, she said, “she’s more of a symbol and a spokesperson but she doesn’t really become an ambassador of any sorts, which is a shame. It’s a shame that we don’t value Huminodun’s sacrifice now that Sabahans have converted to Christianity and Islam, we tend to treat her as little more than a legend but I think she makes a great local role model. As it is, we need more dialogues about gender equality and empowering girls and women. We need more female role models and as Sabahans, whether or not Huminodun is real she is part of all our stories and she deserves a special place in our hearts. Not just as a pretty face that changes every year.”

Hence, how or why does physical beauty become the determining factor for one to be crowned Unduk Ngadau when in fact, physical beauty is universal? Maybe it has got to do with the fact that the judging criteria allocates 35% – 40% out of 100% for beauty which is defined as charm, grace, elegance and poise. Whereas, 20% is only allocated for questions and answers.**

There's even a Miss Popular Kaamatan award.

There’s even a Miss Popular Kaamatan award.

Moreover, gala nights, evening gowns and titles like ‘Miss Friendly’ and ‘Miss Natural Beauty’ are added to the competition which I guess to make it more current and relevant in accordance with time. But these additions has made the Unduk Ngadau drifted away from it’s essence and simplicity behind the pageant. It has become just another vain beauty pageant.


How is it natural beauty when natural beauty is covered underneath cosmetics? And that oversized gong hair do. Err.*

Do I want just another pretty face? No. Because I know Unduk Ngadau is more than just beauty. There’s wisdom, values and attributes behind it that the contestants should manifest. An Unduk Ngadau should be able to speak for the people, as Nadira said, a symbol and a spokesperson, having a cause the she believes in. A clear example is one I gave at the beginning of the post. Language. Or even creating the awareness of preserving the Kadazandusun culture that is slowly lost in time.

The legend behind the Unduk Ngadau gives the pageant a uniqueness that sets apart from all other beauty pageants. The title itself comes with responsibility.

So, the answer to my friend’s question, I couldn’t say that she does have a chance of winning or no, she can’t win. Cause she’ll never know, unless she tries. As the saying goes ‘menang atau kalah, adat pertandingan‘ (win or lose, it’s part of the game). All I said was, if she does have a cause, then believe in it, fight for it, fight it for the people. And as a friend, I’ll be behind her back, supporting her.

Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Kaamatan.

* Pictures courtesy of journalist, Ricardo Unto.
**Based on the 2012 State Level Unduk Ngadau Judging Criteria. 

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6 thoughts on “Unduk Ngadau: Beauty or Cause?

  1. Well said cuz. Unduk Ngadau is no longer like the good ol’ days. Like you said. Simplicity at its best. Now, all I see is a modernized Unduk Ngadau pageants. But all in all, good luck to those who join the contest. 😉

    • Jesse Joy says:

      I believe that the organizers should look back and think what direction is the UN going? Where can they take UN to? Otherwise, it’ll be more vain and meaningless. I’m not even sure if the contestants ever heard/knew/read the legend of Huminodun.

  2. gladysvdavid says:

    For beauty or cause? That question nailed it.

    Some aspiring unduk ngadau can’t speak more of their native language than the practiced introduction lines. While others, can’t articulate properly what they hope to contribute as a crowned unduk ngadau.

    The organizers must put extra effort in pushing the real meaning of the contest out. It’s not just about glitz and glamour. It’s about the spirit of kdm and knowing our roots.

    A well written piece indeed!

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