Cover Francisca wears a Santubong-inspired evening gown by Malaysian designer Rizman Ruzaini (Photo: Miss Universe)

The Miss Universe Malaysia 2020 winner also shares what's next for her after the Miss Universe competition

Even while in quarantine, Francisca Luhong James looks dazzling.

With make-up on point and her hair styled flawlessly in tumbling curls, it's not hard to picture her graceful silhouette gliding over a runway in a shimmering evening gown.  

James admits with a good-natured laugh that she's still very much jet-lagged. Finally back home in Malaysia after delayed flights, several Covid-19 tests, and a number of other mishaps on her return journey from the 69th Miss Universe competition in Florida, she is yet aglow with pride at being the first indigenous woman from Malaysia to represent the nation at this annual competition.

The 25-year-old Sarawakian tells us more about her Dayak-Orang Ulu heritage and why she has become an unexpected symbol of hope and courage to young Malaysian women today.    

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What are your thoughts on being the first indigenous Sarawakian at the Miss Universe competition? 

Being the first indigenous woman to represent Malaysia on an international stage is an honour and a huge responsibility. I had mixed feelings; I was excited and nervous at the same time, realising that I wasn't just representing myself but also my heritage, my culture and my people for the first time in a competition like this.  

Why is it important to you for the world to know about Malaysia's indigenous tribes and cultures?

All this while, Malaysia has sent beautiful girls to the Miss Universe competition, some Caucasian, Indian or Chinese, but never before an indigenous representative. Being the first of my people to represent will no doubt shift perspectives and make more people aware that these tribes exist in Sabah and Sarawak. I honestly wish that I could have brought something back with me, but just the fact that people there were talking about my national costume and interviewing me about being the first indigenous representative from Malaysia shows that people are talking more about our country.     

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How has your experience affected these communities in East Malaysia?

I think seeing me on an international stage made them feel more confident to push themselves to pursue their dreams in life or to let their voice be heard or to be seen out there. Though there are some 38 tribes in Sarawak and over 40 tribes in Sabah, indigenous people are still considered a minority, and we don't really put ourselves out there. Now when I look at my DMs and messages, I see comments saying how I've inspired them so much. 

Tell us more your heritage and other indigenous tribes in East Malaysia.

I'm part Orang Dayak and part Orang Ulu-Kayan-Kenyah. The Orang Dayak are a community that originally came from Kalimantan and reside mostly in the upper river region of Sarawak. Dayaks are divided into two groups. The first is the sea Dayaks who are called Iban—they are the biggest tribe in Sarawak. The second group are the land Dayaks, known as Bidayuh.

Then you have the Orang Ulu which include the Kayan, Kenyah, Lun Bawang, Kelabit and other tribes. Their traditions and language are quite different compared to the Dayaks, despite some similarities in traditional costumes.   

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Growing up, who were your biggest role models in your community?

Besides my mum, it would probably be my aunt. She owns a handicraft shop in Sarawak, and when I was in high school, her husband was away studying in Germany, so she had to take care of her family, manage the shop and even help me out. At the time, my mum didn't know how to drive, so whenever my dad was outstation, I ended up staying at my aunt's house so she could drop me and my cousins off at school. She inspired my dream of becoming a successful businesswoman because if she could do it alone, with five kids under her wing, then why can’t I, right?

Did you meet any inspiring women at the Miss Universe 2021 competition?

I met so many girls who inspired me in many ways. One of them was my roommate, who used a past experience of sexual harassment to advocate for women affected by sexual violence. I also got to know Miss Australia Maria Thattil, the first Australian Miss Universe representative of Indian ethnicity. She showed me that if you're passionate enough about something, you will use your title to channel that purpose in meaningful ways.

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How do you empower other women? 

Through platforms like my Women Rise movement and Miss Universe Malaysia Organisation, I've always wanted to empower women through sharing my experiences. During this pandemic and lockdown, we've seen many women reaching out to me for help because of domestic violence. For those in Kuala Lumpur, we connect them to an organisation that is qualified to give advice and counselling, like the Women's Aid Organisation. But the majority of these cries for help came from Sarawak, so we connect them with the Sarawak Women's Association to get them the help they need. This is really sad, and it's an area that I'll focus on in the future as part of my goal to foster a community in which women can lift one another up.

What message of encouragement would you send to young women out there? 

If you want to do something in life, do it wholeheartedly; don’t think twice about whether you're 'good enough' and don't depend on people to tell you what to do. You will learn a lot through the process, so, as clichéd as it sounds, learn to trust the process and have faith, not regret. 

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