Newly crowned Miss Universe Singapore (MUS) 2018 Zahra Khanum impressed the judges with her poise and smarts at the grand finale held last Friday at One Farrer Hotel.
The sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore, who will be representing Singapore on the world stage of Miss Universe in Bangkok on Dec 17, was a hit during the question-and-answer segment.
When asked how relevant the #MeToo movement is in Singapore, her eloquent reply received cheers from the 270-strong audience.
She said: "Although it started overseas, the #MeToo movement is not something that happens (only) overseas. It can happen anywhere and in any environment.
"I am incredibly hopeful that women are standing together and telling the world, 'You are not alone, me too, I stand by you.' It allows women in Singapore to stand up for whatever they have gone through and to share their stories and to be strong as a community.
"That is empowering because it takes a lot for a woman to share her story, and I would know because I come from a single-parent family and my mother has been very courageous. She single-handedly took care of my (younger) brother and me.
"It takes a lot for a woman to come out from abuse, be it emotional, verbal or sexual, and I really admire that the #MeToo movement has allowed women to come together and build one another up and to build women of the future."
After beating the 14 other finalists, Miss Khanum thanked her mother - who divorced her father when Miss Khanum was four - with a teary smile.
Miss Khanum told The New Paper: "I didn't expect to win at all. I am happy, I am excited, I am proud of everyone.
"But most importantly, I am really happy I am able to make my mum proud."
She bagged $10,000 in cash and prizes worth $45,000 from the pageant's sponsors, including treatments and services from local spa Beaute Hub.
The first runner-up was rhythm cycling instructor Tiong Jia En, 23, and the second runner-up was 26-year-old realtor Jaslyn Tan, who took home $5,000 and $3,000 cash respectively.
Miss Khanum's mother, Madam Rahat Bano, said her daughter had always been a "sensible and mature child".
Holding back tears of joy, the 52-year-old teacher from St Anthony's Canossian Primary School (SACPS) told TNP: "This is the proudest moment I have as Zahra's mother. I raised both of my precious, beautiful children myself. If not for the two of them, I would have given up on my life. Both Zahra and her brother are my heartbeat.
"Zahra never fails to remind me every day that she loves me or say a simple 'thank you' whenever I put food on the table.
"I always tell her to never forget the difficult moments we had as a family and to always love and respect others."
It was double happiness for Madam Bano, after she received a Long Service Award for 15 years from SACPS on Teacher's Day last Friday.
Miss Khanum hopes to follow in her mum's footsteps by being an educator herself.
The results were determined by a panel of seven judges, which included MUS national director Nuraliza Osman, former top model Wendy Jacobs and The New Paper editor Eugene Wee.
It was a difficult decision, according to Ms Nuraliza.
But ultimately, Mr Wee said Miss Khanum had "that extra sparkle that set her apart".
Ms Nuraliza added: "Zahra was the most consistent finalist since the start (of MUS 2018). I can't wait to work with her for the upcoming international Miss Universe pageant."
Ms Jacobs agreed. "She has been a strong contender since day one, and I strongly believe she will do Singapore proud."
Mr Wee said: "More than just a beauty pageant, Miss Universe Singapore is about celebrating women who overcome difficult circumstances and are passionate about making the world a better place.
"By telling their stories, we hope it will provide young women here with people they can relate to and aspire to become."
This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.