KUALA LUMPUR – For centuries, the Malaysian royal title “Datuk” — the country’s equivalent of “Sir” — was a high honor that unlocked doors to the elite. But Datuks such as K. Basil don’t feel so special these days.
“Just throw a stone in the street and you’ll hit a Datuk,” complained Basil, a policeman-turned-politician and one of many who feel the awarding of the coveted titles has gotten out of hand in Malaysia’s status-obsessed society.
Malaysia has one of the world’s highest rates of royal title-holders — estimates run into the tens of thousands — thanks to a centuries-old royal patronage system linked to its now-ceremonial Malay sultans. They range from politicians to businessmen, from badminton World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei to actress Michelle Yeoh. Nearly every major business or society function will add VIP prestige with a title-bearer as an honored guest.
But allegations of fake or purchased titles along with now-routine reports of corrupt Datuks threaten to tarnish the royalty institution, spurring calls for greater scrutiny.
“It is an open secret that Datukships are for sale by cheats and those who claim to have the ear of the royalty, and there are individuals who abuse their titles,” said opposition parliamentarian Thomas Su.
Su supports proposed legislation to criminalise receiving illegitimate investitures “to protect the dignity of the monarchy.”
Muslim Malays are the multiracial country’s majority ethnic group. Malay sultans ceremonially rule nine states — alternating as Malaysia’s figurehead king every five years — and can bestow a range of titles on honored citizens.
The most common, Datuk, is akin to a British knighthood but far more common. Less than 100 will be knighted in the U.K. by Queen Elizabeth II this year, according to the British government.
But 700 to 1,200 new Datuks, or feminine “Datin,” are anointed annually in Malaysia, whose population of 28 million is less than half the United Kingdom’s.
There also are at least hundreds of “Tan Sri,” an even higher-ranking honorific, and above them, the rank of “Tun” is reserved for former prime ministers and other elite figures. There can be only 60 Tun at a time.
Malaysian cultural expert Eddin Khoo said titles are widely abused for their clout and connections in a country where corruption is widespread.
“Datukships have become crucial status symbols in a culture of ingratiation,” Khoo said. The perks begin with an official crest for a Datuk’s car, he said, “to show money is rolling by.”
But titles purportedly also help slice through red tape, protect bearers from prosecution, and gain access to policy-makers. As far back as 2004, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — now retired, and a Tun — warned of a title glut. “If you produce a million Ferrari cars, nobody will care about buying a Ferrari,” he said.
Some Malaysian royalty have complained more recently of ill-behaved Datuks and of agents who allegedly claim to broker investitures. In 2009, maverick blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, himself of royal lineage, ruffled feathers by claiming Datukships could be purchased for 250,000 ringgit ($80,000), adding that recipients “can always make back more than this.”
But making direct accusations is highly sensitive due to stiff penalties for insulting royal figures. That has allowed people such as self-styled royal Raja Noor Jan Shah Raja Tuah Shah — who has a disputed claim to being the sultan of the southern state of Malacca — to continue anointing Datuks.
Media reports this summer suggested Noor Jan had sold hundreds of dubious investitures — Malacca no longer has a sultan. Yet Noor Jan is regularly feted at events hosted by wealthy businessmen seeking to rub elbows with him.
He entered a recent function in Malaysia’s government headquarters of Putrajaya, resplendent in a royal yellow military-style suit studded with medals and epaulets, trailed by an entourage of his Datuks to the beat of traditional Malay musicians.
He admits taking cash “donations” from recipients, but denies selling titles. “We could easily take hundreds of thousands of ringgit. But you see, we are still driving an old car,” he said, referring to his vintage Porsche.
Danny Ooi, president of the Council of Federal Datuks, said people like Noor Jan must be stopped. “It has been going on for the last 10 years, this problem of Datuks being given out (by self-proclaimed royals),” he said.
But Ooi admits money often changes hands even for legitimate investitures, though he terms it, “more as a contribution.”
Meanwhile, reports of Datuks in legal trouble, typically for corruption, are common. In one case, businessman Datuk Koay Khay Chye pleaded guilty in 2010 to drug possession. He was originally charged with trafficking, a capital offense. The case created an uproar when it was reported he had retained his title despite earlier convictions for theft, firearms offenses and corruption.
Ooi advocates stripping titles from convicted criminals and setting up searchable databases of Datuks to thwart imposters.