PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When this column kicked off ten years ago, among the first few stories featured was one about a man who wanted to buy ikan kembong (Indian mackerel) from the central market in Malacca.
It's a tale worth repeating, with more details, because of the crux of the issue at hand.
The man, whose moniker is "Ah Chai", could not find the fish in any of the stalls but he bumped into several people - all of whom happened to be Datuks.
Later, while having a drink with his friends, he made this pithy remark: "These days, it is easier to find Datuks than Indian mackerel!"
"Ah Chai", whose real name is Soon Kim Hok, started his working life as a saxophone player in the 1960s when nightclubs starring striptease artistes were the main form of entertainment.
He blew out tunes like Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and In the Mood on his Selmer Paris Mark VI tenor sax to the gyrations of Rose Chan and other strippers of that era.
About a year after making his "fishy" observation, Soon received a Datukship himself.
Today, the owner of Malacca's oldest family-owned music shop still contributes a lot to noble causes, including playing at gigs to raise funds for charities.
There is no doubt that he deserves his title for serving society, just as many others do, including my former bosses and a few of my ex-schoolmates.
But what is clearly unacceptable and even bordering on the insane is the ridiculous number of Datukships being dished out yearly.
In 2004, a year after he stepped down as Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad commented on the trend: "If you want to give value to anything, it must be limited. If you produce a million Ferrari cars, nobody will care about buying a Ferrari.
"Before, if you threw a stone you would hit one Datuk. Now, you throw a stone you hit two Datuks!"
Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, whose state gives out the least of such awards, gave another twist to the joke last year: "If you throw a stone, it would hit a Datuk and when the stone rebounds, it would hit another Datuk".
At the rate the numbers of our Datuks are rising, instead of Indian mackerel they might be soon compared with ikan bilis (anchovies), albeit not as highly priced as the tiny fish.
Besides the titles given out by Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the 13 states and Federal Territories, there are also dubious, unrecognised ones.
It seems silly but there is no shortage of people, including professionals, who are willing to fork out hundreds of thousands to buy fake Datukships from the likes of the self-proclaimed "Sultan of Malacca", one Negri Sembilan chieftain, the so-called "royals" of Surakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, the "Sultan" of Sulu and "Sultan Kudarat of Mindanao" in the Philippines.
It is about buying social status to keep them level with peers holding recognised awards, a case of our own "kiasu" syndrome.
With no national registry listing who-is-holding-what-title-from-where, the bogus Datuk Seris and Datuks in our midst can't be traced.
In any case, no one really cares, except those who pay for these phony titles and we all know that Malaysian Datuks come under three categories - A, B, or C.
A is for "anugerah" (award), B for "beli" (buy) and C for "cucu" (grandchild, as Datuk also means grandfather in Malay).
What is alarming, though, is the conferring of state titles to people who obviously do not qualify - gangsters, drug traffickers and other such criminal elements.
Two weeks ago, The Star reported that four politicians holding the titles of "Datuk Seri" and "Datuk" were among 60 hardened gangsters detained in the biggest crackdown on organised crime, guns and under a recent special police operation.
The Datuk Seri turned out to be the leader of Penang's Gang 24 while the three other "Datuks" were members of the notorious Gang 360 Devan, a splinter faction of Gang 36, infamous for committing extortion, drug trafficking and kidnappings.
The assortment of weapons seized - a CZ 9mm automatic pistol, a Baretta .22 handgun, three Glock 19 pistols and a Vixen sniper rifle - revealed the gangs' violent inclinations while the 20.3kg of syabu and 10.8kg of heroin worth RM1.75 million (S$557,000) seized from the houses of these gangsters exposed their primary source of income.
On Monday, Datuk Seri Ng Chian Sia, 55, and 21 others aged between 26 and 46 were charged in a Penang Sessions Court for being members of an organised criminal gang.
The charge under Section 130V (1) of the Penal Code carries a jail term of up to 20 years upon conviction.
The activities of Gang 24 came under police scrutiny after its reputed second-in-command, Datuk Ong Teik Kwong, 32, also known as Datuk M (as in Muda, meaning young) was shot dead by his bodyguard on Dec 1, last year.
With due respect to the Rulers and the Yang di-Pertua Negeri, isn't it about time that the perception of "Datuk B" is addressed and rectified to bring back the dignity of the award?
The continued granting of such titles to crooks and criminals sullies the very institution of the monarchy, a main pillar of the nation.