News analysis

Too many Datuks turning up on the wrong side of the law?

KUALA LUMPUR • At the rate some titled Malaysians - especially those with Datuk and Datuk Seri titles - are getting into trouble, the Prison Department might have to build a new wing just to house these VIPs.

Over the past two weeks, the number of Datuks implicated in triad activities has also increased, and the figure does not include those nabbed separately by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

The hottest news to hit the papers last week was undoubtedly the arrest of a businessman, with a Tan Sri title, who had allegedly offered RM2 million (S$631,000) to the Sultan of Johor.

He purportedly tried to bribe Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar to secure a recommendation to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or Malaysian King. Such a recommendation letter would make it easier to obtain a Tan Sri title for an associate.

But the businessman made a costly mistake - the Johor ruler certainly did not need a paltry RM2 million, and the move was seen as downright insulting.

Luxury bags seized at the home of a Johor politician with a Datuk title, after he was detained by the anti-graft agency last month to assist in a corruption probe.
Luxury bags seized at the home of a Johor politician with a Datuk title, after he was detained by the anti-graft agency last month to assist in a corruption probe. PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

In addition, it seems that many Malaysians believe such titles can be bought. This is certainly not a good thing as it demeans these prestigious awards given out by the Agong and the rulers of the nine Malay states.

Malaysians read about fellow countrymen who have been bestowed such awards, and they question if these individuals have contributed anything to the country or respective state. Of course, these individuals could have contributed quietly in various ways, outside the public eye.

Then again, one wonders how those with criminal records or those who had been occupants of the infamous Simpang Renggam detention centre for hard-core gangsters could get such awards.

Surely, a background check is a requirement for vetting purposes, or have the police been bypassed in some cases?

The Sultan of Johor once quipped that if someone hurled a stone, it would hit a Datuk, and then the stone would bounce off and hit another Datuk.

Over the past few years, there has been growing concern that the number of Malaysians with Tan Sri titles has also gone up.

Such individuals are now younger as well. There was a time when these titles were reserved for retired civil servants, and these esteemed individuals were in their late 60s or early 70s when they were conferred the titles.

Now, however, some individuals in their early 50s are sporting these high-level honorifics. The Tan Sri title ranks above the Datuk and Datuk Seri titles.

Malaysians cannot do anything about the glut of Datuk and Datuk Seri titles - unless the Conference of Rulers, which comprises the rulers of the nine Malay states and the governors of the other four states, wants to act on it.

Malaysians, and even the media, have lost track of how to distinguish between all the honorifics, given the many variations. Today, the titles include Dato, Datuk and Datuk Seri, as well as Datuk Wira, Dato Sri, Datuk Paduka and Datuk Seri Panglima.

The media has standardised the titles by simply using Datuk or Datuk Seri. But there are increasing calls from recipients for the media to use their titles as conferred by the respective states.

That is easier said than done - the media could well end up carrying daily corrections.

In fact, possibly the best option is simply to cut down on using the titles, or maybe to stop giving out the awards for the moment.

In reality, the damage has already been done.

Perhaps the media should consider dropping the titles altogether, and referring to everyone as Mr, Mrs or Ms.

Strangely enough, it looks like, even in the afterlife, there are Malaysians who believe that the Datukship matters.

It was reported recently that a paper effigy of a Lamborghini with a "Dato11" number plate was burned as an offering for a dead person during the Qing Ming Festival this year. Among other items offered up were a ceremonial uniform, medal and sash.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Too many Datuks turning up on the wrong side of the law?'. Print Edition | Subscribe