In Malaysia’s culture of ingratiation, ‘Datuks’ are dime a dozen

In Malaysia’s culture of ingratiation, ‘Datuks’ are dime a dozen
(1 hr 20 mins ago)

For centuries, the Malay royal title “Datuk” – Malaysia’s equivalent of “Sir’’— was an honor that unlocked doors to the elite. But Datuks like K. Basil don’t feel so special these days. “Just throw a stone in the street and you’ll hit a Datuk,” complains Basil, a policeman-turned-politician and one of many who feel the awarding of the coveted titles has got out of hand in a status-obsessed Malaysian society, writes Shannon Teoh of AFP. (pictured, a ‘Datuk’ anointed by a self-styled royal Raja Noor Jan Shah Raja Tuah Shah, stand for a photo before attending a private event at a palace in Gombak, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur).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.
But allegations of fake or purchased titles along with now-routine reports of corrupt Datuks threaten to tarnish the title.
“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 criminalize receiving illegitimate investitures “to protect the dignity of the monarchy.”
Muslim Malays are Malaysia’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 citizens.
The most common is Datuk.
But while fewer than 100 will be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II this year, according to the British government, 700-1,200 new Datuks – or the 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, “Tun,’’ reserved for former prime ministers and other elite figures. There can be only 60 Tun at a time.
Malay 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, “to show money is rolling by,” said Khoo.
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 can be purchased for 250,000 ringgit (US$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 like 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.
Noor Jan 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 sportscar.
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.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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