Alarm at rise in use of fake datuk titles in Malaysia

Calls for more transparency in datuk awards system in Malaysia to preserve sanctityof the monarchy after a string of crimes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 11:30pm

An honorary title given by the Malaysian royalty is coveted for gaining access to the country's elite, but now there are concerns the titles are being abused for their clout and connections.

In recent weeks, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has detained a "datuk", which is an honorary title equivalent to "sir". They accuse him and another cabinet minister's former political aide of embezzling 1 million ringgit (HK$2.3 million) from three foundations.

Days later, an English language newspaper, The Star, reported that another man had been caught for allegedly posing as a datuk and abducting and beating three men.

We should be interested in … why we have a culture that covets these

These stories of fake datuks or ones suspected of corruption have become staples in the Malaysian media. They have fuelled calls for more transparency in the honorary awards system in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the monarchy.

The Muslim-majority country has a unique system where the crown rotates between nine sultans every five years.

Although the royalty have been largely reduced to a ceremonial role, the sultans are widely respected as heads of Islam in the country.

During Johor state's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar's birthday last November, guests were expected to be quiet to show their reverence.

However, it was not a silent affair. Female bodyguards rode on the back of noisy white motorbikes to signal the arrival of the Johor sultan.

Malaysians adore their royalty and a rigid social structure.

The easiest way to tell a person's status is by the length of their name.

At the top in Johor state is the sultan - Duli yang maha mulia Sultan Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar Sultan dan yang dipertuan bagi negeri dan jajahan takluk Johor darul ta'zim.

Malaysians can have their names made longer too by an honorary title, which can only be awarded by the nine sultans. Together they give out hundreds of honorary titles a year, which some say has got out of hand.

For every person who received a knighthood in the United Kingdom in 2013, there were at least eight datukship awards given out in Malaysia.

"Anyone with money can buy a datukship," one man outside the ceremonial hall said.

In recent years some people have been charged for trying to sell titles.

These are often self-pro-claimed agents who have nothing to do with the royalty, said cultural expert Eddin Khoo.

"What we should be interested in is why we have a culture that covets these things. We are still entrenched in a very feudal approach to things," he said.

There are worries that the relationship between the Malaysian elite and businesses have become too cosy, especially since corruption remains a big concern in Malaysia.

The datuk and another former political aide who are suspected of embezzlement have not been charged despite the announcement made by the anti-corruption agency a few weeks ago. It has fuelled speculation that the government is reluctant to prosecute one of its own - a charge the attorney general has denied.

The obsession with status in Malaysia has also produced self-styled royals. Police are investigating Raja Noor Jan Shah Raja Tuah Shah, who claims to be the sultan of southern Malacca and possibly handed out hundreds of "fake" honorary titles for a fee.

There are now calls for the authorities to have a public database of all the datuks and to act against those who undermine the title.