September 18, 2007

A Datuk here, there and everywhere

Posted in Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 11:10 am by egalitaria

My 3rd instalment at Bolehland’s website so far…

A Datuk here, there and everywhere

Close your eyes, throw a stone, and you will hit a dozen datuks with ease.  

Titles and honorifics were introduced in feudal Britain to address lords and their wives. Today, these are only used in classical literature and in addressing royalty in Britain.  

Not to be outdone, Malaysia has a long history of giving titles and honorifics to significant individuals.  

In an attempt to simplify the elaborate lists of titles, one can truly be confounded. In short, the main categories are, in ascending order, Dato’ or Datuk (State and Federal titles respectively), Tan Sri and Tun. These titles are given when awards are conferred (SSM, SMN, PJN, PSD).  

Let’s look at the numbers. Only 25 Tuns should be living at any one point in time. There should be a maximum of 75 PMN and 250 PSM holders at any point, making up 325 Tan Sris. The Federal Datuk title should not have more than 400 living at any one time. State titles are honorary and non-hereditary, and maximum number of State titles are not known by the author.  

In total, if we add up the sum possible number on this list, this makes up 750, not counting the State conferred titles. Let us allocate a conservative figure of 5 conferments per state at any one point, which brings us to about 65 nationally.  

We therefore have a conservative figure of 815 Very Important People living in Malaysia. In reality, it seems to be that these actually number in the thousands. Unless the numbers of actual Datuks and Tan Sris are made publicly available (which the author attempted to obtain but failed to), actual monitoring of these supposed numbers is impossible.  

The original objective of titles and honorifics was to honour individuals who contributed significantly to society and nation in his or her respective ways. These individuals are expected to have spotless records of integrity, honesty and virtue, held in high esteem in a society. They are given titles that are supposedly earned with due respect which peers and generations below are meant to emulate as role models.  

Whilst it is true that the Tuns in our community today have certainly built for themselves their legacies in historical Malaya/Malaysia, and there are many other title-holders who are deserving of that honour, the same cannot be said of all title-holders across the board. Our esteemed title-holders: epitomes of the highest impeccable standards in society?  

In 2004, a packful of datuks and tan sris were hauled up in courts to face criminal charges, corruption and gangsterism involvement. As a result of the controversies, our Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stated that “if any of the existing datuks is found to have committed something shameful, particularly of a criminal nature, I fully support the immediate revocation of their datukships because they no longer deserve it.” Raja Nazrin, Crown Prince of Perak, also stated that Malaysia gives away too many datukships and hence awards and titles are diluted and devaluated.  

If the very purpose for which titles and honorifics were bestowed upon people is not adequately satisfied today, there seems to be little point in holding onto this system. Honour and respect so rigidly imposed upon individuals by the State is an archaic methodology; rather, each person having earned his or her respect should be duly honoured by society without a specific title. A rose by any other name should smell as sweet. In this case, many roses reek of stench and decay, the corrupt and filthy, hence spoiling the name for themselves and others along with them.  

Continuing this system merely serves to perpetuate the already subservient master-subject mentality of serfdom that our country practices. One of protocol, hierarchy, ceremonious procedures, red carpets, and so on. Such a hierarchy disempowers lower level staff and employees, since they are nowhere seen as equals to their datuk or tan sri bosses. Creative discourse and constructive brainstorming between employer and employee, boss and worker, is virtually impossible because of the unpenetrable gap between the top and bottom.  

In this increasingly globalised world, merit, ability and talent outweigh any authoritarian imposition of title in order to garner respect. If a title is given, it should be to genuinely honour an individual for his worthy contribution to society. This is not the case in Malaysia. Worse, this has been understood today as a conniving tactic to clinch government projects and get closer to the ranks of top decision makers. If anything, these titles today bring one in close proximity to politics, patronage and power. 

If individuals fail to live up as outstanding and upright owners of the given titles, this makes a mockery of the system and we continue to observe the numerous handing out of honorifics. Datuk here, there, and everywhere.



  1. Fahri said,

    Dear Tricia,

    Another excellent piece! You deserve a Datukship for this at least! *chuckle*

  2. egalitaria said,

    haha.. i already janji with EB that i will NOT accept a datukship even if i am offered one in the future.. 🙂 (haha, fat chance of the offering taking place)

  3. wits0 said,

    Bolehland’s sickness have a lot to do with the Latukship obsession…a swill that turned naturally toxic.

  4. Step said,

    Heya Trish! Well written! Good read! Love the title!

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