For centuries, the Malay royal title "Datuk" –Malaysia's equivalent of "Sir" – was a high honour 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.
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. Nearly every major business or society function will add VIP prestige with a title-bearer as an honoured guest.
But allegations of fake or purchased titles along with now-routine reports of corrupt Datuks threaten to tarnish the royalty institution, spurring calls for greater scrutiny.
"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.
Muslim Malays are multi-racial 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 honoured citizens.
The most common, Datuk, is akin to a British knighthood but far more common.
Less than 100 will be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II this year, according to the British government. But 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.
Abuse of titles
Malay cultural expert Eddin Khoo said titles are widely abused for their clout and connections.
"Datukships have become crucial status symbols in a culture of ingratiation," Khoo said.
Some Malaysian royalty have complained more recently of ill-behaved Datuks and of agents who allegedly claim to broker investitures.
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.
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.AFP