Who deserves a royal honour at 19? What Alvin Lim tells us about Malaysia’s broken system

Photo: istolethetv/CC BY 2.0

To be named a Datuk was once a high honour in Malaysian society but the slow creep of money and power plays into the giving of titles means there is more cash than credibility in today’s pool of recipients.

By Tan Zhi Xin

For decades, the “Datuk” title has been a testimony of Malaysia’s appreciation of an individual’s contribution to society. It is an honour to be awarded Datukship – it symbolises integrity, honesty, virtue and selflessness. But can you earn that prestige at just 19 years-old?

Recent nominee for the honorary title, Alvin Lim, has drawn particular attention to corruption in this ages-old system. According to the “traditional checklist” of eligibility for datukship, he clearly does not qualify, but perhaps his bank balance does.

In the past this prestigious honour was not given easily, in fact, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman was never a Datuk, and there were only five Datuks in his first cabinet. But today there are so many that Malaysia has become the country with one of the highest rates of honorific title-holders in the world.

“Just throw a stone in the street and you’ll hit a Datuk,” complains Datuk K. 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.

It was estimated that for every person who received a knighthood in the United Kingdom in 2013, there were at least eight Datukships given out in Malaysia – even though it has half the population of Britian. That is between between 700 and 1,200 new Datuks (or feminine “Datin”) being anointed annually, though the exact figure varies from state to state. Malacca, Pahang, Penang, and Kelantan are infamous for extremely lax “conferment” of the Datuk privilege. To put it bluntly, the overwhelming number is symptomatic of the corruption of the age-old system.

Corruption in the system?

Money makes the world go round in contemporary Malaysian society, and if you have enough, you can buy a title. In fact, the sale of Datukships is so rampant that former Minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim has publicly claimed only three states were not involved in the racket. Prices apparently range from RM 50,000 to RM 200,000.

However, the exact cost of the title is said to rise proportionally with the cost of consumer goods, meaning that several years after the Minister’s statement a Datukship went for RM 250,000 says maverick blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin. Rumour has it that in some states a would-be purchaser would need to spend as much as RM 400,000.

Fast-forward to 2016, and despite various reports of royalty being arrested and charged for this very reason the sale of titles continues. As Alvin’s case shows, the barrier to entry is also significantly lower, if it still exists at all.  And perhaps the most interesting point to highlight here is that the title bought is fake. So, why then do people jeopardise themselves by spending such huge amount of money on a false honour?

The answer is straightforward. Datukship is the entry ticket to the country’s elite club, and a manifestation of social, economic, and political status. In a way, Datukship also offers a certain degree of immunity from law and punishment. Hence, Datuks are able to get away with crimes. Moreover, so long as they play by the rules of the game and avoid landing themselves in the limelight by behaving moderately and staying within the boundaries, the integrity of the title is generally not questioned.

Like the emperor in his new clothes, new entrants to the high life continue to enjoy their newfound prestige and elevated status while blindly believing that Datukship is still held in high-esteem as before. The reality is the opposite – the monetisation of the Datukship has long resulted in the cheapening of the title’s real value.

A way in

And apart from the glamour and prestige, datukship is also a way of getting things done in the country that ranks second in the world for crony capitalism. Patronage and favouritism dominate the Malaysian political scene, and many would admit it is more difficult for those not blessed with connections and influence to push decisions their way.

To circumvent this, many resort to buying Datukship, which they perceive as a form of investment with high payback. It gives businessmen access to huge governmental projects, permits, grants, and even funds. It also clears the way for aspiring politicians to move up the political ladder. Most importantly, Datukship forms a network of alliances between the elites and among the elites.

For example, Chinese businessman Li Yang paid close to US$ 100,000 (RM 336,500) in exchange for Datukship in an attempt to build political ties with Barisan Nasional (BN) party members. His agent was subsequently arrested for bribery, sentenced to five years in jail and fined RM 50,000.

Corruption is not a new phenomenon in Malaysia, and in comparison to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1MDB scandal or the Sabah colossal graft scandal, buying a royal title does seem minuscule. But the fact that a title that is supposed to honor one’s contribution is monetised highlights the extent of corruption. The government must seriously address the stench of the system, on many levels, lest the country sinks deeper into the mire.