[SHARE] What Is A Datuk And How Do You Even Become One?

Being a Datuk in Malaysia has its benefits. But how exactly do you become one?

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Malaysians were all abuzz when Jackie Chan was awarded a Datukship 3 days ago. A lot were amused and supportive but most were puzzled about his contributions to the country.

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In 2008, the Malacca state government conferred Shah Rukh Khan the Datuk honour for boosting the state's tourism after he shot 'One 2 Ka 4' in Alor Gajah

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam said the decision to confer the title on the actor was based on a suggestion by former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin to Yang di-Pertua Negri Tun Mohd Khalil Yaakob recently as a means to further promote Malacca owing to the fact that the actor had shot a movie scene here several years ago. He said the movie One 2 ka 4 was shot at the A Famosa Resort in Alor Gajah in 2001. “This resulted in many people visiting Malacca since then. The award is given in recognition of this,” he said after the awards presentation ceremony on Saturday.

But what exactly is a Datuk?

The term Datuk goes way back to the 7th century during the Srivijaya empire, when it describes a leader or an elder of villages. Today, the title has two meanings: (i) The Malay word for 'grandfather'(ii) A formal title similar to being knighted in the United Kingdom. It's pretty fancy, trust us.

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Datuk is a traditional Malay honorific title commonly used in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Its variant is Dato and its equivalent is Datu in the Philippines. In Malaysia the title "Datuk" has two meanings: formal and informal. The informal ones holds that Datuk is equivalent to one's "grandfather" or refers to a male elder. Other function is a formal honorific style both in traditional and stately titles.

The oldest historical records mentioning about the title datuk is the 7th century Srivijayan inscriptions such as Telaga Batu to describe lesser kings or vassalized kings. It was called dātu in Old Malay language to describe regional leader or elder, a kind of chieftain that rules of a collection of kampungs (villages).

But Malaysia takes knighthood one step further with several different titles and rankings. For example, did you know that a Datukship and a Dato'ship are two different things?

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The Datukship Awards

Broadly speaking, there exist two categories of awards: – federal awards and state awards. Federal awards are granted by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The following titles are awarded by the Agong: –

1. Tun – the most senior federal title. There may not be more than 35 local living holders at any one time. The wife of a Tun is called a Toh Puan.

2. Tan Sri – the second most senior federal title. There are 2 types of recipients – the Panglima Mangku Negara (PMN) and the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM). There may be at any one time up to a maximum of 75 PMN holders and a maximum of 250 PSM holders. The wife of a Tan Sri is a Puan Sri.

3. Datuk – also 2 types of recipients – the Panglima Jasa Negara (PJN) and the Panglima Setia Diraja (PSD). There may be not more than up to 200 each of PJN and PSM holders respectively. The wife of a Datuk is a Datin.
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State awards, conversely, is awarded by the state Sultans. The following titles are awarded: -

1. Dato’ – this is different from the federal Datuk, although pronounced in similar manner. There is no limit to the number of Datoship to be awarded. There are many variants to the Dato’:

- Dato’ Seri Utama – this title is regarded above the Tan Sri. The wife is called Datin Seri Utama.

- Dato’ Seri / Dato’ Paduka – the wife is called Datin Seri.

- Dato’ – the wife is called a Datin (except in Terengganu, where they are known as To’ Puan [not to be confused with Toh Puan, the wife of a Tun]). There are variation to the Dato’ in certain states, for example in Malacca and Kedah, there is the Datuk Wira; in Sarawak, there is the Datuk Amar and the Datuk Patinggi; whereas in Sabah, there is the Datuk Seri Panglima.

Some states, as we know, do not have a Sultan, but rather, the Governor: namely Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak. These rulers are appointed by the Agong, and hence their award are not the Dato’, but rather, the Datuk, in line with its federal standing.

"Wow, so complicated. But how do you even get to be a Datuk? Is there a step-by-step guide?"

Back in the day, the honorary title was given to aging civil servants, ministers, judges or even well to do businessmen. It is worth mentioning that our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was never a Datuk.

Maybe he just didn't need one. Because look at those super cool glasses. Tunku Abdul Rahman has got style!

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In the old days, such honorary awards were bestowed to aging (or perhaps dying) high-ranking civil servants, politicians (limited to those serving as ministers in the cabinet), judges (High Court and above only) and mega-super-rich towkays. It was recorded that in 1957 (Malaya’s independence), only 5 of the 15 cabinet ministers were made Datuks. The finance minister at that time, Tan Siew Sin, only held the title Justice of Peace. It is also pertinent to note that Tunku Abdul Rahman was never awarded. He carried the title “Tunku” which was inherited by him being the prince of Kedah.

But today, a Datukship can be obtained through other means, such as sporting achievements, historic feats, entertainment, and even marrying into an affluent family

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But of recent, a new trend appears to be emerging. The Datuks of today are unlike those of yesteryears. Gone are the days where only the old, distinguished and affluent reach the mark. There is a revolutionary development in the conventional methodology to attain such awards. There have been new contemporary and innovative approaches to get notice as a potential recipient for Datukship. Sporting capabilities is a sure way: Nicol David (squash) and Lee Chong Wei (badminton) comes to mind. In fact, the sphere of sports has been so significant that even if you have a hand in moulding an individual to be a champion sportsman, you stand a chance: for example, Datuk Misbun Sidek, presumably for his contributions as coach to Lee Chong Wei; and his father, Datuk Sidek Abdullah Kamar, for his contributions in shaping the sporting careers of the Sidek brothers.

Nicol, who was among 497 state award recipients, received the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri (DSPN) award which carries the title Datuk. "The award came as a shock and I obviously didn't expect it. When I was asked to return earlier (to Malaysia) to receive this, I was very surprised and flattered that the state had recognised my achievements and was willing to support me in every sense," Nicol said Saturday after attending the investiture ceremony in conjunction with Yang di-Pertua Negri Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas’ 70th birthday celebration.

Datuk Michelle Yeoh, known for her role as a Bond girl.

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Recently, Datuk Shahrukh Khan was awarded, on the basis of his contribution to tourism to the state of Malacca. The entertainment circle is now amply occupied by Datuks: we have Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, the darling diva of Malay tunes; and her arch-nemesis, Datuk Sharifah Aini. Apart from sports, accomplishment and entertainment, there appears to be another indirect approach for Datukship: marrying someone terribly important. Case on point would be the former Prime Minister’s new wife, Jeanne Abdullah, who was recently conferred with the Darjah Utama Negeri Melaka, which carries the title Datuk Seri Utama. In fact, the Deputy Minister’s wife is Datuk Seri Rosmah Mansor, as opposed to Datin Seri.

But if you aren't a sportsman or an entertainer, there are "other" methods to obtain a Datukship. Raja Petra once claimed that "anyone with money can buy a Datukship"(and the title may not even be real).

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In 2009, maverick blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, himself of royal lineage, ruffled feathers by claiming Datukships can be purchased for RM250,000, adding that recipients “can always make back more than this.”

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

“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.

"But why are people so obsessed with getting a Datukship? It's just a title right?"

When the Datuk award was initially introduced, it was exclusive and the recipients were well-deserved. Today, the amount of titles conferred has been overly saturated. In the UK, only 100 people are knighted each year but in Malaysia, the number is 12 times higher.

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Complicating the matter further is the fact that certain states in the federation have the tendency to award too many datukships in a year, at times giving the impression that there is some kind of competition going on between the states concerned. For instance, despite the controversy over certain datuks who were apparently involved in things unlawful, Malacca still granted a high number of datukships. This situation prompts us to wonder whether there are enough stones to throw at the datuks because the standing joke is that when one throws a stone somewhere one is likely to hit a datuk or two.

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

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.

Being a Datuk is not only a show of social status, it also comes with benefits. You get to rub shoulders with important people, gain businesses, and may even have some form of protection from prosecution.

“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.

Given the special aura and the political and economic clout that surround Datukship, being stripped of it is, to many of these Datuks, akin to being stark naked. It's not quite like the feeling that the emperor without clothes had because these stripped Datuks are then made to feel as if they are without their manhood or something powerful. The reason for many of them feeling so helpless without the title is that a number of them, for instance, are so used to not having to wait in queues or overtaking others on the road simply because they have special badges on their expensive cars.

But alas, the title is so common that it doesn't hold much as significance as before. In 2004, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir warned of a title glut, “If you produce a million Ferrari cars, nobody will care about buying a Ferrari.”

This is why he prefers a Lotus.

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As far back as 2004, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad — now retired, and a Tun — warned of a title glut.

"Wow, I never knew that it was so important. But can it be taken away as well?"

Yes, it can and it is usually because of activities that may tarnish the integrity of the Datukship title.

Because the badges have to be kept shiny and away from dirt!

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Apart from the new trend in Datukship, it is important to understand that a Datukship can be revocable. Of late, there is an inclination for removal of these Datukship, as compared to the old days, where such things are almost unheard of. The late Tan Sri Eric Chia got his Selangor Datukship suspended while on trial for CBT (but he has other higher titles from various states). Similarly, Datuk Saidin Thambi, the former Selangor state assemblyman and executive councillor, was suspended of his Datukship during the midst of his corruption trial. In Pahang, two Datukship were withdrawn: Datuk Seri Koh Kim Teck, who was charged with the murder of his 14 year old nephew; and Datuk Tee Yam, the timber tycoon, for his involvement in undesirable activities. Recently, the debacle of the appointment of the Terengganu Menteri Besar saw the withdrawal of Datukship of Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, the former Menteri Besar; Datuk Rosol Wahid and Datuk Din Adam.

Datuk Koay on the left covering his face being led to the lockup.

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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 offence. The case created an uproar when it was reported he had retained his title despite earlier convictions for theft, firearms offences and corruption.

In November 2014, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was stripped of his Datukship for "questioning the Sultan of Selangor's and the Rulers Institution's authority and power".

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The Sultan of Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah has stripped opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's Datukship title effective on Nov 3. Sultan Sharafuddin made the decision after consulting with the Council of the Royal Court last month.

Anwar, Munir said, had often questioned the Sultan of Selangor's and the Rulers Institution's authority and power in resolving the Selangor Menteri Besar's appointment crisis and other matters involving Islam where the Sultan has executive power as the head of Islam in the state as enshrined in the Laws of the Constitution of Selangor, 1959 (Undang -undang Tubuh Kerajaan Selangor). "His actions and behaviour no longer befit him to hold the Title," he added.

To summarise, being conferred a Datuk title is not as difficult as it once was. With its diminishing significance and the rise of fake titles, would you want to be one?

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