By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
How often does one get to enjoy three state holidays in a month? October will be a record of sorts for being the month with the most number of head of state birthdays. The auspicious days and dates are as follow: Saturday, October 6, Sabah Governor’s birthday, Friday, October 12, Malacca Governor’s birthday and Wednesday, October 24, Sultan of Pahang’s birthday. The one thing that many prefer to associate these ostentatious days, beside the accompanying holiday and extravagance, is the bestowing of honorific titles and awards to the “deserving” many.
Malaysia is blessed with nine titular heads of state or sultans and four governors (Agong is head of Federal Territory). They are at liberty to bestow titles and confer awards, deemed appropriate, on their subjects, as recommended, of course.
I have this dislike for honorific titles. A man is given a name upon his birth and the name remains with him for life. Over time he may earn a nickname or coin a moniker like Tiger or Botak-head (with a hyphen) depending on his inclination and preference. The rest is pure hubris.
Do we really need more PJK/KMN/DSNS/DPTS and the accompanying “Dato”, “Datuk Seri, “Tan Sri”, etc.? Here are some stinging criticisms which have been around since the country adopted the British constitutional monarchy system of governance.
Before it was, “You throw a stone it’ll land on a Datuk’s head”. Then when the field got crowded and more titled men and women joined the ranks, it became, “You throw a stone it’ll bounce off one Datuk and lands on another Datuk”. The more cynical suggests throwing rocks and grenades.
Like or loathe it we have to accept the envy, distaste and morbid fascination Malaysians have for titles. And it did not disappear even with a change of government and the dawn of Malaysia Baru. I am equally perplexed as any Ahmad, Ah Chong and Muthu. In spite of the ensuing negativity associated with titles and honours, there is no end to the pursuit for personal glory via a fitting title to one’s name.
There are no laws requiring Malaysians to serve these titled holders. “To serve” connotes a different meaning from what you and I understand. “Serve” covers all kinds of sins from loan application (legal and illegal) to contract procurements. Unfortunately, our ministries, companies, organisations and sane people eagerly roll out the red carpet at the hint of a titled VIP approaching.
The title, if anything, only adds on the prestige of the recipient not his aura or his bearing. Anyway, a title is as good as the person himself. If he is a crook, a title means nothing. We have seen this happening far too often. Remember the youthful “Datuk Seri” who assaulted a uniformed Rela man because he stood in his way or the recent case of a “Datuk” beating up a parking attendant for refusing to open the boom gate? When it comes to titles, if you are useless without them, you are equally useless with them. Period.
When I got posted to my battalion at Lok Kawi Camp, Kota Kinabalu in 1970, the only titled senior officer then was our Kuching-based divisional commander, Maj-Gen Dato’ Jimmy Ismail, an Anglophile Sandhurst-trained gentleman. He spoke with a Cockney accent and was very British in his outlook. We were told to address him as “Datuk” when spoken to. Being a little apprehensive, I slipped and called him “Sir” instead. He whispered to me, “It’s okay, young man. I prefer “Sir” to “Datuk”.
It gets a little nauseating when these titled people insist on being addressed perpetually by their titles. “Tan Sri” seems more chic and cool than Ahmad, Ah Chong or Muthu. The frenzy is even apparent in their children. It’s Dollah bin Datuk Babu not merely Dollah bin Babu, as you and I would prefer. However, in a seamless world like today where technology takes prominence, titles and honours mean little. But in this part of the world they still do.
I am piqued by the way one Pakatan Harapan minister responded when asked about the Datuk Seri title she received on occasion of the Governor of Malacca’s 80th birthday on October 12. She was among the first PH politicians to receive honorific titles.
“The award will spur me to better serve the people,” said Rural Development Minister Rina Harun from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, a component party of Pakatan Harapan. You mean to say without a title it does not do the trick? Come on, lady.
“I didn’t ask for the award. It’ll be impolite and disrespectful to reject the award by the governor,” said Wong Fong Pin, the Malacca State Legislative Assembly Deputy Speaker.
I am in agreement with DAP leadership’s stance regarding honorific titles. The party feels that members should reject state and federal awards to show that they are not after awards and titles while in public service. They should only do so after their retirement. It gives a wrong impression as it is barely a year since DAP became part of the ruling coalition. Party stalwarts like Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng and Kulasegaran have yet to receive awards and titles and are happy with none. It is definitely unbecoming to adopt the Barisan Nasional habit of chasing after awards and titles.
I wish to share some interesting anecdotes about my titled friends that I had the misfortune of knowing.
There was this contractor friend who was tasked to build the governor’s official residence behind my camp in Bukit Beruang, Melaka in 1995. He had to pass through my camp to get to his worksite and would eagerly look for me whenever I am around. The day he was bestowed a datukship he said, “Colonel, drop by my office in town and ask for Datuk Wong.”
This other incident is simply outrageous. It shows what people transform into after being given a title. “Fathol, meet my wife, Datin Jane Doe.” I almost puked. I have known the wife since the day I met him.
I asked another friend what he did to deserve a datukship from Pahang. “I served in Kuantan,” he replied. I was in and out of Raub jungles throughout 1979 hunting for the notorious terrorist Chong Chor, I got nothing. This is the outcome when one buys rather than earns his title.
I would not mind if you were author Clare Rewcastle Brown whose revelations helped bring down a despicable and corrupt government. But a dandy whose only claim to fame is his deep pockets, that is immoral.
But what can you expect from a society that is still trapped in a feudalistic mindset, so much so people cannot separate fact from fiction? “Titles open doors,” one gleefully said.
I rest my case.