How many ‘Datuks’ do you need to change a lightbulb?

OCTOBER 18 — I’ve stopped ringing up politicians for the time being. With titles showered down on them this awards season, I can’t be sure how to address these “friends” anymore.

That and my disdain for honorary or personal titles. A man receives a name, earns several nicknames and coins monikers like Cheetah or Thumb-drive — with the hyphen! — for himself and he is good for life. The rest is just hubris.

So, these titles.

The accolades were expected, obviously, as a generation of politicians denied power rode the crest of the revolutionary wave from the last election to new offices and recognition. Confetti and marching bands accompanied them down Putrajaya’s Precint 1 boulevard, I’d imagine.

Still, it’s not all rosy, since several party leaders and members have issues accepting. Though, not all Pakatan Harapan parties.

The mixed reactions dampens not the naysayers’ hue and cry.

“Do we really need more PJK/AMN/Datuk/Datuk Seri/Tan Sri?” to “Are they deserving?”

It’s not new, these criticisms.

Before, it was, “Throw a stone and you’ll hit a Datuk.”

Then as the field got crowded, and men died and were quickly replaced, they updated it to, “Throw a stone hard enough with brutal force, it bounces off the thick skull off one Datuk and hits another.” (As my ex-coach told me, you must want it, when it comes to winning the ball in the middle of the pitch.)

The more cynical probably proposes more stones or an upgrade to grenades.

Like it, hate it, but we must accept the envy, distaste and morbid curiosity Malaysians hold for titles, and how it has not dissipated, this fascination. Even with change of government.

After all, the nine royal families are completely entitled to dish out awards to those they value. The five sultan-less states predictably follow suit. It’s their prerogative.

Any person or institute can issue titles which befit their estimate of particular individuals. Whether the general public shares these estimations is completely a different matter.

(As for me, I’ve been serving out nicknames for decades, with deadly social effect on individuals. Shout outs to Kandahar, Big Boy, Balloons, Chernobyl, Shauki, Mambang and Mumbro.)

However, there are no laws obligating Malaysians to serve these honorary title holders. Because “serve” covers all kinds of sins, from loan applications to contract procurements. And unfortunately, our ministries, companies and organisations eagerly roll out the red carpet at the hint of a VIP approaching.

Surely, we can all agree, while the title may reflect the already present prestige displayed by the recipient, there is no causality that one develops prestige because a title was handed over to him. One must be mindful of that. In short, when it comes to titles, if you are useless without them, then you are useless with them.

The unpalatable truth is personal titles through our fixation over them have allowed them to have weight in our lives. We let this happen by ascribing enormous value to individuals possessing these titles.

I used to work for a Datuk Seri, and it pained me when I had to mention the title and not his name. I tended to bypass it by just calling him boss. I’m fine with that, with referring to the man paying my salary, boss.


The phone just rang, and prophetically it was about entitlement. It was about the small forum I’m hosting for a limited audience at an empty campus on Saturday. The caller said the university was concerned about protocol preparations because they belatedly found out there are two elected officials speaking. 

The possibility of upsetting power petrifies them. A seemingly small storm in a teacup but for local public relations staff a potential nightmare. It’s a sample of the trepidations inserted into us from childhood in this title-mad nation.

Growing up, it was everywhere.

During my first office job — being bottom of the food chain — it took me weeks to figure out which Datuk was which, because staff members refer to about eight persons in the public listed company as Datuk. No Jamal, Lim or Michael, just datuk.

Further, it gets tricky when they insist on being addressed perpetually with their personal titles. I have the sneaky suspicion some rather lose their name and keep their title. Tan Sri is apparently way cooler than being Hassan. Do their lovers call them Datuk in bed?

The title frenzy is so immense that even the children of the titled, add it to their names. It’s Jamal bin Datuk Fauzi Hamzah, mind you! I’m sure it would be horrific to be associated with the wrong Fauzi Hamzah.

How about less name, not more?

However elsewhere around the globe, it seems titles are less enticing when common.

And even the uncommon ones are being topped by more immortal recognitions.

Like owning the first name through the force of personality.

While it is a thrill to be Sir Elton John, it must be far more gratifying for Reginald Dwight to know when the name “Elton” is mentioned, most of humanity only has one person in mind.

Same for Madonna. And, now Beyonce. The family names become superfluous.

That exaltedness is achieved by not adding titles but rather in defining oneself till the name is stolen irreverently from other namesakes.

That their work, advocacy or commitment defines them, and not an additional title to their names.

On that count, locally, there are few guys who won’t need titles to own their names. Mahathir, Anwar, Lat and P. Ramlee, for starters.

More is more

Though I fear it would not matter much to most. Political leaders would be drawn to titles, and the advantages they perceive follows.

If we have to persist, I’d suggest a few to add to the list of honorary titles, surely Datuk and even Tun are getting old in a universe with the Sith Lord and Thanos.

Let’s appeal to the millennials, and do feel free to add: Defender of the Faithful Woolshaggers. Cleanser of the Impure Prudes. Giver of Hope and Grapejuice. The Insomniac’s Wet Dream. Salted Almond Boy.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.