MALAYSIA - For centuries, the Malay royal title "Datuk" was a high honour that unlocked doors to the elite. But datuks like Mr K. Basil don't feel so special these days.
"Just throw a stone on the street and you'll hit a datuk," complains Mr Basil, a policeman-turned-politician and one of many who feel that the awarding of the coveted title has got out of hand in a statusobsessed 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 by having 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, prompting more calls for greater scrutiny.
Opposition parliamentarian Thomas Su told AFP: "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," He supports proposed legislation to criminalise receiving illegitimate investitures "to protect the dignity of the monarchy."
Malay sultans ceremonially rule nine states, take turns being Malaysia's figurehead king every five years, and can bestow a range of titles on honoured citizens.
More datuks than knights 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 to 1,200 new Datuks - or the feminine "Datin" - are anointed annually in Malaysia, whose population of 28 million is less than half the UK's.
Malay cultural expert Eddin Khoo said titles are widely abused for their clout and connections in a country where corruption is widespread.
He said: "Datukships have become crucial status symbols in a culture of ingratiation."
The perks begin with an official crest for a Datuk's car, "to show money is rolling by", he said.
But titles purportedly also help slice through red tape, protect bearers from prosecution, and gain access to policy-makers.
In 2009, maverick blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, himself of royal lineage, ruffled feathers by claiming that datukships can be bought for RM250,000 (S$97,000) adding that recipients "can always make back more than this."
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.
Media reports this summer suggested Mr Noor Jan had sold hundreds of dubious investitures. Malacca, for example, does not actually have a sultan.
Mr Danny Ooi, president of the Council of Federal Datuks, said people like Mr Noor Jan must be stopped.
"It has been going on for the last 10 years, this problem of datuks being given out (by self-proclaimed royals)," he said.
But Mr Ooi admits that money often changes hands even for legitimate investitures, though he terms it, "more as a contribution."
Get The New Paper for more stories.