Just like the peerage in England, we have our own titled persons in Malaysia. Some of the titles are conferred by the Sultans or the respective heads of non-sultanate states and some are conferred by the government through the Agung of the day. The most common is the title "Dato'" or "Datuk"; I cannot confirm but I think the latter is conferred by the government which also confers more prestigious titles like "Tan Sri" and "Tun".
I remember 40 years ago there were not many Dato's nor Datuks, let alone Tan Sris and Tuns. The population of the country was probably about 13 to 15 million then; roughly half of what it is today. Nevertheless, the number of titled individuals today are in many multiples of the tally back then. Why? Has the number of people who are deserving of titles increased exponentially? Or is it that the pressure of one-upmanship has given rise to a greater demand to be titled. One thing is certain though, most will not only deny having paid anything for their titles but instead attempt to justify how they are more entitled than those without. Perhaps they are right.
My drift is not so much about the titled but about the nons. The demand for datukships (and other such titles) is as much about the rest of us as it is about those "eminent" personalities. The fact that we tend to respect or at least show respect to the titled puts them on the pedestal whether deservedly or in many cases, undeservedly. It is probably due to the feudal mentality that is ingrained in us. I am not knocking the conferment of titles per se but I think the great numbers being given out these days has affected the prestige of such awards.
I am heartened when recently, some sultans have seen it necessary to refrain from awarding titles during their respective birthdays. It does appear that the royalty, led by the Sultan of Selangor, the Agung (Terengganu) and perhaps, even the Perak and Johore Sultans, are trying to restore the prestige that is associated with their respective awards. I just had an epiphany about the many titled friends that I have. It appears I tend to gravitate towards those with awards from Pahang, Malacca and Negeri Sembilan who seem to form the majority. Or maybe it is not me.
It is obvious that awards can be political in as much as they are meritorious. Recent awards come to mind and I am refering to badminton player Lee Chong Wei and former great, Misbun Sidek who is now his coach.
Like many other Malaysians I followed Lee Chong Wei's progress and final stumble in the Beijing Olympics. Before the final with China's Lin Dan, based on his form and performance I had expected Chong Wei to go all the way and secure the first Olympic gold medal for Malaysia. But at the back of my mind, I suspected he would fall prey to the great "Malaysian Sports Affliction"i.e. falling at the last hurdle!
Lin Dan was the then world number one and to lose to him is no shame but what disappointed me was how Chong Wei lost. He promised to "fight to the death" and I am glad to see he is very much alive today with a datukship to boot! The RM300,000 was pre-agreed and I suppose kosher.
This is a clear example of politics coming into sports and getting awards appears as much about timing and political capital as much as it is about performance. Who can forget the oft repeated television montage showing Chong Wei and Misbun and the congratulatory message stating clearly both their names? Why must the Information Ministry make things so obvious that the kind of publicity becomes counter productive; why must everything reflect race?
Mind you, I am not saying Misbun is not deserving of any credit. I happen to think Misbun is the Father of Badminton Revival in this country and he should have been awarded his well deserved datukship years ago! He stands above his other illustrious siblings. Heck! I would not even be surprised if Chong Wei admits he counld not have improved so much without Misbun.
Perhaps it must have been due to this long term contribution that Misbun was awarded. If not, why was coach Rexy Mainaky not accorded the same publicity and accolade when Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong won the prestigious All England doubles title in 2007? Remember how the pair won and were just in time to be paraded around Ijok by the MCA during the by-election? For that matter, our well deserving datuk and darling on the squash courts, world champion and world number one Datuk Nicol Ann David; shouldn't her coach be Datuk Liz Irving?
My contention is: Lee Chong Wei should not have been conferred the datukship for coming out second! Misbun should have been awarded his datukship many years ago for outstanding contribution to the country in badminton both as a player and coach!
Perhaps Chong Wei would deserve a datukship if he can retain his world number one status for a longer period. I am not convinced that he has done more than his predecessors who are not datuks today, to deserve a datukship. I admire Chong Wei as a player and an Olympic Silver is no mean feat, but history does not tend to remember who came in second.