How I became a Dato’ for 12 hours

maskMalaysians often put a lot of value in Datukships, an honorary title awarded by royal families or state governors supposedly to honor contributions to the country/state. It’s a common name drop in social functions and festivities:

“Ohhh I know Datuk…he’s my good friend, I play golf with him!”

*Talking loudly on his mobile* “Hey Datukkk! That deal ahhh no problemm wannn!”

For those having to deal with any sort of administration in Malaysia, be it government departments or hotel service, saying you’re a Datuk gets you immediate respect and attention.

Despite a Datukship’s high standing, Malaysia has probably one of the highest numbers of royal title holders in the world, with some several hundred Datuks being anointed annually and often given for dubious reasons. Jackie Chan, a Hong Kong movie star, recently received a Datuk title “because he is an actor with many fans in Malaysia and can promote Malaysia especially Kuala Lumpur and is deserving.” Shah Rukh Khan, another movie star also received a Datukship because one of the movies in which he starred was shot in Malacca, and this has purportedly increased tourism to the state. Instead of honoring worthy contributions to the country or the state, Datukships are now being used as a tourism gimmick.

What is worse is when such titles can be bought, especially with certain states being notorious for being generous with their Datukships. In November 2014, a mining company from China claimed that they had spent USD100,000 per Datukship to curry favor with Malaysian politicians.

The self-styled royal Raja Noor Jan Shah Raja Tuah Shah (2nd left) and his wife Zaidatul Mardiah Yussuf (2nd right) posing for picture on a throne with their 'Datuks' at a palace in Gombak, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. – AFP pic, November 12, 2013
The self-styled royal Raja Noor Jan Shah Raja Tuah Shah (2nd left) and his wife Zaidatul Mardiah Yussuf (2nd right) posing for picture on a throne with their ‘Datuks’ at a palace in Gombak, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. – AFP pic, November 12, 2013

The most entertaining perhaps are Datukships awarded from the “Sultan” of Malacca. Malacca had one of the oldest Malay Sultanates but when the Portuguese took over in 1511, the Sultanate was effectively ended. Today, it only has a Governor. A rich property businessman, however, by the name of Raja Noor Jan, proclaimed himself a Sultan, claimed royal blood and started awarding his own Datukships. Hundreds of applicants were willing to give cash donations in exchange for Datukships from this self-styled Sultan. He even has a rather entertaining blog. Thankfully, he was arrested in early January 2014 and the International Court of Justice confirmed that his Sultan certificate was fake.

One night over Chinese New Year drinks, while I was listening to people talking about VIPs, I really wondered how often do people actually look into the validity of a Datukship? I joked with my friends that with some social media postings and having a few friends join in the fun, I could possibly fake that I was awarded a Datukship. After all, if Raja Noor Jan could pass himself off for a Sultan with a bunch of fancy regalia and a certificate, surely it was a lot easier to fake becoming a Dato’?

The plan started a few days later when I decided to trawl the internet for some pictures of Pahang and its palace. Pahang awards some 100 Datukships each year so it was a good state to stage the prank. I trawled the internet for pictures of Pahang and looked for high quality yet amateur pictures. At first, I posted this picture of Pahang without any description.

1st pic of Pahang
Posted at 2:26 PM, this post garnered 14 likes and two comments.

At 7.22 PM, I executed the second part of my plan by posting the next picture. Once again, no captions, just a location tag that I was at Istana Sultan Abu Bakar. A friend of mine who wasn’t in the know as to what I was doing, jokingly posted “Dato’ Yap?” Within an hour, I started getting congratulatory texts and WhatsApp messages, but I quickly let them know the truth and told them they were free to congratulate me on the Facebook post to spur on the fun.

Capture

The post caught like wildfire and there were 62 likes and 30+ comments in a matter of a few hours. It got a bit scary when my colleagues started asking me if I was a Dato’ and work clients were calling in my other colleagues to ask if it were true. I was mortified that someone would actually buy a newspaper ad to congratulate me! So the next day, early in the morning, I took down the post and posted up a clarification post to ensure there were no more misunderstandings. All good fun, no one hurt or fooled for more than a few hours but it did highlight a few things:

  • I have nice friends that believe I deserve a Datukship and thought it was because of my contributions to internet privacy (which goes to show how little it takes to get one nowadays)
  • It is slightly depressing that despite my posts having no captions, the first reason people think of when visiting Pahang’s royal palace is the granting of Datukships.
  • It is probably pretty easy to social engineer a Datukship. It only takes a few people to start calling you a Datuk, get yourself some official looking certificate, post the obligatory regalia picture and there you have it, you’re now a royal title holder! The whole ruse could have been made more realistic if the post coincided with the Sultan’s birthday which is traditionally the day in which these awards are given out.
  • We have way too many Datuks and there is no national registry to verify Datukships. An attempt to find all the titles given out in 2009 – without referring to the respective state departments – did not result in a comprehensive list.

Although more than a month has passed since the prank, I still get referred to as Dato’ jokingly by some friends and I wouldn’t be surprised if bystanders actually believe it’s real! The real takeaway from all of this is, what’s truly in a Datukship title nowadays?

 

Special Thanks to Guest Contributor Reuben (Not a Dato) Yap; a true jack of all trades.