THE authorities are investigating claims that at least 10 state governments are involved in selling 'datukships' and other titles for money.
The allegations of impropriety were made by a government minister following newspaper reports criticising the high number of datukships being awarded every year, including to individuals barely into their 30s.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has described the state of affairs as 'very embarrassing'.
Datukships are awarded either by the king or sultans each year based on recommendations from the respective state governments.
'If you throw stones at any group of Malaysians, probably half of them will be datuks,' said an editorial in last Sunday's Utusan Malaysia, the influential Malay daily controlled by Umno, the ruling party.
The daily's Sunday editorial, which has in the past given an indication of the ruling party's policies, went on to note: 'What can have been contributed to society by someone in their 30s to warrant getting a datukship?'
Public concern and debate is brewing over how Malaysians are willing to pay for the privilege of getting a datukship because of the prestige attached to such titles.
Many businessmen are said to be willing to pay up to RM50,000 (S$23,000) for a datukship and even up to RM150,000 or more for more prestigious titles, which they hope will accord them status in their business dealings.
Yesterday, de facto Law Minister Rais Yatim claimed that only three states - Johor, Penang and Selangor - were not involved in selling titles and awards. He said it was common knowledge in the other states that some datukships were bought.
But none of the accusations made so far have mentioned to whom money has been paid for the title. Datuk Seri Rais said that many businessmen pay agents or middlemen for the title.
The nine Malay royal families have so far stayed silent on the issue.
Last month, a member of the Perak royal family who is third in line to the throne, was charged in court with cheating a businessmen of RM150,000 that was meant as payment to get the latter's mother an award that carried the title datuk paduka.
Datuk Seri Abdullah said: 'These awards are from the monarchs. There are some recommended by the government, but if the sultan or the king does not want to, our recommendations do not count.'
He said more stringent qualifications should be imposed before someone is recommended for a datukship. Datuks are expected to have contributed to the community and be able to at least speak in Malay. Concerns have been raised in recent years that some datuks could not speak in the national language or English.
The arrests of some datuks for criminal activities and allegations that some were involved in Chinese triads had also diminished the value attached to the award.
The highest title that any Malaysian can receive is that of 'tun', of which there can only be 25 at any given time. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his wife were given the title recently.
Other titles include tan sri, datuk seri and datuk paduka. The lowest ranked of these honorifics is datuk.
Last year, the different states dished out 6,314 awards and medals.
Many of them do not carry any honorifics, but a whopping 531 individuals were given datukships.