Honours : Musings Of An Old Guard
I would like to congratulate the Star newspaper(of Sunday, March 28th inst;)for publishing Wong Chun Wai’s candid article on honorific titles that seem to have sprouted as if they are from an assembly line.
Titles and medals are an invaluable and imaginative way of recognizing the contributions of outstanding individuals who have contributed significantly to the nation and to mankind. Holders of state titles get accorded prestige, precedence, and even preferential status in our country.
In the early years of independence titles like Tan Sri and Datuk were rare. When he passed away at the age of 44, the greatest icon of our local film industry, P. Ramlee, had earned an AMN. A Tan Sriship was only conferred on him much later posthumously. It was also made crystal clear in those early years that a high titleholder who proved to be errant in one way or another would be stripped of his title. The late Omar Lim Yew Hock, a former chief minister of Singapore and a Malaysian high commissioner lost his most prestigious Tun-ship under the administration of Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first prime minister. But the Tunku, given his well-known reservoir of compassion and humanity still kept his close friendship with Haji Omar Lim.
Political leaders at both federal and state-level have a duty to scrutinize carefully recommendations for high titles. Apart from looking at their contributions, including philanthropy, their character, conduct, and background should be scrutinized. Leaders also should not be in a hurry to recommend high titles. It is always wiser to wait out a year or so before making such recommendations to the palace.
The prestige and particular significance of such titles ought to preserve as a peculiarly Malaysian practice.
I recall that in my first decade in the public service the late Tan Sri Zain Azraai Zainal Abidin, one of the country’s most outstanding, erudite, and distinguished ambassadors and a top civil servant, was notified of a proposal to confer a high title. Zain, then our ambassador in Washington and an executive director in the World Bank politely declined the award with a lengthy well-reasoned explanation. In those days these cables would be copied to the Prime Minister’s Office. The then Prime Minister, Datuk (as he was then) Hussein Onn was impressed by Zain’s explanation. But he did not want to incur any Royal displeasure. Further, Hussein felt any disagreement with the Rulers should be on more important or core matters. For that reason, Zain was prevailed upon to drop his objections and accept the title. But to his last days, he would introduce himself admirably as ‘Zain.’
April 6, 2021
The writer, Dato’ Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. An excerpt of this letter was carried by the Star on April 7, on page 4