Someone should carry out a global survey to rank countries by the number of ‘VIPs’ per capita. This is one survey we might rank right up there along with the most status-conscious countries.
In Malaysia, apart from all those with official honorifics (and there are quite a few of them), there are those wannabe VIPs who are actually willing to pay good money to acquire instant ‘titles’.
Why is it that many Malaysians crave for titles? Perhaps they think an honorific would draw fawning attention at various public events, denote status, and offer privileges (like at airports, whether local or foreign).
Some years ago, a Malaysian tycoon with an inflated ego to match his size kicked up a fuss over a US airport procedure before he was unceremoniously put in his place. Another ‘big-shot’, an Umno leader, thought he could get away with a bag full of hot cash at an Australian airport. (Well, he did get away with it in the end, didn’t he?) A female Malaysian Cabinet minister blew her top when Australian airport security tried to use sniffer dogs to check her luggage.
This is not something confined to Malaysian VIPs. In India, a controversy broke out when an ex-Indian president was frisked at a Delhi airport by staff of a US airlines. In the event, Continental Airlines was forced to apologise to A P J Abdul Kalam. (Kalam never complained, but many in the Indian VVIP establishment were outraged: what if Bill Clinton had been frisked by Indian airline officials at a US airport, some wondered.)
Now you might think that everyone should be treated equally when boarding airlines. Back in 2003, a Cabinet Minister in India threw a fit when he found out that he was not allowed to use the VIP lounge at the New Delhi airport. (The thing about such official VIP lounges is that immigration and customs officers come to you rather than you having to go to them and frisking, if at all, is done discreetly.)
Others would like VIP protocol or ‘priority check-in’ to be extended to even ordinary members of official entourages.
Where will all this end? Australia has some very strict rules for ‘airport facilitation’ for ‘very senior foreign dignitaries’ and ‘non-exempt foreign dignitaries’, which it says is consistent with international practice. Perhaps it is time to review our own procedures to make sure they are in line with international practice and to make sure that everyone gets the message.