Title matters: Navigating the use of honorifics and their lineage

Those who have spent more than a week in Malaysia will have certainly noticed the long titles commanded by one of the country’s nine royal families or will have asked themselves what is the difference between Dato and Datuk, Tun and Tunku. Ask a local and more often than not they too will have great difficulty breaking the code. There is a method behind the mayhem, however, and the topic, while confusing, can shed some light on the structuring of Malaysian society.

Origins

Honorifics in Malaysian society subsisted long before the colonists arrived to what was then Malaya. According to research, the first titles were influenced by Islamic honorifics (Shiekh, Sultan and Shah) when Indian Muslim traders arrived in Malaya in the 12th century CE. Originally the titles were only given to the aristocracy, however, over time other Malay, Chinese and Indian citizens were anointed. Despite various colonial influences over the past few centuries, Malaysia has not strayed from its interest in the complicated titles that remain widespread.

Titles Of Royalty & Heads Of State

The following three categories should help to clarify some of the more common honorifics. The highest ranked and most complicated titles in Malaysia are not given but rather inherited by members of royal families in the nine royal states of Peninsular Malaysia. The Yang Di Pertuan Agong (YDPA), or king who sits on the throne in Kuala Lumpur, is a Sultan of one of the nine royal families and serves a five-year term before passing the title on to his successor – another Sultan. YDPA translates to English as “he who is made supreme lord”, except in Negeri Sembilan where he is known as Yang Di-Pertuan Besar (“he who is made a great lord”) and in Perlis, where the title is Raja. Yang di-Pertua Negeri is the title given to the heads of states that do not have royal lineage, for example Penang and Malacca on Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak and Sabah on East Malaysia. It is awarded by the YDPA and is not hereditary.

Tuanku, which means “your majesty” or “your highness”, and Tengku, which translates into prince or princess, are also important royal titles to remember. To add to the confusion, Yang Teramat Mulia is used for the children of the reigning monarch (except in Negeri Sembilan) and Yang Mulia is used for descendants of the royal family. Moreover, the king and state rulers like to be addressed with Ke Bawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia, which roughly translates as “the dust under the feet of his exalted highness.”

Three additional honorary styles that come up with regularity before an honorific title include Yan Amat Berhormat (YAB for short), Yang Berhormat (YB) and Yang Berbahagia (YB hg). YAB, or “the most honourable”, is used by the prime minister, deputy prime minister, chief ministers and Tuns who are elected members of parliament. YB, which translates to “the honourable”, is used by members of parliament and state legislative assemblymen. Finally, YB hg, meaning “the felicitous”, is a style of persons with a noble title.

Federal Level

On the federal level, titles are awarded and rescinded by the YDPA. The highest title in this classification is Tun (wife receives the title of Toh Puan) – and is given out to an individual who has contributed to the country honourably. The most notable holder of this rank is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia. Tun is followed in prestige by the titles Tan Sri (wife receives Puan Sri) and Datuk (wife receives Datin). A woman who receives that last designation is awarded the title of Datuk Paduka.

State Titles

Sultans and chief ministers of each state award state titles. The top-two ranks in this title category are Dato Sri and Datuk Seri (pronounced similarly) with the only difference being that the former is awarded by a Sultan of one of the nine states and the latter by a Chief Minister of the 11 states, including Penang and Malacca who do not have or are pending a recognised Sultan. Of lesser importance are the titles Dato and Datuk. As with the previous example, one is awarded by the Sultan and the other by the chief minister. While this does not address all the titles in the country, it is a overview of those used on an daily basis.

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