Article by Syafiq Khalid (Malaysia)
Blog Correspondent of ASEAN-Korea Centre
In Malaysia, one of its most unique characteristics is the Honorifics & Malay titles used by some individuals who carry with them – ranging from royalty honorifics, to titles conferred by the state government or the federal monarchy. These complex set of titles have had a long history in Malaysia, with traces of origins from Indonesia, Brunei, and even British rule. It is essential for foreigners to refer to someone by his or her title, and in determining how and by whom the titles are conferred; one must understand Malaysia’s monarchy system.
There are 13 states in Malaysia (excluding Federal Territories); 9 out of which have Sultans whereas the remaining 4 are led by Governors who are appointed by Yang di-Pertuan Agong (Supreme Head of State). The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (referred to as the YDP onwards) is elected every 5 years, and is selected on a rotational basis from the Sultans of the 9 states. The YDP will then become the Supreme Head of State for all of the Malaysian States for the term of his election, to which no Sultan is to be re-elected again at the end of his term. In addition to must having a royal lineage, one of must also be above the minor age and Governors from the 4 states are not allowed to become The YDP as they do not fill the criteria of royal lineage. As of the moment, Malaysia’s current YDP is Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Mizal Zainan Abidin, the Sultan of the State of Terengganu.
Subsequent to the above, it is important for one to distinguish the types of title conferred to an individual, according to the system mentioned in the previous paragraph. In essence, titles can be conferred by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultans and Governors of each state. Referring to the table above, you can see the there are different titles for each of the different rulers – even though some titles sound the same, the ranking level and the way the titles are spelt are different. Some titles, even though technically are of the same rank, are perceived differently by Malaysian. An example is, even though Tan Sri (given by YDP) and Dato’ Sri / Datuk Seri (given by Sultan / Governor) fall under the same rank, Tan Sri is perceived to be of higher status since it is given by the Supreme Head of State Malaysia, whereas the other two titles are conferred by the State Sultans as well as State Governors.
Due to the level of complexity of the titles conferred, there are cases where Malaysians and even local newspapers get confused over the type as well as spelling of the titles of individuals. The most common mistake would be Dato’ Sri / Datuk Seri – although the pronunciation is similar, the conferrer of the award is different; one is by a Sultan and the other is by a Governor. Therefore, unless a person knows the individual directly, it is very difficult to ascertain by which type of ruler an individual received his / her title from. In respect to the numbers of individuals receiving the title, some titles are limited; the highest being Tun and Tan Sri. As for titles such as Dato’ Sri (Sultan), there can only be 40 living individuals (given by each State Sultan) carrying the title – however, as there are 9 states who confers this title, therefore the total will be 360 living individuals throughout Malaysia may carry the title.
Titles are given out once every year – on the day of the YDP, Sultan or Governor’s Birthday. The wife of the person receiving the award would also receive honorific titles such as Toh Puan (for Tun), Puan Sri (for Tan Sri), Datin Sri (for Dato’ Sri) and Datin (for Dato’ / Datuk). In Malaysia, titles are perceived to be something that elevates a person’s social status – therefore it is extremely in high demand. Issues such as the Datukship award being given out to young individuals, whereas others claiming that one can “buy” the Datukship has been raised and questioned by the media as of late. Regardless, recipients of the awards are still regarded highly by the general public. By right, when addressing individuals with titles, one must include their titles when calling their name (example Tun Mahathir, Dato’ Sri Najib) – it is considered rude should one call out an individual’s name (including their wives) without including their titles.
In summary, the honorifics and titles system in Malaysia is extremely rigorous and complex. However, this is definitely one of the reasons which make the country unique when compared to others. When taking into account the total number of honorifics, this is actually just one part; other commonly used honorifics includes royal family titles (such as Tengku, Raja Muda etc), and titles received from nearby countries (such as Brunei’s Pehin Sri). Despite causing confusion to foreigners (even local Malaysians) the titles are still perceived as an essential part of Malaysian culture, and will indefinitely continue within the many years to come.