Unveiling the mystery of Malaysian titles

If you are reading this, most probably you already are doing business in Malaysia or about to start it. Indisputably, in order to successfully navigate through the complicated culture customs you need to understand the difference between various titles in Malaysian culture and know how to correctly use them.

Have you ever wondered about the difference between Dato and Datuk or Tun and Tuan? Or perhaps you were having a business meeting with someone called Dato and you were wondering why your business partner has such title since to your knowledge, he does not belong to royal family and how he obtained it? Let’s take a look at those extremely complicated honorifics and titles and let’s try to unveil some of them.

Looking back in time, Malaysia has a long history of honorifics and titles. And that history goes way back, before the British come to the country. Most probably this is why the titles are so complicated even for Malaysians.

There are three groups of titles and let’s say three ways of obtaining them.

One, and the utmost important are the royal titles, which are hereditary and used by members of the royal families in the 9 states. And the only way to obtain one is… to be born royal.

The highest title goes to the king, who is called Yang Di-Pertuan Agong – „He Who Was Made Lord” (the current king is Muhammad V of Kelantan). The interesting fact is that in Malaysia, King is being elected by and from the 9 rulers of the Malay states every 5 years.

There are 2 more royal titles that you might come around. Tanku, which means „your highness” and Tengku, which goes for prince or princess.

Second group goes for the federal titles. We can distinguish here 3 titles.

The most senior title is Tun and is given (and taken away) by Yang Di-Pertuan Agong. The one who served Malaysia honorably can be awarded with Tun. There may not be more than 35 living holders at any one time. One of the examples is the former president and CEO of Petronas Tun Azizan Zainul Abidin.

When you happen to meet with the wife of Tun you should call her Toh Puan ahead of her name.

The second most senior federal title is Tan Sri, followed by Datuk.

For example Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh was awarded the Tan Sri title in 2013 (for her role in the James Bond movie).

Also, while Tun is given only to men, Tan Sri and Datuk can go to both, man and women.

All the above titles have quotas and holders are extremely proud of their titles. So if you happen to meet one, make sure you will learn full name including title!

The third group belongs to state titles and those are given by the governors and sultans of each state. They are honorary and non-hereditary. I would say that this group is the most interesting and especially if you are working with government, most probably you will come across people holding those titles. So let’s see what we have here.

This group of titles starts with Dato, though please note that this is different from the federal Datuk. Usually, there is maximum number of Malaysian citizens who may hold a state title however the limits do not apply to foreigners. And the other way round, foreigners do not impact the quota.

Moving forward we have:

Dato’ Seri (or Dato’ Sri) is the highest state title given to the most-deserving recipients. The wife of Dato’ Seri is called Datin Seri. For example the current Prime Minister of Malaysia’s title is Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak.

A woman awarded with Dato’ Seri title would be called Datin Paduka Seri.

Dato’ is the most common title awarded in Malaysia. And there is a high chance you had already met someone with that title. Also, to keep it a little bit more complicated, Dato is also often used refereeing to … grandpa or an elder man.

A female Dato’ holder is called Datin Paduka and what is interesting her husband will not receive a title. As an example, we can use Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba, who is a Malaysian film director.

Right now, Dato title is give very often to famous sportsmen/women, artists and actors.

Recently, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan has received his Datukship from the King of Malaysia, surprising at the same time many. However this is an example that foreigner can also be awarded with Malaysia title and it can go up to Tun level.

It is also a common practice to award people from business world with a title. Some business people, who were awarded with Dato title, prefer to keep the title away from their business cards however some don’t… It takes a bit of time to figure out if the person you are meeting with wants to be called Dato. If you meet for the first time, you probably should address your speaker by the title and see how he will react. And once your relation will strength, you might be advised to drop the title.

So how a business person can obtain a title?

Remember, when I mentioned, that there are three ways of getting the title and that Dato is the most interesting one?

Well, we got to the times, where almost every one can obtain the title, as long as… one has enough money. There is a lot of noise in Malaysia about an increasing number of awarded titles and that the rank of it has extremely deceased. Johor state for example has the least number of awarded titles and the current Sultan is actually proud of keeping it that way.

Despite all, I want to believe that someone who has a title, worked it out and received it honorably. However you need to make your own judgement.

What is your experience with Malaysia titles?

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