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The Scene 'Datuk' or 'Dato'? How To Properly Use Malaysian Honorary Titles

'Datuk' or 'Dato'? How To Properly Use Malaysian Honorary Titles

'Datuk' or 'Dato'? How To Properly Use Malaysian Honorary Titles
By Tania Jayatilaka
February 25, 2020
Keep these quick pointers in mind when faced with society’s elite at your next high society event

It's no easy feat to master the art of using the right honorary titles that are conferred in Malaysia all the time. To avoid the embarrassment of confusing these official terms, Malaysia Tatler consulted KL Speakers' Club president and the royal figurehead of social etiquette Tunku Dara Tunku Tan Sri Naquiah to shed some light.

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Unlike titles that are conferred by state or federal leaders in Malaysia, some titles are inherited by members of the royal family, most notably terms like ‘Tengku’ and ‘Tunku’ (translated to prince or princess). What’s the difference between the two?    

“They are actually the same; but ‘Tunku’ is written this way in the states of Kedah, Johore and Negeri Sembilan,” says Tunku Dara.

“In Pahang, Selangor, Kelantan and Terengganu, this term is spelt ‘Tengku’. However, in Perlis, it is ‘Syed’ and in Perak it is ‘Raja’.”

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Given their similar pronunciations, the terms ‘Dato'’ and ‘Datuk’ are often mistakenly thought to be the same.

“'Datuk' is a federal title as well as one conferred in Malacca, Penang, Sarawak and Sabah that have Governors. The title 'Dato'' is conferred in states that have a ruler".

To recap: an individual with the title ‘Dato’' has been given this title by a Sultan while a ‘Datuk’ or 'Datuk Seri' is a federal title given by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong or the King of Malaysia. That said, titles of 'Datuk' and 'Dato' Sri' may also be conferred by the ruler of a state.

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The title ‘Tun’ is the highest federal title awarded by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong to an individual who has contributed significantly to the nation. The wife of a ‘Tun’ subsequently receives the title of ‘Toh Puan’.  

Does that make ‘To’ Puan’ the same moniker, just from a different state? No, there’s a big difference:

“'To’ Puan' is the wife of a Terengganu 'Dato' or the wife of some of the titled princes who are not royal,” shares Tunku Dara—a great tip to remember the next time you attend the wedding of a Dato Seri and To' Puan.  

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Interestingly, the title ‘Datin Paduka’ has the same rank as ‘Dato’—the former is conferred in Selangor only.

“In other states, a woman can receive the honorary title of ‘Dato’.” Tunku Dara adds. Meanwhile, the wife of a 'Datuk' receives the title of 'Datin', while a Tan Sri's wife is known as 'Puan Sri'. 

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A great tip for when you're meeting a high-ranking person for the first time: repeat that person's title as many times as you can to yourself once you are introduced, so that it will help you remember.  

"Listen when their names are mentioned and use it often thereafter," says Tunku Dara, whose memory skills in this area have no doubt proved extremely useful at the society events and meetings that she frequents. 

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The list of honorary titles in Malaysia can be quite lengthy, making it a considerable feat to remember names and their corresponding titles accurately. How does one avoid any honorifics faux pas when it comes to mingling during high society events?

“Avoid using honorific styles like YAM (Yang Amat Mulia) or YABhg (Yang Berbahagia), because you will probably get it wrong,” Tunku Dara shares. 

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You may already know that the same title can take on different forms across various Malaysian states, so it pays to remember what states use which spellings to avoid making any embarrassing mistakes. Even so, Tunku Dara offers this tip:

“If you are not sure of a person’s rank, you might get away with using Dato or Datuk.” 

  • Artwork Muhammad Zain Khairul

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