Splitting a Dato from a Datuk, Malaysian Names & Titles

Splitting a Dato from a Datuk, Malaysian Names & Titles

A Review on Colette Hassan's Lecture to MCG on Wednesday, 8th May 2019


Colette Hassan, born and educated in Switzerland, has lived in Malaysia since 1970 and is a long-standing MCG member. Her fascination for this subject started whilst working, for approximately 30 years, at the French and Swiss Embassies. She also studied the Malay language at the University of Malaya.

Colette opened her talk by explaining that Malaysian names and titles are a very complex subject of which she would only be scratching the surface.  

The talk began with a slide showing a map of the various trade routes coming from all directions to and from Malaysia. She explained that Malacca was the port where traders came to trade with each other and also to stay temporarily to wait for the Monsoon winds to change. She said that some traders remained in Malaysia integrating with the local population, which over time has led to the ethnic diversity of the country and the many different names and titles found in Malaysia.


It was explained that the talk would be from a European viewpoint using a Name Card as a means to read and understand a person’s name, titles and awards and would be divided into three parts. 1. Names of civilians and royalty. 2. Looking at Honorifics at Royalty and Federal Level, State Level and the Judiciary; and 3. Titles and Awards.  


A person’s name was very important in Malaysia with different ethnic groups using different means to find the best name.  Colette also explained that Malaysian women keep the name they were born with until they die, even after marrying.

We began by looking at Malay (Muslim) names. Men and women have a ‘Given’ name which is used in speech e.g. Johan (male) Nadiah (female) and a family name.  Both have to be written on a letter.  E.g. Johann bin (son of) Daud and Nadiah Binti (daughter of) Daud. Additional titles in front of a person’s ‘Given’ name can indicate whether they have royal blood on the maternal side, are descendants of Prophet Muhamad S.A.W., or have been to the Haj Pilgrimage in the first 10 weeks after Hari Raya. A man is eligible to put Haji or Hj and a woman Hajah or Hjh in front of their ‘Given’ names having been on the Haj. Professional titles are put at the beginning of a person’s title and can only be used once a letter has been received from the relevant professional body, the exception being “Eng”, which newly graduated engineers can use and “(Dr)” Honorary Degree.

Indian names were looked at next. It was explained that ‘a/l’ means son of and ‘a/p’ means daughter of. Examples were given of men and women’s ‘Given’ and family names as follows:
Rajagopal (M)(Given name) a/l Subramanian (family name) and Amortha (F)(Given name) a/p Subramanian. The names can also be written as follows:  S. Rajagopal and S. Amortha. the S being the father’s initial. 
The Sikhs (Punjab) have a first name followed by Singh for a man and a first name followed by Kaur for a woman followed by one of the following Clan names - Gill, Dhillon and Sidhu.

Chinese names can be read as follows.  The first word is the family name, the second a generational name, and then a third which will enable one to differentiate children e.g.  Yap Mee Li, Yap Mee Leng, Yap Mee Lin.

Next we looked at Portuguese and Dutch names.  In the case of the Portuguese their names, religion and traditions still remain in entirety.  Names such as de Souza and Monterio, Gomez are still in use. The Dutch, on the other hand, melded their identity into the local society with only Dutch names such as De Witt, Van Huizen and Valberg left.

Sabahan / Sarawakian names relate to orang asli names.

Names and titles and forms of address, both formal and verbal, for the nine Royal Houses were looked at next.  It was explained that the Paramount Ruler - Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (King) is selected from the nine royal houses for a period of five years. We learnt that with the exception of Perlis and Negri-Sembilan the rulers are called Sultan. The ruler of Perlis is called Raja and that of Negri Sembilan Yang di-Pertuan Besar.   Prince and Princesses in Kelantan, Pahang, Selangor and Terengganu are called Tengku.  In Johor, Negri Sembilan and Kedah they are called Tunku; and in Perak Raja.  In Perlis a Prince is called Syed  ….Jamallulail, a Princess Sharifah … Jamallulail.     
Colette continued by explaining the meaning of His Majesty the King’s names (titles) and that of the Queen and the ways to address them formally and verbally.  The King’s full title is:
  • Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia (The Dust under his feet is so highly placed)
  • Seri Paduka Baginda(His Majesty)
  • Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (He who is supreme)
  • The Queen’s title is: Her Majesty Permaisuri Agong


She also explained that there was also a royal language for certain words.  Ibni means the same as bin.  Al-Marhum means the late.  Al-Haj is the same as Haj. She also explained that Mulia means noble.

The second section of the talk looked at Honorifics, put in front of a person’s ‘Given’ and family names.  Colette explained that these must be used when writing a letter, when making a speech and also on Place and Name cards.

The Honorifics used for the King and members of royal families are:

  • KDYMM (Seri Paduka Bagiinda) the King
  • DYMM (Duli Yang Maha Mulia) a Ruler
  • YAM (Yang Amat Mulia)    children of 8 Rulers
  • YM (Yang Mulia)    other princes/princesses 


We next looked at the Honorifics for elected members.  At Federal Level, the King is at the head with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers and Ministers serving under him.  The State Governments followed a similar structure with a Ruler as head. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have the following in front of the their official titles and names: 

  • YAB (Yang Amat Berhomat)  The Right Honourable
  • And Ministers and Deputy Ministers: YB (Yang Berhormat) The Honourable 
For titled Civil servants the following honorifics are used in front of their official titles and names:
  • YABhg (Yang Amat Berbahagia)  The Most Fortunate  
  • and Civilians:  YBhg (Yang Berbahagia)  The Fortunate
There are 4 states, Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak, former British Territories, who have no royalty and have inherited British structures. The head of these states is a Governor/Yang Di Pertua Negri. The honorifics used for a Governor are H.E. (His Excellency) and TYT (Tuan Yang Terutama).
Finally we looked briefly at the Honorifics used for the Judiciary as follows:
  • Chief Justice (YAA) (Yang Amat Arif) The Most Wise
  • Chief Judge of Malaya (YAA) Justice…
  • Chief Judge of Sabah & Sarawak (YAA) Justice…
  • The Honorific for Federal Court Judges, High Court Judges and Appeal Court Judges is: 
  • YA (Yang Arif) The Wise


The third part of Colette’s talk looked at Titles and Awards. She explained that the title of “Dato/Datuk” dated back to the 1860s when it was first awarded by the State of Johor. She explained that Dato/Datuk means grandfather and in Malaysian culture elders command respect.  Federal awards started one year after Independence in 1958 and Federal Territory Awards in 2008, and are given by the King. Ceremonies and awards happen 15 times a year on the King and Sultans’ birthdays.  A Sultan can create new awards on his birthday or anniversaries.  Titles and Awards are given for having rendered significant services to the King, nation or community.
The highest title,”Tun” is conferred by the King. A woman’s title is Toh Puan. There are two awards SMN - Seri Maharaja Mangku Negara (The Most Esteemed Order of the Defender of the Realm) and SSM - Seri Setia Mahkota (The Most Esteemed Order of the Crown of Malaysia) of which 25 are awarded of each. The honorific YABhg is used with the title.
The next highest title “Tan Sri”  is also conferred by the King. A woman’s title is Puan Sri. Again there are two awards PMN - Panglima Mangku Negara (Commander of the Order of the Defender of the Realm) of which 75 are awarded and 
PSM - Panglima Setia Mahkota (Commander of the Order of the Crown of Malaysia) of which 250 are awarded.  The honorific YBhg is used with the title.
The titles of “Dato’/Datuk” can be given by the King, Rulers, Governors and Federal Territories. The honorific YBhg is used with this title.  Colette explained that the spelling of Dato’ changed to Datuk in the 1970s when Malaysia and Indonesia introduced a common language. The nine royal states and Penang use Dato’ and Malacca, Sabah, Sarawak and Federal Territories use Datuk. The wife of someone given the title Datuk is called Datin.  A woman who is given the title “Datuk” is called Datuk but her husband has no associate title. There is an exception in Selangor where the state wished women recipients to be called Datin and not Dato’.  In Terengganu the wife of a ‘Dato’ is called Tok/To’ Puan. The honorific YBhg is used with the title.

From Colette’s fascinating and illuminating talk we not only learnt about names, honorifics and titles in Malaysia we also learnt about its history and culture too.  What an amazing journey we were taken on.  As Colette said, we should test out how much we have learnt by reading Obituary and Announcement notices in newspapers. Collette has also provided us with the means to decipher what is written on Name Cards given to us in Malaysia and be able to gleam some knowledge about the person who has given it to us. To learn more about the subject Colette has provided a reading list below.


Further Reading
Protocol Division, MFA & State Protocol Officers
Malaysian Protocol and Correct Forms of Address by Datuk Abdullah Ali  
Ed.Times Books Int’l
The Rulers of Malaysia, Vol. 16, The Encyclopedia of Malaysia - Ed. Didier Millet
Malaysian Customs & Etiquette - A practical handbook by datuk Paduka Noor Aini Datuk Abdullah – Ed. Marshall Cavendish Int’l (Asia)

Jane Duxbury