NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
I have to admit that I am not really big on titles and honorifics, though I certainly have appreciation for the traditions and institutions behind them. That said however, I can be quite a stickler for correctness.
I always try, wherever possible, to address or pronounce people’s names correctly. After all, it is the least we can do to respect an individual. As a result, I am often vexed whenever I hear the many mangled ways names like Yves, Zegna, Gullit and Solksjaer are pronounced.
And of course, being Malaysian means that my compulsion for correctness is tested on a nearly daily basis, due to the myriad of titles and styles that our class-obsessed society has to deal with. After all, as they say in our country, throw a stone and one is bound to hit a Dato’. Or a Datuk. Now, which exactly is it?
This quandary is a common one that perplexes many Malaysians – what on earth is the difference between Dato’ and Datuk? The answer is really quite simple (okay, maybe not that simple). They are both different and the same.
Technically speaking, Dato’ and Datuk are both spelt and pronounced the same way in the Jawi script. The problem actually arises from its Romanisation. Yet if it is a simple matter of transliteration, then they should logically be interchangeable. However, this isn’t the case because there are some semantic nuances involved as well.
For sake of correctness, Dato’ actually denotes a title awarded by one of the nine Malay Rulers, while Datuk is typically a title awarded by the Agong or his Governors in the other states. Be that as it may, one would not find this difference in the local newspapers, which use Datuk regardless of origin. This is because the press, for sake of uniformity, uses a standardised spelling. Presumably so as not to confuse, though I am tempted to say that it probably works to the contrary.
Now that the difference between Dato’ and Datuk is clear, can we assume that it is the same case between Dato’ Sri and Datuk Seri? Not quite, as it turns out. This is because Dato’ Sri is only conferred by the Sultan of Pahang, while the other eight Rulers award Dato’ Seri. The equivalent award from the Agong or a Governor would of course be Datuk Seri. Hence, we have Dato’ Sri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Unfortunately, it does not get any simpler for women. The title used for awardees of the fairer sex is usually the same as their male counterparts – either Dato’ or Datuk, though an exception arises when the honour is bestowed by the Sultan of Selangor, in which case it becomes Datin Paduka. The latter, however, should not be mistaken for the wife of a Dato’ Paduka from Perlis.
It is slightly less complicated for wives, as they are generally called Datins across the board, regardless of whether their husband is a Dato’ or a Datuk. That is, unless the husband received his Dato’ship from Terengganu, in which case the Datin would then be called To’ Puan, a title that is not to be confused with Toh Puan (the wife of a Tun).
Subtle differences also exist in the case of the hereditary royal titles of Tengku and Tunku. Like Dato’ and Datuk, the Jawi form of these two titles are exactly the same. Similarly as well, they also carry different traditions. With some exceptions, Tunku is generally used by heirs of the royal houses of Kedah, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. The other royal houses use Tengku, except when they use Raja or Syed.
Now that we have the Datuks and Tengkus sorted out, we shall discuss honorary styles. A Datuk is given the style YBhg (Yang Berbahagia) while a Tengku is styled YM (Yang Mulia). But of course the most recognisable style to most Malaysians would have to be YB (Yang Berhormat), which is accorded to members of the federal and state legislatures. Generally, people do not face many problems with the use of styles, except when it comes to translating them into English.
The conundrum that arises is one of context. The question is, should the styles be mere transliterations or should they follow the correct British usage? Seeing as we are members of the Commonwealth, I would argue for the latter. In which case, ordinary MPs and state assemblymen in Malaysia should not be addressed as The Honourable, as such a style is not used by British MPs. This is a popular misconception arising from the way British MPs use the phrase “the honourable member” as a courtesy when addressing each other in Parliament. In actual fact, a typical British MP is simply addressed as, for example, Mr John Smith MP. It is a solecistic mistake to append the style The Honourable as a direct translation or replacement of the Malaysian style YB.
In our local context, The Honourable as a style is actually only reserved for members of the Federal or State executive, such as Ministers and Executive Council members, as well as Senators and judges of the High Court and above.
Furthermore, and this is where most people get it wrong, our Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers should not be referred to as The Right Honourable, which is a style that is only confined to members of the British Privy Council. So while the British Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, by virtue of their membership in the Privy Council, are styled The Right Honourable, our own Prime Minister and Chief Ministers should only carry the style The Honourable. This problem derives from our egregious attempt to translate YAB (Yang Amat Berhormat), which is the Malaysian style for PMs and CMs. If so, then the translation should correctly be The Most Honourable rather than The Right Honourable.
This article is not meant to be exhaustive, as it would take a whole tome to explain the proper usage of every Malaysian honorific. I have merely listed some of the more common misunderstandings associated with the various titles and styles used in our society.
And so to cap it off, for the benefit of anyone who may have to emcee an official function or write a letter to a multi-titled individual in the near future, the basic guideline for order of styles and titles in our country is thus: honorary style, professional rank, royal hereditary title, federal title, state title, non-royal hereditary title, Doctor (of medicine or philosophy), Haji or Hajjah, before finally, the least important bit of all in the Malaysian scheme of things, the poor fellow’s name.
But if one finds that it is too difficult or cumbersome to remember how who should be called what, then one merely needs to know this general rule of thumb: when in doubt, just call them Dato’. Or Datuk.