Dato’ or Datuk? Understanding Malaysia’s honorary titles

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Is it Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak or Datuk Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak? What is the difference?! Sarah Rees attempts to shed some light on the complicated titles and honorifics in Malaysia and guide expats through the complicated tangle of addressing VIPs.

One of the things that befuddles many foreigners in Malaysia is the dizzying array of honorifics and titles that pepper the names of the powerful.

From mouth-achingly long titles for the royal family to the unfathomable difference between Datuk and Dato’, Tun and Tuan, any expats that have to deal with these people in some naming capacity often resort to seeking help from local colleagues, memorising the long titles without any clue of what they mean or stand for.

It is, however, an intriguing topic and one that offers a little insight into the structuring of society. Also, by learning a few basic rules, expats can more easily identify when to expect royalty and when just a wealthy businessman, when to use Datuk and when Dato’ works just as well.



The system of honorifics and titles was in existence long before the colonialists arrived to claim this areas theirs, and the original titles were Hindu-Buddhist, merging with Islamic honorifics (such as Sultan and Shah) when Islam arrived in the country and thus creating longer, more complicated titles.

Originally the monopoly of the ruling aristocracy, titles and honorifics gradually became available to the common Malay people too, but the aristocracy always retained certain titles they preferred (such as Zulkarnain meaning double-horned or Mu’azam meaning great).

Despite considerable influence from the British during the period before independence, Malaysia retained its complicated titles that are vastly different from that of the British system, and they remain in common use today. While even some local people despair at the confusion and proliferation of titles, there are many who feel this is a strong and important element of the country’s heritage, and titles are still highly prized by those who receive them.


Istana Negara Jalan Duta
Royal Palace

Titles for the royals are hereditary and only used by members of royal families in the nine royal states.

The top man – the king who sits on the throne in Kuala Lumpur and comes from a different royal family each term – takes the title Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (YDP), which translates as “He who is made supreme lord.” The heads of each royal family in each state is known as the Sultan, except in Negeri Sembilan when he is known as Yang Di-Pertuan Besar (“he who is made a great lord”) and in Perlis where he is Raja.


Tuanku is used to mean “your highness” (except in Sarawak, where it is a title for some noble families) while Tengku is used to mean prince or princess. Yang Teramat Mulia is used for the children of the reigning monarch (except in Negeri Sembilan) and Yang Mulia is used for descendants of the royal family.

Confused yet? Just to throw a verbal spanner in the works, the king and state rulers like to be addressed with Ke Bawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia which translates as the nifty phrase, “The Dust under the Feet of his Exalted Highness.”

Federal titles

This next batch of name starters are given (and can be taken away) by the YDP and the first and most senior of the lot is Tun, which has been used for hundreds of years and is bestowed on a resident who has served Malaysia honourably. The wife of a Tun gets to be Toh Puan, and foreigners can even get this title (but may only use it within Malaysia).

The next rung down are made a Tan Sri (whose wife gets Puan Sri), before Datuk arrives at the bottom with the wife taking Datin, while a women earning it in her own right becomes, depending on state, Datuk or Datin Paduka.

State titles

The state titles are given by the governors and sultans of each individual state, and are granted to those who have contributed to their state.

The top performers are given a Dato’ Sri (or Dato’ Seri), which serves as the equivalent honour of a Tan Sri, with the wife enjoying Datin Sri ahead of her name. Just to keep you perpetually confused, the other top title is the Datuk Seri, which is just as good but different: the former is given by the ruler and the latter given by the governor.

Next down is the title seen most often in Malaysia – the Dato’. When a husband gets this title, his wife gets to be Datin (unless she lives in Terengganu, where she becomes a To’ Puan). This title can be given or inherited in certain noble families. As before, if the equivalent honour is given by a governor and not the ruler, the chosen person gets Datuk instead.

The only other state titles are Pehin (used only in Sarawak) and JP (Justice of Peace), which arrive at the bottom rung.

To answer the question posed at the start of this article, the correct name for our current PM is Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak.


Is that clear?

We are, unfortunately, just scratching the surface. There are many exceptions to the rules, and there are many more titles, both hereditary and state-bestowed, that are somewhat rarer yet still used and cherished. There are also all manner of ways in which to address people depending on their titles. (A judge would be Yang Arif or “The Learned” while the state governors are Tuan Yang Terutama or “The Most Eminent Master.”)

Fear not: Malaysians typically find all this just as confusing as expats, and the best advice is to check carefully before addressing someone important, but smile sweetly if you make a mistake – people are usually forgiving!

It may be complicated, but the system of titles and honorifics is an interesting part of the culture of the country, and delving deeper into it can help understand the journey that the language and the social hierarchy has taken in its move towards independence and development.

Interesting facts

  • Members of the public can visit a website to verify the validity of people’s honorifics and make sure that the title they use is actually authorised by the government (
  • Titles are given out annually on the day of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (king), Sultan, or Governor’s birthday, depending on the state.
  • Receiving a title is considered a huge honour, and people can often take offence if you forget or neglect to use their titles when addressing them.
  • There can only be 35 Tuns, 75 Tan Sris, 40 Dato’ Sris (in each state), and 200 Datuks (YDP) living at any one time. There is no limit on Dato’s or Datuks (governor).
  • “Datuk” is also, in the Malay language, sometimes used to refer to a granddad.

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Source: The Expat June 2013

"ExpatGo welcomes and encourages comments, input, and divergent opinions. However, we kindly request that you use suitable language in your comments, and refrain from any sort of personal attack, hate speech, or disparaging rhetoric. Comments not in line with this are subject to removal from the site. "


Gerald Ng

Every state have their own classification of honorific title…for example in Sarawak we have Dato’ , Datuk, Datu, Dato’ Sri, Datuk Amar, Datuk Patinggi and Pehin Sri.

Peter Low

To be quite honest and I believe many would agree, these titles from Malaysia are worthless!!!

If you talk about MBE, OBE, KBE , Sir, Lady, Dame…..

Think about it.

Walk down the street in NY , I am a Dato Seri, Tun etc…..WTF……..
What the hell is that????

Whereas, I am Sir David Attenborough, Dame Kiri Ke Kenawa………


Or even Jimmy Choo OBE…..

Apon Yusof

its too common nowdays. nothing great.

Wilson Chee

In malaysia, 9 out of 10 datuks are corrupted people

John W. Ho

Corrupted and corruptible. Same meaning.

Vinicius Silvado

It is amazing! They have titles to show how corrupted you are! If you are a bit corrupted you get dato, a bit more corrupted dato sri, and very much master corrupted you get Tan Sri! And people are proud to hold these corruption radar titles! Amazing, isn’t it?

Ridzwan MyJihad

The number of Dato, Datuk, Datuk seri, Tan seri…so on…in Malaysia is more than the numbers of school Head Masters now…
At least you cant buy the position of a Head Master but you can buy a title of Dato…ao cheap.

Benjamin Chan

Head master position is also bought by boot licking and ball carrying of senior officials

Doc Sam

No more value in these titles.. seems like anyone with money has a dato title

Zambrota Mutakabbir

Not only that the first big issue is why PM still unclose jb lorry customs.Is it cause of jolly money(Levi) Dap lorries gave to customs everyday.Whereas royal ask to close 1 year ago.Crowd you close it noww!!!.

Paul Tan

A woman earning the title should be either just Datuk or it is Datin Paduka. Depending on state. Not Datuk Paduka.

Expat Go Malaysia

Sorry for the confusion, Paul, thanks for letting us know 🙂

Ignatius Francis

Nope ur wrong. A women earning the title herself is the same as the male title Dato, Dato Sri, Tun, Tan Sri. If her husbands gets the title she as a wife will be known as Datin, Datin Seri, Toh Puan and Puan Sri.

Ignatius Francis

Siti Hasmah is known as Tun and not Toh Puan because she also was bestowed the title.

Ignatius Francis

Rafidah Aziz is Tan Sri and not Puan Sri for the same reason. The IGPs wife is Puan Sri because her husband is bestowed the title Tan Sri and not her.

Paul Tan

Yes women can get Datuk. But there’s also Datin Paduka which is its own title and doesn’t mean wife of a Datuk. I was correcting the Datuk Paduka word in the story, supposed to be Datin Paduka.

Paul Tan

Examples – Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun and Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. These are titles on its own not the normal Datin which is wife.

Ignatius Francis

Paul Tan ha interesting fact. Will check on it. Thanks

Ignatius Francis

Just checked. Only for the title of Dato Paduka, if the recipient is a female, she will be known as Datin Paduka.

Craig J Selby

And how / where to buy one? Still love the johor sultans comment … Throw a stone anywhere and you’ll hit a datuk.

Buvana Pregalathan

U get a datuk tittle automatically once u r blessed with a grandchild. No need to waste so much of money.

Aileen Chew

LOL !! Best comment Buvana Pregalathan !! Super Like

Ikechukwu Apugo

Useless country.can’t wait to catch 1 of you here in Nigeria

Fuchs Estella

Well a taxi driver told us with RM200 , 000 you can buy the Dato title?

U Angel Leah Grace

Someone even told me, one can buy a Dato title with just Rm25,000!!.. Can even buy I.C. in Sabah for as low as Rm500!!! How true??.. Maybe???

Fuchs Estella

???. Getting cheaper! Ok when you find the title that a sheikh from a foreign country suddenly donates $millions to me… let me know ???

U Angel Leah Grace

Fuchs Estella hahahahha!!!..your the best brekky laugh ever!!!???

Zambrota Mutakabbir

Not only that the first big issue is why PM still unclose jb lorry customs.Is it cause of jolly money(Levi) Dap lorries gave to customs everyday.Whereas royal ask to close 1 year ago.Crowd you close it noww!!!.

Doc Sam

20-40k i heard from pahang ruler

Zambrota Mutakabbir

Not only that the first big issue is why Najib still unclose jb lorry customs.Is it cause of jolly money(Levi) Dap lorries gave to customs everyday.Whereas royal ask to close 1 year ago.Crowd you close it noww!!!.

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