What’s the difference between a Datuk and a Dato’? If you don’t know, it’s not your fault because Malaysia has a particularly complex system of titles and awards.
We have hereditary titles, passed down within a family from generation to generation. We also have non-hereditary titles and awards which are granted by rulers.
Adding to the confusion, our non-hereditary titles and awards can be further classified into two types: federal and state.
How to get a title
Generally, federal awards are conferred by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) and state awards are conferred by the head of the states, such as sultans or governors (Yang di-Pertua Negeri).
All these awards were founded by the past Yang di-Pertuan Agong, sultans, and heads of states and instituted during their reign to reward those who made a great contribution to the nation. The nominees are based on recommendations received from the federal or state government.
Both men and women can receive these awards and when a man receives a title, his wife will gain a title to match. In contrast, when a woman receives a title, her husband does not gain a title through her.
Contrary to popular belief, gaining a title does not actually come with any perks. They’re really just awards to recognise contributions. Most titled people just “happen” to also be rich (so lucky, right?).
Johor was the first state to institute awards in 1886 and soon after, the other Malay states followed suit. Today, titles are given out annually on the official birthday of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan, or Governor, depending on the state.
So, we’re gonna start from the bottom-most title and work our way up, ok.
1. Datuk/Dato’ (State)
Probably the most confusing title of all in Malaysia is the Datuk/Dato’ title because there are both federal and state award versions as well as variations according to state.
An easy way to remember the difference between Datuk and Dato’ is that generally Datukships are federal titles given by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, while Dato’ships are state titles given by sultans.
But this is a very loose generalisation because (as you can see in the table below) it really differs according to state.
For simplification, we’re covering the state award versions first and the federal versions in a separate point below (both versions rank pretty much equally though).
The confusion doesn’t stop there though, because aside from that, a Dato’ title can also be passed down from father to son.
Yes, a Dato’ title can be both hereditary and non-hereditary, and no, we aren’t talking about the informal “Datuk” you use to call your grandfather.
One example of this is in former Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak’s case. Besides his other awards, Najib also inherited a Dato’ship from his father because they are both a part of the Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar family of Pahang, one of the four elite families of the state.
In the case of non-hereditary Dato’ titles, these also vary in ranking and name according to each respective state. Examples include Dato’ Paduka, Wira, Diraja and Pahlawan.
The wife of a male Datuk/Dato’ gains the title Datin, or To’ Puan (Terengganu).
We’re not gonna get too far into it because it’s really long and complicated, but for further reading, you can check them all out according to each state here.
Generally, there is no limit to the number of recipients of this title, but this has grown to become a problem of late.
There are some rumours of Dato’s gaining the title through suspicious means and news of apparent Dato’s being connected to illegal activities or committing criminal offences.
This has led to some states imposing stricter conditions when conferring the title. Selangor has enforced a limit to the number of recipients a year (40 recipients) and submits the names of the nominees for checks by the police, Insolvency Department, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
2. Datuk (Federal)
The federal award Datuk title is conferred by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and can be divided into two ranks: Panglima Jasa Negara award (PJN) and Panglima Setia Diraja (PSD).
The PJN award is limited to 200 living recipients and is sometimes given to foreign recipients as honorary awards. However, the number of foreign recipients doesn’t affect the 200 recipient limit.
There is no limit to the number of recipients of the PSD award and it can be granted to foreign citizens as an honorary award too.
This award is always referred to as a Datukship, but due to confusion in the past, all media outlets now have decided that Datuk and Dato’ titles will always be written as Datuk. Which basically means that when you read the title in the news, you still won’t know what kind of Datuk the person is.
3. Datuk Seri/Dato’ Sri
A Datuk Seri-ship is the highest-ranking state award title conferred by the heads of state or sultans. Datuk Seri are on the same rank as the federal title Tan Sri.
Just like Datuk/Dato’ships, there are variants to the title according to each state. These variations are also applied to a male recipient’s wife. Most states use Datin Seri, but in Kedah and Terengganu, a Dato’ Seri’s wife is referred to as a To’ Puan Seri instead.
Fun fact: This does not apply to Kelantan because they don’t give out Dato’ Seri titles while Sarawak actually has a title higher than Dato Sri called Pehin Sri.
4. Tan Sri
Tan Sri is a federal title conferred by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. It is also the second-highest title in the land.
This title has two ranks: Panglima Mangku Negara (PMN) and Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM).
The wife of a male Tan Sri is called a Puan Sri.
There is a limit to how many living Tan Sri recipients there can be at a time, but it differs according to rank. For PMN Tan Sri, there may only be 75 while the limit for PSM Tan Sri is 250.
A Tunship is the highest title that can be conferred in Malaysia. It is a federal title and granted by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
There are two ranks of Tun: Seri Maharaja Mangku Negara (SMN) and Seri Setia Mahkota (SSM).
There may only be a maximum of 25 living holders of each of these awards at any one time and when a man receives this title, his wife gains the title Toh Puan.
SMN is usually awarded to newly appointed Yang di-Pertua Negeri and retired Prime Ministers of Malaysia, such as Tun Dr Mahathir who received the award after his first stint as prime minister, and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s fifth prime minister.
Fun fact: Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak, is the first prime minister of Malaysia who didn’t receive a Tunship.