Cover Photo: Fandy Azlan/@fandyazlan on Instagram

Why ‘Che Puan’ differs from ‘Che Engku', and other official terms defined

In Malaysia, Orders and Decorations are given to both men and women. A lady can be conferred the honorary titles of Dato’, Dato’ Sri or Tun, while regal titles like Tengku are used by both daughters and sons of royal descent.       

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But there is a category of titles in Malaysia that do not apply to men, namely courtesy titles – Che Puan, Datin Sri and other terms that we see gracing the initials of local celebrities and members of the nobility.    

So nuanced is this topic that protocol and etiquette specialist Dato' Paduka Noor Aini Datuk Abdullah has authored two books on it.

“Malaysian titles and proper forms of address rate among the most complex aspects of official protocol,” she notes. “On the other hand, these kaleidoscopic forms of address are what make our local customs, traditions and etiquette the fascinating subject matter that it is,”

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The eloquent voice behind Malaysian Customs & Etiquette - A Practical Handbook and co-author of Malaysian Protocol and Correct Forms of Address sets the record straight on how and where these official terms are properly used. 

Courtesy Titles

So what exactly is a 'courtesy title'? 

"It is a form of address that can either be official or accorded out of politeness to non-royal wives and children of royals as well as members of the nobility," explains Dato' Paduka Noor Aina. "Courtesy title holders do not themselves have their own title but receive this styling through their husband and/or father. In certain cases in Malaysia, a courtesy title can also be extended to those whose mothers are royal."

Toh Puan: A title given to the wife of a Tun (a recipient of either the Seri Maharaja Mangku Negara or Seri Setia Mahkota Malaysia, two of the most senior Orders given out by His Majesty The Yang Di Pertuan Agong.) The title Toh Puan is also sometimes extended to wives of very senior royal court officials in certain states.

Puan Sri: A title given to the wife of a Tan Sri (a recipient of either the Panglima Mangku Negara or Panglima Setia Mahkota).

Datin: The title of the wife of a Dato'. Simiarly, the wife of a Dato' Sri is called Datin Sri

Datin Paduka: This is actually the official title of a female recipient of the title Dato' in the state of Selangor. In other instances, it is used as a courtesy title of the wife of a Dato' Paduka.

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Che Engku: A title bestowed upon non-royal wives of senior royals in the state of Negeri Sembilan.

Che/Cik Puan: "In recognition of non-royal ladies who marry senior royalty, the title of Che Puan or Cik Puan, traditionally a courteous one, has now been gazetted in many states as being official," says Dato' Paduka Nora. 'On the other hand, it remains a courtesy styling for those who marry royalty where no other title is made available to them." 

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Datin Wira: A title given to the wife of a Dato' Wira. "The title Dato' Wira is a variation of the many different types of Dato'ships available here in Malaysia," says Dato' Paduka Nora. "In this case, it's awarded by the Heads of State of Kedah, Perlis, and Melaka (where it's spelt Datuk Wira)." 

Raja Puan Muda: An official courtesy title bestowed upon the consort of a Raja Muda (usually the crown prince of certain Malaysian states).

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Hereditary Titles

Raja: The hereditary title bestowed by birthright upon members of the Perak royal family. "Unless otherwise stated, a Raja enjoys the same status as his or her Tengku or Tunku counterpart, except of course where rank and position within the royal hierarchical structure separate them," adds Dato' Paduka Nora. 

Sharifah: The hereditary title of a daughter of a Syed. "It is generally accepted here in Malaysia that a Syed is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)," says Dato' Paduka Noor.

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What is the difference between a Dato’ Sri and Dato’ Seri? Can both titles be conferred to women?

No difference at all in terms of rank and status, just a difference in spelling. At the moment, only the state of Pahang uses "Sri" as opposed to "Seri". Orders and Decorations are gender-inclusive so, yes, both titles can be conferred to women.

Can a women be conferred a Tan Sri?

Yes.

If a woman is conferred the title of Dato' or Tun, are there any corresponding titles given to her husband?

Sadly, no. Currently, a husband is only entitled to use titles and/or honorifics that he has received in his own right. 

Want more information about honorary titles, courtesy titles and honorifics in Malaysia? Consult the protocol department at Istana Negara and the various state Istanas. Another credible source is the office of the Chief of Protocol at the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs