From time immemorial, the Malays have had a very illustrative history of titleships and have defended this history with pride and dignity. While the British successfully destroyed the last bastion of aristocracy of the Hindu and Muslim Mogul kingships in India at the height of the colonisation of India in the nineteenth century and the Dutch similarly in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Malays resisted all attempts of the British to form the Malayan Union in 1946.The Malayan Union was an attempt to remove all sovereign rights of the Malay sultans including their rights to bestow titles to commoners, to elevate them to the level of aristocrats in the Malay Sultanate. As a result of intervention from the newly formed Malay party or United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which also led the nation into independence on August 31st 1957, Malaysia is one of the most ‘titled’ nations of the world, with a growing number of people who can claim to be part of the aristocratic component of Malaysian society.
No doubt all nations have national awards bestowed to citizens of great prominence but few nations have the privilege of a history which spans the Indic, Buddhist and Muslim civilisations of over thousands of years. Penang, like Melaka is a legacy of the Straits Settlements and was subject to direct British rule; Melaka lost its Sultanate when it fell to the Portuguese in 1511 while the Kedah Sultanate lost Penang when it was occupied by Captain Francis Light in 1786 and subsequently leased in perpetuity. These States do not have a Sultan as an official head of State but the Governorship is bestowed the highest status in the State with the honorific title of Tuan Yang Terutama (T.Y.T.), lit. The “First Sir” or the “Most Eminent”. All titles at all levels are awarded by Sultans or Governors while on the Federal level, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or King (“his Majesty”) bestows awards to commoners. Sultans, Governors and the Yang di Pertuan Agong have the absolute right to bestow awards to members of the royal family according to Malay tradition and citizens of eminence from other nations. They also have the absolute right to withdraw these titles from those who have disgraced or insulted the State or nation, through incitement, conspiracy or treason. Since independence in 1957, all titles and Datoships have been awarded on the basis of ‘citizenship’ rather than ‘ethnicity’ to demonstrate the assimilative and integrationist policy of Malaysia-the titles symbolically bring the Chinese, Indians and indigenous people under the umbrella of ‘Malay Statehood’ in respect of privileges and rights. These titles incorporate them into the “Malay Court”, symbolically and ritually and they become loyal subjects of the Malaysian nation. This may be hard to understand in Penang which has a very secular Statehood with a clear Chinese prominence of Datos’ but if one attends the Courtly functions of old Malay States such as Kedah and Perak, one can see how this works. Titled citizens of all ethnic communities sit on both sides of the royal family according to rank and seniority of title. Speeches of the Sultan contain messages of cooperation and goodwill or the Malay dialectics of Budi-jasa (“reciprocity of good deeds’)- good deeds done by citizens are rewarded with social recognition.
The titled citizen must be loyal to the State and cooperate in its success and productivity. In return, the titled individual enjoys high status and a position of prominence in society. In the Malay world, this must come with kehalusan bahasa or in English, “refinement-of speech”, sopan-santun (“orderly conduct”) and budi-bahasa (“cultured language and good deeds”). Malay Datos traditionally cultivate the art of body language, oration, dressing and style, which is becoming of a Dato’; hence the strict dress code during the investitures and emphasis on formal dressing at all official functions. In Malay tradition, Datos must perfect their speech and decorum and be generous and gracious at all times. In other words, it is a responsibility which comes with age, seniority and service. It is also a source of emulation or role modelling for the younger generation.
Of course, all Malays will say that the most important kind of ‘dato’ to be would be to qualify as a ‘grandfather’ (Dato’) or grandmother (nenek; ‘tok). From this we gather that the real meaning of Dato’ is “eldership” or “to be respected as an elder”. Rank and file of age is highly important in the Malay world as it is in the Chinese and other Asian communities. To gain this status is a privilege and honour in one’s community. The Chinese celebrate eldership as a ‘rites de passage’ of ultimate honour and success in health and wealth while the Indians bestow Godly qualities on respected elders. All in all, for those who have gained these titles through generosity, welfare and good deeds, their budi-pekerti (“good behaviour”) shines through.As the Malay saying goes, “Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, Manusia mati meninggalkan Nama” (The tiger dies and leaves behind its stripes; the human dies and leaves behind his/her name).
However, the more important proverb which concerns Datos would be “Ikut resmi padi, makin berisi semakin tunduk” or “Follow the way of the rice sheaf, the heavier it is, the more it bends”.
Wazir Jahan Karim