One of the most confusing parts of doing research on politics in Malaysia is getting titles correct. It many ways the system parallels that of Britain, but in many ways it is quite different. It must be said that we do not understand the system of peerages and hereditary rulership in Britain either, so Malaysia is not alone in being confusing. However, titles are still all the rage here, and a surprising number of people have a title of some sort.
Hereditary titles are confusing enough. Malaysia is (on paper) a constitutional monarchy, meaning that the head of state is the King. However, Malaysia is unique in its kingship. The King of Malaysia–known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or "he who is most highly raised"–is elected from among the 9 hereditary rulers of the Peninsular Malaysian states for a revolving five-year term. That means that the King is not the king until he dies, just until one of his peers replaces him.
That brings us to state-level hereditary Rulers. There are 13 states in Malaysia. The two Bornean states, Sabah and Sarawak, do not have a hereditary Ruler. Two of the formerly-British Straits Settlements, Malacca and Penang, also do not have a hereditary Ruler. In each of these four states, there is a "head of state" for the state known as the Yang di-Pertuan Negeri, or "he who is raised in the state." (The other former British Strait Settlement is Singapore. These three settlements were administered differently under the British.) Seven of the remaining states have a Sultan (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, and Terengganu). One state has a Raja (Perlis) and the last one has a Yang di-Pertuan Besar (Negri Sembilan). The nine hereditary Rulers of states are the folks who rotate in and out of the office of King. Each Ruler has a family, and all of them have titles. These are too confusing to get into here.
Then there is the Malaysian equivalent of the peerage. You get a peerage for, ostensibly, contributing to the development of a state or of the country. Hence, there are two classes of peerage. One kind you receive from a Ruler, and the other kind that you receive from the King, whoever that may be at the time. Both men and women can receive a peerage, but if you are a woman who is married to a man who gets a peerage, you get a different name that signifies that you are married to a peer. What’s more, in both the Ruler class and the King class of peerage, there is an upper and a lower level. You can get many peerages, and many people have a couple Ruler-level peerages or a couple Ruler-level peerages and a King-level peerage. In your name, you normally only list your highest level peerage, although some people list both their highest King-level and their highest State-level peerage.
OK, from a Ruler, the lowest level is Dato’. Some Rulers spell this Datuk. The wife of a Dato’ is a Datin, no matter how her husband’s name is spelled. If the Ruler wishes to really honor you, he can make you a Dato’ Seri or a Dato’ Paduka. (Again, there are many spellings.) The wife of a Dato’ Seri is Datin Seri. There is no limit to the number of titles that a Ruler may grant.
From the king, the lower level is Tan Sri. The wife of a Tan Sri is called Puan or Puan Sri. The very highest level is Tun, whose wife carries the title Toh Puan. Adding to the confusion of titles, there is also a federal-level Datuk title, below the level of Tan Sri. In theory, there are fixed numbers of each of these titles.
The benefit of having a title, besides the fact that a title makes you sound important, is that some people believe they help out of things like parking tickets and airplane overbookings. Given the sheer number of Dato’, these is probably not really true at the lowest level, but a Tan Sri and certainly a Tun would never deign to wait in line anywhere.