The oldest historical records mentioning about the title datuk is the 7th century Srivijayan inscriptions such as Telaga Batu to describe lesser kings or vassalized kings. It was called dātu in Old Malay language to describe regional leader or elder, a kind of chieftain that rules of a collection of kampungs (villages) called Kedatuan. The Srivijaya empire was described as a network of mandala that consists of settlements, villages, and ports each ruled by a datu that vowed their loyalty (persumpahan) to the central administration of Srivijayan Maharaja. Unlike the indianized title of raja and maharaja, the term datuk was also found in the Philippines as datu, which suggests its common native Austronesian origin. The term kadatwan or kedaton refer to the residence of datuk, equivalent with keraton and istana. In later Mataram Javanese culture, the term kedaton shifted to refer the inner private compound of the keraton, the residential complex of king and royal family.
Today in Indonesia, datuk refer to honorific title of traditional community, especially among Malay and Minangkabau people. It is functioned as a title reserved for community leader that deals with traditions and community affairs.
In Minangkabau tradition, Datuk (or Datuak) is a traditional, honorary title bestowed on a person by the agreement of a people or tribe in the Minangkabau language, spoken by the Minangkabau people. The title of Datuk was agreed upon by local, traditional leaders (Kerapatan Adat Nagari). The title engenders great respect, and is only used for Minangkabau men who have become stakeholders of traditional leaders or penghulu (noblemen) for a particular tribe. When the title is bestowed, it is celebrated with a traditional ceremony (Malewa Gala) and a banquet.
Unlike other Malay traditions, the title of datuk in Minangkabau is inherited according to the matrilineal system. When a datuk dies his title may pass to his brother or nephew, whoever is closest in the maternal line. If there is no maternal relative, it may be given to another tribal member with the agreement of the tribe.
In Malaysia the title "Datuk" has two meanings: formal and informal. The informal ones holds that Datuk is equivalent to one's "grandfather" or refers to a male elder. Other function is a formal honorific style both in traditional and stately titles.
"Datuk" is a federal title that has been conferred since 1965. It is limited to recipients of Panglima Jasa Negara (PJN), of which there may be up to 200 living at any one time, and Panglima Setia Diraja (PSD), of which there may be up to 200 living at any one time. The PJN and PSD rank 9th and 10th respectively in the rank of federal awards.
The wife of a federal "Datuk" is a "Datin".
A female conferred the title in her own right is formally known as "Datin Paduka"; the prefix "Datuk" is more commonly used for women as well as men.
The numerical limits apply only to Malaysian subjects. Foreigners may receive the award in a supernumerary and honorary capacity and use the title locally.
Individual states that have a head of state by the respective state's legislature may confer the title of "Datuk" to individuals. However, this is different from the title "Dato'". The latter is awarded by individual states headed by a Sultan, and not a head of state nominated by the state legislature. For example, the Yang Dipertua Negeri Melaka is the non-hereditary head of state nominated by the Melaka state legislature. He may confer the title of "Datuk". The Sultan of Pahang is the hereditary ruler of the state and may confer the title of "Dato'". Individual rulers (and their staff) determine the award of these titles.
Some official sources suggest that these titles, e.g. "Datuk" and "Dato'", can be considered the equivalent of the title "Sir", which is used by male citizens of the Commonwealth who have received a British knighthood. However, in practice the criteria for awarding a Datukship are much looser than for a British knighthood.
- Casparis, J.G., (1956), Prasasti Indonesia II: Selected Inscriptions from the 7th to the 9th Century A.D., Dinas Purbakala Republik Indonesia, Bandung: Masa Baru.
- Navis A.A., (1984), Layar Terkembang Jadi Guru: Adat dan Kebudayaan Minangkabau, Jakarta: PT. Grafiti Pers. (Indonesian)
- "Official Website Of High Commission Of Malaysia, Wellington". Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Malaysia © 2016 Portal. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
These titles such as Dato', Datuk or Tan Sri are equivalent to the British 'Sir' and should always be used in written or verbal addresses. For example, Dato' Razak bin Osman would be used in the written form but in introducing him, you would refer to him as Dato' Razak.