KUALA LUMPUR: For some, a name is often nothing more than a term of identification, a convenient means of distinguishing one individual from another.
For others, their names carry their unmistakable birthright, providing them with a tangible link to their forefathers, connecting them to generations past and thus, hundreds of years of family history.
Raja Khuzairie Raja Azaham is one such person.
Sitting at his desk in his office in Putrajaya, the 39-year-old information technology technical director would easily blend in with any of his countrymen at the market, mamak restaurant or any typical Malaysian setting.
His name, however, betrays the richness of his family history.
Raja Khuzairie is a descendant of the 16th sultan of Perak, Sultan Mahmud Shah II, who ruled from 1765 to 1773.
Seated next to Raja Khuzairie is his friend, Megat Iskandar Megat Zaharuddin, 40, who is a descendant of Megat Terawis, the first Bendahara of Perak.
Given the richness of their lineages and family histories, one could be forgiven for assuming that they adhered to royal protocol and would expect to be treated with deference.
That could not be further from the truth.
“I’m a distant member of the Perak royal family, but I am sure the current sultan doesn’t know me,” Raja Khuzairie says as he chuckles.
Although humble, the two men possess a fierce pride in their lineage, not to thump their chests about their royal connections, but more as a means to reconnect with long-lost family members.
Their titles, Raja and Megat, hark back to a time before Malay-sia, before even the Federated Malay States, to the glorious era of the Melaka Sultanate, which heralded the golden age of Malay sultanates in the Malay archipelago.
At the height of the sultanate’s power in the 15th century, its capital became one of the most important ports of its time, with its territory spanning the Malay Peninsula, the islands of Riau, as well as a major portion of the northern coast of Sumatra in present day Indonesia.
As its royal members began establishing territories in the Malay Peninsula, they bestowed titles upon nobles who were either descendants of royal households or those who served the king.
These titles remain in the family line until today.
Megat Iskandar says it is the norm for someone who possesses a title from nobility to be addressed according to their honorifics.
“It is the same within a family. We have different titles for the firstborn, the second and so on. You don’t call your eldest brother by his name because that would be rude.
“It is like the old Malay proverb, ‘kecil bernama, besar bergelar’ (the young have names, the elders have titles), and that’s why we have titles like ‘Along’ and ‘Angah’,” he says.
Thanks to their love of their family history, the two friends founded the Malaysian Genealogical Society. Megat Iskandar is the president, while Raja Khuzairie is his deputy.
Through the society, they began searching for distant relatives to bring the family back together and celebrate their heritage.
“Islam encourages its followers to honour the ties of kinship (silaturrahim) and this is what we are doing,” says Raja Khuzairie.
Megat Iskandar says his interest in learning about his bloodline was sparked by his father, who had always encouraged him to study their family’s history since he was a boy.
His eyes lit up when he began speaking about his ancestry, sharing the history of Megat Terawis and the origin of the word “Megat”.
Megat Terawis was known by the title “Orang Kaya Bendahara Paduka Raja”. He was the son of the Daulat Yang Dipertuan Pagar Ruyung, Megat Terawan, a king of one of the kingdoms under Pagar Ruyung.
“The original word is ‘Maha Gaek’, which means the great one or the ancient one, which is derived from old Minangkabau. Over time, ‘Maha Gaek’ became ‘Magek’ and after that, it became ‘Megat’.
“I find this history fascinating. Even if I know a lot about my family history now, I still want to learn more.
“These are my roots and I am proud of my lineage,” says Megat Iskandar.
His knowledge is being passed on to his children. To his delight, his eldest daughter has shown great interest in the family legacy.
“She even did a school assignment on our lineage. I am so proud of her, especially on how she is able to memorise the centuries-old history.
“I will continue my family legacy and I hope my children will too, because to understand our identity, we must know our roots,” says Megat Iskandar.
For Raja Khuzairie, his interest in his family history began when he was a young adult. Like Megat Iskandar, it was his father who sparked in him the passion to learn more about his roots.
“I didn’t start becoming interested in my family history to be boastful. I just wanted to learn about where my family came from.
“Our country has a rich history and I like learning about how my family was part of this history as now I know where I came from,” he says.
Today, these titles are still commonplace in Malaysia, such as Tengku, Tunku, Engku, Ungku, Puteri, Wan, Nik and others.
These gave birth to other titles, such as Tan Sri, Datuk Seri and Datuk, which are not inherited, but gifted by rulers.
Historian Professor Datuk Dr Ahmat Adam sheds light on the origin of these titles and says they began during a time when Islam had yet to arrive in the Malay Peninsula.
At the time, there was a general reluctance to use one’s own name openly due to fears that they would be used in black magic.
“A long time ago, before the arrival of Islam, people practised animism. They believed that everything had a spirit, including each strand of your hair, your nails and even your name.
“Thus, name taboos existed because it was believed that a person could be possessed if someone chanted your name repeatedly in a black magic ritual. As such, people didn’t like giving out their names.
“But after the arrival of Islam, the titles became a normal practice and a symbol of one’s social status, although that fear (about names) still lingered. That’s why when you learn about Malay history, you’ll hear all these different titles used to address someone, like ‘Bendahara Paduka Raja’.
“That’s not a person’s name, but simply a title.
“This was not practised only in the Malay Peninsula, but also in other Southeast Asian countries because we were all part of the nusantara,” he says.
While those in the Malay Peninsula preferred to place titles before their names, Ahmat says others used them as their surnames.
These, he says, include surnames such as “Ma” among the Chinese to signify that they are Muslim, while Indian Muslims adopted surnames like Rowther, Merican and Koya.
While those of noble heritage were respected, Ahmat says, it
also came with a big responsibility as they were expected to carry themselves in a certain manner.
“A person who carries a noble title must behave according to their social status. This does not just involve those with inherited titles, but also those with titles bestowed upon them.
“When someone is bestowed with a title such as Datuk, Datuk Seri or Tan Sri, that person must show that he deserves the title and the respect.
“The practice of giving titles must make sense and the person must have done something truly noble to be able to use the honorific, or else the person will only cause embarrassment to the ruler who bestowed the title.”
However, the practice of preserving such titles in the family appears to be on the wane.
Raja Khuzairie and Megat Iskandar note that while they choose to preserve their families’ legacy through their children, many others do not pass on their titles.
The reasons for this, they say, vary, from not having any encouragement from elders, having a tragic family history, ignorance, not caring enough about titles, to some even feeling embarrassed about holding titles.
“I know hundreds of Megats and those who hold other noble titles. There are many who no longer carry the titles due to various reasons.
“It saddens me, but it is a personal choice. Everyone has their reasons. Due to this, their children no longer have titles in their names,” says Megat Iskandar.
However, he believes there is hope. He says some parents, upon becoming aware of their heritage, have decided to put the titles back into their children’s names through the National Registration Department.
Megat Iskandar says the Megat Terawis Clan Association was formed in 2003 to preserve the clan’s history. It has at least 600 registered members.
Megat Iskandar, who is the association’s secretary-general, says the association holds family gatherings once every five years. The last gathering saw the participation of more than 1,800 Megat Terawis descendants.
“The purpose of forming the association was to enable us to stay connected. Another family gathering is due this year,” he says.
Besides gatherings, the association has twice visited their ancestral homeland of Pagar Ruyung, where the remaining royal members can still be found. Its king now serves as the head of custom (kepala adat).
“The first visit was in 2013, where only six of our elders went there after the new Istana Besar was built.
“Last year, some of us were invited to witness the installation of the new Raja Pagar Ruyung in West Sumatra (Indonesia).
“It was a great experience to be able to witness the installation as part of the inner circle of the royal family,” Megat Iskandar says.