Naming conventions in Malaysia are very different from the States. Most muslims do not use hereditary names. Instead, the father’s name is the child’s last name. Ahmad the son of Hasan is named Ahmad Hasan, or Ahmad bin Hasan, the bin meaning “son of”. Because of the different systems, you will have a bit of trouble when you register the birth of your child in both countries. If you give your child your hereditary name, then if you are Hasan Smith, your son Ahmad’s full name in Malaysia would be Ahmad Smith Hasan Smith. Fine in the US, odd in Malaysia. On the other hand, if you do as I have done and abandon your hereditary name, you would simply put “Ahmad” as his name, and in Malaysia your son would be Ahmad Hasan Smith. His son would be Salih Ahmad. The Smith hereditary name will end with you.
Fine in Malaysia, but when you go to the US embassy, they will insist that your son’s name is just “Ahmad”, because the Malaysian birth cert calls the two fields “name” and “father’s name” instead of “given name” and “surname”. Confused yet? It is really just a matter of convention, but I have had to submit three affidavits so far to clarify this point for my three kids, and I’ll be doing it one more time in about two weeks for KakUda. You would think the US Consul in Malaysia would be a little more aware of Malaysian custom. A hint for those about to go through it; “It’s the same damn thing” is not an acceptable explanation on your affidavit.

It’s interesting to note, by the way, that a small number of Malays with Arab ancestry, the entire Chinese population, the Sikhs and other minorities here do use family names. When these folks are identified in the news, their father’s name is never mentioned. The famous lawyer Karpal Singh, for example, must be officially named Karpal Singh Mohinder Singh (or whatever his father’s first name is). But he is simply referred to as Karpal Singh. Nobody gets confused. I guess Malaysia is just way ahead of the US when it comes to multiculturalism.
The only folks who don’t get their names how they would like them are muslim converts who want to keep their family names, like Ahmad the son of Hasan Smith. Ideally, Hasan Smith would like for his son to be Ahmad Hasan Smith, and his son to be Salih Ahmad Smith. That would be the perfect blend of both systems, in my humble opinion. The large and growing number of Chinese converts would prefer this kind of thing, I think. The telegenic Chinese convert Ridhwan Teh Abdullah would prefer his (hypothetical) son to be Hisham Ridhwan Teh, or perhaps Hisham Teh Ridhwan, but not Hisham Teh Ridhwan Teh, I would hazard.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. You got off easy, CM. A dear friend of mine sent his son to his first day of first grade. His name was Muhd Fakruddin. Guess what he said when his teacher asked him his name?

    His teacher called him “Muhd” after that. His name was mud, just like the saying goes…

  2. It works slightly differently in Bangladesh (or at least in my family tree) – if you’re male, you get the family surname. If you’re female, you get the father’s name. And often, the “father’s name” bit is shortened, otherwise it would be 1 million words long. And there are rarely any bins and bintis around.

    This was quite a problem with me when I wanted to take my UPSR. They were quite insistent that my name should be My Full Name My Father’s Full Name, and they didn’t accept the official name I had (they thought it was my FIRST NAME :P)

  3. I had another problem in the US. Some malays put “Mohamad” in front of their first and last names and “bin” in the middle, so you end up with “Mohamad Izuan bin Mohamad Izham”.

    And in the US, whenever they see my name registered as that, they assume that “Mohamad” is my first name, “bin” my middle name and “Izham” is my last name. Going to school was a mess, i had to constantly correct them. All teachers would address me as “Mohamad”. Lol.

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