The day he got his acceptance letter to study economics at UKM ranks as one of Datuk Chong Sin Woon's happiest ones. "It meant so much as I was the only one among my seven siblings who made it to a public university," recalled the MCA Secretary-General.
His siblings couldn't go to university then as their family was poor. As their finances later improved, Chong's sister also furthered her studies in New Zealand. But Chong had already been impressed by the performance of a multiracial UKM cultural troupe when he was in Form Six.
"I thought to myself that since their performance was so good, UKM must surely be an awesome place," reminisced Chong, who picked the varsity as his top choice in his application.
To Chong, studying at UKM was a blessing, one that helped mould his life. "From the minggu suaikenal (orientation week) to my last day on campus, it was a massive experience as everyday was a learning curve," he said.
From taking part in campus elections to joining student associations, he enjoyed every moment. It was at UKM that Malaysia's former Deputy Minister of Education learned to broaden his perspectives.
"I got to meet many people with diverse attributes and attitudes," he remembered. "Even a Chinese from Penang and Sabah can have completely different opinions on matters such as vernacular schools and religion."
Chong, who became president of the UKM Chinese Community Council (an umbrella body looking after the affairs of Chinese students), said he learned a lot about race-relations and why continuous efforts need to be made to strengthen ties between all ethnic groups.
"That was the most important lesson I learned in UKM as we worked towards improving race and religious issues," he pointed out. "UKM was like a mini Malaysia, and I am so glad that my time there made me appreciate my identity as a Malaysian."
As UKM-CCC president, Chong led the way in organising events such as Pesta Tanglung (Lantern Festival) and Pesta Ang Pow, which were among the biggest events organised by the Chinese students at the time.
"We worked with the other cultural societies representing various races to make these grand events a success," he noted. "The programmes were diverse and dynamic, and helped instil the give-and-take spirit among multiracial students."
Chong hopes that UKM, which symbolises Malaysia's national education institution, will continue to shape the nation.
"UKM should continue to promote its identity as the national university and remain a beacon of unity," he added. "It should continue to instil and inspire every student who walks through its hallowed halls to be proud to be Malaysians."