Those seeking to pursue their tertiary education in the 1980s would tell you just how competitive it was because there were only five public universities in Malaysia then. Available places and choices of courses were limited. For non-Malays, with the affirmative policies in place, it was even more difficult. Private universities were non-existent then.
In 1980, I had just completed my Higher School Certificate (now called the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia or STPM), and had started working at The Star in Penang. Six months into the job, I received the offer to study at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
The most popular choices then were Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia. Honestly, I had hoped to study law at UM or political science at USM.
When I tried to check UKM’s location, I could not even pinpoint Bangi, Selangor, where the main campus was located.
UKM was set up on May 18,1970, with only 192 students in Jalan Pantai Baru, Kuala Lumpur. It was a temporary campus with only the faculties of Science, Arts and Islamic Studies. In 1977, the Bangi campus was born.
To a city boy, it was really isolated in every way.
Students jokingly referred to UKM as Universiti Kampung Malaysia.
To go to Kuala Lumpur, we had to take three connecting buses to reach Pudu bus station.
UKM was born from the aspirations of Malay nationalists to uphold Bahasa Malaysia as the language of knowledge and instruction.
The student population was predominantly Malay, with Islamic Studies a compulsory course for every student. Every applicant knew about this requirement and I can say we had no problem with it.
UKM was a whole new experience for me in many ways but I was not apprehensive in this new environment. I was prepared in some ways as I had studied Malay Literature and Islamic History in my Sixth Form, which I enjoyed, and this usually surprised many non-Malays.
But there were some adjustments I had to make. On my first day at Kamsis B hostel, now renamed Kolej Aminudin Baki, I walked into the canteen in shorts – like most beach boys in Penang – only to be politely told that there was a dress code on campus.
It was the first time I heard of aurat, or to cover up parts of the body.
But I adjusted well in UKM. The officials at the Faculty of Social Science were understanding and patiently allowed me to change my allocated choice of courses.
I wanted Political Science, as there was no law faculty in UKM then, and they allowed me to make the change. They were surprised that I did not want to study Mass Communications.
The National University of Malaysia opened up my mind and eyes, in many ways.
BM was the medium of instruction at university level although the reference books were in English as Indonesian books were inadequate and Google had not been invented yet.
I lost track of the hours spent in the frozen Tun Sri Lanang Library, which is one of the biggest in Malaysia.
Although I was the last batch of HSC students who studied in English in school, I could write essays and do my academic works in BM, and take part actively in tutorials and seminars. Marks were given for speaking up.
In my pursuit of knowledge, I met and studied under many distinguished Malaysian top scholars, which was indeed the privilege of being at UKM.
At the Islamic Faculty, I am proud to say that the late Fadzil Noor and Dr Harun Din taught us Islamic Studies. Both went on to become top PAS leaders.
At the Economics Faculty, Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram mesmerised us with his intellect and brilliant interpretation of economic models. He was a class above others.
It was an honour to be under the tutelage of Dr P.Ramasamy (now the Deputy Chief Minister of Penang), Kamaruddin Jaafar (now Deputy Foreign Minister), Dr Harold Crouch and Dr Heng Pek Koon, who are still teaching in Australia and the United States respectively.
At the Malay Letters Department, I had the honour of listening to lectures by National Laureate Prof Dr Siti Zainon Ismail, the award winning Malay novelist, poet and academic. She is also a UKM alumni.
Then, there was Dr Ibrahim Saad, a UKM lecturer, who went to become Deputy Chief Minister of Penang in 1990, and became a friend.
But UKM was not just about getting a degree. It was about forging friendships. Most of us came from humble background. Our parents certainly could not afford to send us overseas to study and we started from zero.
There were many like me. I remember Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai cruising around campus in his red Yamaha kap cai and never imagined he would become a Transport Minister one day.
UKM was also a very political university. It had already overtaken UM for its student activism by the 1980s, where students were divided into Umno and PAS aligned groups. The Chinese students then were mainly educated in Chinese primary schools and pro-MCA, and Liow played an active role.
UKM was a good place to make friends. Many of them have gone on to hold important positions.
My coursemate, and fellow Penangite, Datuk Seri Dr Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, probably did not think he would become the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) and now director general of the Higher Education Ministry.
Then, there’s senior lawyer Datuk Seri Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos, who was my hostel mate, and is now my fellow moderation advocate and a columnist at The Star. We never imagined this!
The Star’s chief content officer aka chief editor Esther Ng, sports editor Rajes Paul, Metro desk news editor VP Sujata and Seremban bureau chief Sarban Singh are part of this unofficial UKM club.
There are just too many to be listed down here, especially those in my New UKM 80s chat group, but you know who you are, and the things we did in UKM together, the memorable ones and the ones we chose to forget.
As we approach 60 years old, these UKM mates are the only one chatting with me daily on every subjects, on social media platform.
Studying at UKM has indeed being a privilege and honour for me. The Golden Jubilee celebrations is indeed a milestone for the university, alumni and students. Happy 50th Birthday!
Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, Group Advisor of Star Media Group Berhad, Bachelor of Arts (1984)