17th of May 1998, is a date etched in my memory, for life. It happens to be the day I stepped foot in the hallowed grounds of University of Malaya. On that day, I started off on a journey of three years, marking a colourful new chapter in my life. It brought me the qualification that I needed, to secure my first job, upon graduation. More importantly, I was acquainted with interesting and wonderful people, both at the residential college that I stayed at and the faculty that I studied at.
Today’s story is about a motley crew of people that I had the pleasure to study and mature with at the university. They came in all shapes and sizes, some of which has grown with time. This diverse bunch of people that I am proud to call friends, shaped a huge part of my life in those three years. Since that day twenty years ago, they have been an important and cherished presence in my life and that of my wife. Thanks to Whatsapp, it feels as if I “meet” them everyday, just as if we were still bantering at the “foyer” of the faculty, a space that we made “home” during our time there.
It wasn’t always like this in the beginning. For a start, this diverse group of people hailed from various parts of Malaysia, from the northern town of Kulim to the southern city of Johore Bahru and places in between like Ipoh, Sunway, Klang and Kuala Lumpur. There wasn’t much that all of us had in common, or so we thought. Some of us did have the benefit of knowing each other from back in school but that just meant we stayed together with those that we already knew well enough.
So, in the beginning, it was simply just “Hi”, “Bye” and perhaps nervous smiles among us. It then progressed to, “Can I borrow that?”, “Have you done this?”, “Can you help me with that?” and such. The faculty-wide orientation activities that were ongoing may have played a role towards this progress. Anyway, from there on, it morphed into having tea-breaks and lunch and then on to dinner as well as supper together. With God’s grace, we did not look back since then.
As engineering students, the numerous assignments and lab reports meant that there was a lot of cooperation among us, ensuring that we completed and submitted them on time. When faced with difficult questions, some would try sourcing for solutions from elsewhere while others worked at solving it. In the end, a few of us would put our heads together and solve the problem based on all the information that we had. We would then ensure that the everyone else were on the same page as us.
There were also the late nights when we bunkered down in someone’s room, printing pages and pages of reports for each other. Then there were the visits to lecturers’ rooms, to slip in under the door, just-completed assignments before the lecturer arrived for the day, therefore submitting assignments on time.
Back in an era before Uber or Grab, we already had our own fleet of bikers within the group. Between them, we were assured of safe and timely passage to and fro from the faculty or somewhere nearby when needed. There was also that little “Baasha Van” (named after the movie Baasha) which was able to load just about anyone and everyone and the occasional Proton Saga.
We also had the penchant towards eating. Come to think about it, who doesn’t? Anyway, we had our own Food Panda service back then. Someone was usually available to go out and pack meals for the hungry ones. Somewhere along the way we uncovered the affordable yet delicious, slices of marble cake at the nearby 7-Eleven and nasi briyani at a little mamak stall within a Chinese coffee shop.
We discovered the joys of SMS together. Yes, it was an era, where there was neither Whatsapp nor smart phone. When Digi initially introduced SMS as a free service, it was all the rage as we sent messages back and forth. I still remember one of my friends coming in late one night into my room and sharing with me and my roommate the magic of SMS. Besides SMS, time not spent studying or eating would be spent with “Snake” on someone’s Nokia. More than getting a high score, it was all about breaking the existing record on somebody’s phone.
We also used codes to communicate with each other with the mobile phone, to keep costs at zero. No, we didn’t use Morse code. It was based on missed calls, though I can’t recall if it was the number of rings before the caller hung up or the number of missed calls itself. Suffice to say, there was a code to say, “I am on my way.”, “I am already here.” and much more. There was also the interesting case of 37 or so missed calls, in a futile attempt to wake up someone who was fast asleep.
Listening to music together while studying was something almost all of us enjoyed. As this was during an era where neither Spotify nor smartphone existed, we achieved it with the Walkman. I do recall that at the very beginning we did listen to music with a radio under a huge tree but that didn’t last long. Anyway, since some of us didn’t own a Walkman, we shared the earpiece or took turns listening to music as we studied. Sometimes though, we didn’t need access to a Walkman, as one or more of the ladies sang out aloud.
Besides that, there was also a lot of treasure hunting. There were the times when we would go high and low around the faculty looking for someone’s misplaced motorcycle keys, only to eventually find it embedded safely within the helmet or the ignition of the motorcycle.
Then of course, there were the exams. Afterall, that was the reason we went into the university, to graduate with a degree and gain employment succesfully thereafter. That meant exams had to be passed. So study hard we did, during an intense period of just days before the exam. Oh, we planned it quite well alright, from what, where and when we were going to study to when we were going to break for meals or sleep.
These pre-exam study sessions held many fond memories. One that stands out was the unique way that each of us studied, such as the one who studied while walking around the “foyer” area in an elliptic manner, akin to how planets orbited around the sun. Then there were the numerous times we would all walk single file to the exam halls in the morning after studying through the night, only to repeat the cycle for the next paper, on the next day. There was also the interesting incident, where one opted to go back early in the morning to sleep but ended up coming in late for the exam because her dear roommate unknowingly turned off the alarm.
Through it all, this disparate group of people shared both happy and sad moments together. There was always someone around to cheer and lift up the spirits of the other. There was always someone around to speak to, about our troubles. There was always someone around to provide sage yet timely advise. We even had someone who could provide us with basic medical advice or helped get us that advice when it was needed.
There was always someone around in the “foyer” to talk to or simply sit down with. There was always a shoulder to cry on. There was always support when one was needed. In short, we helped each other out through the trials and tribulations of not just studying but also through the journey from teenagers to adults. We had our disagreements, arguments and crises but these were eventually navigated gracefully and patiently.
As we graduated, we agreed to keep in touch and meet up often. We did go on annual holidays together and met up as often as it was possible. However, as work commitment crept in, as some moved away for work, as some married and started their own families, as some went away to live overseas, the frequency of holidays and meet-ups dropped. Yet, through it all, we managed to stay together and be there for each other. Weddings, birthdays, birth of a child and the passing away of loved ones, just to name a few.
The events that brought kept together in those three years, kept us together through time. The shared memories and experiences held us in good stead through the years. With Whatsapp, we have managed to stay in touch more frequently and be together through the day and even night, regardless of where we were. I am truly blessed and grateful to God, for having set me, down that path on 17th of May 1998, where I met this motley crew of people, who even today are an important part of my life.