The following is a retrospective article written by Kenneth Fong Choong Sian, a founding member of CUMaS in 1994.


Early Days

I know I’m going to sound like a grandfather but it really feels like yesterday that Tai Cheh Chin met Benan, Soo Yuen and myself the night before the CUMSA AGM in February 1994 to unveil his dreams of forming a truly Malaysian society in Cambridge. It was a bit of a surprise to me as all 3 of us were standing as candidates for the CUMSA committee elections in that AGM! He wanted us to play an active role in the formation of this new society by canvassing support for it and possibly help run this new society. Tai felt that it was time that the Malaysian student community in Cambridge had their own society to call their own – numbers of Malaysians coming to Cambridge were increasing every year, the needs and interests of the Malays in particular were not being met sufficiently by CUMSA and that we Malaysians did not have a proper platform for us to address our differences and common interests.

As a wide-eyed 1st year student, I assumed that CUMSA was still able to play a role for the Malaysians here and fresh from the success of our Cultural Show a few weeks before, I felt that by joining the committee, we could help improve on things. So I left New Hall that night, a little confused, a little inspired by Tai’s grand plans and a little overawed by the task that lay ahead should we decide to do it. All 3 of us were elected into the CUMSA committee the next day along with 6 other Malaysians – it was a 100% Malaysian committee that year. To ensure that the interests of this Singaporeans were met, we had to persuade 2 Singaporeans to join the committee. I thought that that would help improve the balance in the committee but little did I realize how difficult the year ahead would be.

At this point, I’d just like to explain why I think that CUMSA will never be able properly meet the interests of both the Malaysians and Singaporeans. A delicate balance has to achieved in the committee, ideally it should be a good mix of Malaysians and Singaporeans but in reality that rarely happens. As a result, no side will ever be happy. So in my year, we found it particularly difficult to get participation from the Singaporeans. In the other extreme, should a 100% Singaporean committee be elected, participation from Malaysians would also be lacking. Having a purely Malaysian society would prevent this sort of ambiguity and ensure that our interests would be met every single year and not dictated by the composition of the CUMSA committee of that year. Anyway, I digress. The term went by quickly enough and Tai met us again a couple of times to discuss his idea further. I was still hesitant because I was caught in a bind. As CUMSA President, I had to try and meet the interests of all the CUMSA members and by helping form a Malaysian society, my actions may be misconstrued to be creating direct competition to CUMSA! However, I soon realised the limitations of CUMSA and my support of Tai’s idea grew. More discussions were carried out with more people including the members of the CUMSA committee. Interest in the idea was growing but very slowly and there were many doubts as to whether it would succeed or not. What we wanted was a fully functioning students society organising a variety of activities and not just a forum for Malaysians to sit around discussing current issues. Things were still not moving fast enough and I doubt whether we could actually form this society in the next academic year to get the participation of the new Malaysian students in Cambridge. I went home in summer feeling rather pessimistic.


Michaelmas Term 1994 : a significant period

It was on a cold Sunday morning in October where the first planning meeting to form CUMaS was held in Christ’s supervision room 2. The turnout was heartening actually. About 10 people made it there to the meeting. If my memory serves me right: Tai, Boon Horng, Benan, Soo Yuen, Farid, Eqhwan, Adrian Chew, Max and myself. Tai had stayed up late the night before preparing his working paper for the formation of CUMaS, a lot of thought has obviously gone into it. It included details of the future constitution, committee composition and reasons for the need for CUMaS. There was an air of optimism in the room, a pro-tem committee was set up with Tai as chairman. Responsibilities were delegated to everyone else, in particular:
Finances – Farid and Benan
Constitution and registration – Eqhwan
Activities – Adrian, Boon Horng and Max

We all contributed 3 pounds each to start up the CUMaS treasury to cover administrative costs. The plan was to go and meet as many people as possible to canvass their opinions about CUMaS and try to get support for its formation. An open meeting for all Malaysians in Cambridge was set for early November where the working paper was to be explained and discussed. Subject to approval by the University Registrar of Societies, the first AGM to elect the committee was set for the end of November 1994. There was obviously much to be done before that but now the task didn’t seem so impossible after all, more people were getting involved and in short – more hands make less work!


Things hot up

Word soon spread about the grand plan. The response from the Malaysians was mixed. Some felt the CUMSA was adequate to meet the needs of the students and didn’t feel the need for another society while others were all fired up about the idea of a solely Malaysian society to call our own. There was a lot of rumours going around that CUMSA was going to be dissolved or split as a result of CUMaS being formed. Some of the Singaporean students in particular were becoming very vocal in their criticism especially on the email. Perhaps there was a fear that the society formed by the great Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew 49 years ago would be dissolved by us! The CUMSA committee was getting a lot of flack for keeping silent about all this and things were getting rather tense. To cool things down, Tai had to write an open letter on the email to explain the reasons for the formation of CUMaS and that there was no plan to dissolve CUMSA. Things did quiet down after that but there was still doubts in the minds of some who questioned whether there was any other motive for the formation of CUMaS.


The open meeting

As I recall, about 50 people turned up for the open meeting at Christ’s Lloyd room on that Monday night. Most people were curious about the whole thing. Tai presented his working paper followed by Farid – where are we going to get all the money to fund this baby? , Adrian – what are we going to do when we form this society? and Eqhwan – how this society is going to be defined on paper. Nothing untoward happened, no stone-throwing rioters protesting the formation of CUMaS nor any particularly disheartening responses from the attendees. Things were looking up! During the run-up to the AGM, membership forms and invitations to attend the AGM were distributed to Malaysians all over Cambridge. Free membership was being offered to anyone who want to join and about 100 people took up the generous offer. The money for CUMaS was going to have to come from somewhere else! Corporate sponsorship had to be the key but we could only start asking for money after a proper committee had been elected in.



2 weeks later, in that very same room, the 1st ever CUMaS committee was elected. It was a historic night. Several of those in the pro-tem committee were elected in including Adrian Chew who had the honour of being the 1st CUMaS president.


The real work starts

Now, the committee had to deliver its promises for the all the Malaysian students. In particular, a Malaysia Night in Lent was planned. A lot of work needed to be done in a short space of time. To cut the story short, the 1st ever Malaysia Night did happen as planned and was a success by any standards, a small profit of ?0 was even made! The new committee was however feeling the strains of having had to organise the Malaysia Night is such a short time and before that in forming the society and showed signs of breaking up. Soo Yuen, Boon Horng and myself were then co-opted into the committee to help relieve some of the work and also inject some more ideas. Sponsorship from several companies like Shell, Malaysian British Assurance and Sime Darby came through and CUMaS had about ?00 in the bank by summertime. Money didn’t seem too much of a problem now. The difficulty was getting people interested in the society and like all societies that means having members who are genuinely interested in the events and goals of the society. In short, a new society had been born and while there were and still are problems that face any society, it has in my mind turned out better than I expected and this is in no small way due to the efforts of all the past and current committee members.


We need something to bring us together. A common magnet for our energies during our short time here is CUMaS. It can act as the common ground for all of us to share and cherish. That is something that CUMSA cannot give us. Why the need for all this common ground? Surely if we were happy with our circumstances before we came to university, we don’t need to change anything. But imagine how much better our country would be if all the races genuinely understood one another and National Unity wasn’t just a catch-phrase to be used on Merdeka Day and at Election time. What we have here in Cambridge is unique. In most universities in UK, Australia, USA and especially at home, racial polarisation is a very real and painful fact. I sense and see it whenever I’m home for holidays and am poking around the medical faculty at Universiti Malaya. The environment is such that even people of different races who went to school together and were friends then become segregated when they reach university. We have to make a concerted and positive effort to break down all this real and perceived invisible barriers that separate us. If we remain trapped within an environment of just our own race, so many misconceptions and misunderstandings of others can happen. Constant and frequent contacts between one another can prevent this from happening. Malaysia is experiencing a period of great economic growth and everyone seems to be getting richer and happier. We may all feel content and happy with the current situation, the material rewards that befall us now cloak us from the harsh reality that we still haven’t really reached that level of frank and honest understanding between one another. Perhaps we never will but what’s to stop us from trying? A truly Malaysian society here in Cambridge requires real effort from everyone. For example, programs to increase numbers of Malaysians entering Cambridge should be a shared effort between all of us and not just aimed at bumiputra students but all true-blue Malaysians who are just as deserving of the opportunity to be given the information of entering our university.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.