July 2, 1975 was historic in various ways.

One, it was the first time Sarawak had her first TV broadcast. Secondly, that was the day Muhammad Ali fought Canadian Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur. It was also the date I and two others arrived at the Minden campus of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang after a long and tiring flight from Kuching via Subang International Airport, KL. And fourthly, it was the first time our photo appeared on the then Sarawak Tribune for being federal scholarship holders. I only found this out about two or three weeks later when a friend from Sibu sent to me by mail the photocopy of that page which I still keep somewhere.

Upon our late evening arrival at Building 109 that acted as a student centre and canteen in the campus, yours truly, Babu Swen and Zulwali (now Dr Zulwali Kiflie Merawie) were welcomed by some senior Sarawakians including Abang Nordin Datuk Abang Zainuddin, Selbi Seman and the late Professor Dr Syafiq Punchak Abdullah @ Sylvester Sanargi Punchak. Actually, these guys protected us from Alex Fernandez and company from the other side of Malaysia who were bent on ragging us. Orientation during those days could be ugly. Whatever the present groups of varsity freshies get from their seniors is just a very small percentage of what we got during our time.

For example, one turbaned Singh was asked to literally blow off a florescent tube by climbing up a post and was told to keep blowing. He stayed on top of the post for about 30 minutes but fell asleep. God was kind to him for he didn’t fall down. Witnesses said the seniors had to shout at him to wake him up after they got fed up of waiting for nearly an hour.

Those Sarawak seniors, who were to become my very close friends later, gave us the freedom to see the repeat fight on TV between Ali and Bugner undisturbed. We were later crammed into one room and slept till 5.30am the next morning. Official orientation was to start on July 4.

Thomas Chang Abang (a pre-science student) and I were the only two Iban freshies then. During that time at USM there was only one other Iban, namely, our senior the late Linda Nichol. I only found out later that sitting as Senior Fellow in the Centre of Policy Research of the varsity was former Sarawak Museum Curator (now deceased) Dr Benedict Sandin (that was how his name was written on his door which put a permanent smile on his face).

USM then only had an annual intake of about 400. We were the sixth intake since its inception in 1969. My Matrix number was 2833 and is therefore a figure that speaks volume of significance. There were only a handful of Sarawakians and Sabahans. Students from the two East Malaysian states had to team up because we found strength in unity. Our number swelled a bit when another batch came in 1976.

I survived on an annual RM1,890 federal scholarship that was disbursed twice – RM945 x 2 – direct to my Bank Bumi account. But food in the campus was cheap. With RM1 one would get a big piece of chicken, vegetable, rice and “air bandung”. I would be too happy to walk around the canteen to show off the big piece of chicken but on a bad day, 40 sen was sufficient to get rice for 10 sen, 20 sen egg or “ikan masin” and 10 sen vegetable plus free water from the cooler and sitting far from others.

In my senior years I used to win big playing poker with off-campus students, using skills learnt since puberty. My winning sometimes surpassed my scholarship. My record showed that I won around RM2,600 while I was in the third year (1977/78).

Our poker sessions were held at our rented semi-D house at Pantai Jerjak, just across the infamous Pulau Jerjak on the way to Bayan Lepas Airport. The poker players are now among the who’s who in Malaysian politics including two who have served as Menteri Besar and three federal ministers, not to mention a few who are ‘Datuks’ and high-ranking officers including one of the country’s top cops. They may be ministers but they don’t have a poker face and the wit of a jungle boy.

Once about three decades ago, an official from the examination section of the Malaysian Ministry of Education KL called my school and spoke to me. I identified myself as so and so. “Are you Valentine Tawie the great poker player?” he asked. “By the way I’m Kamaruddin your USM poker buddy.” Yes, I could remember him, a rueful loser when it came to poker. I also can remember one Singh (without turban) who still owed me RM27.

I earned about RM2,200 in my second year for translating four Iban novels to English in two weeks, thanks to my good lecturer friend Professor Dr Clifford Sather who later (1988-2000) occupied the Unimas Chair of Asian Studies in Kuching. We met a few times during his Kuching stint.