It was in the 1970s when I first became aware of the sheer diversity of the country.

Growing up in Seremban, we just absorbed the notion that there were three main races and that was, well, what it was. Even if the others weren’t aware of it, the “Indians” knew that there were Sri Lankan Tamils, Sinhalese, Malayalees, Bengalis and Sikhs – just to name a few — among the majority Tamils in the group broadly classified by the government as “Indian” but that was par for the course and no one really bothered.

I suppose the same might be said for the Chinese – the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Hainanese, etc – but, again, no one thought too deeply about those things, or seemed to.

But in 1975, I was admitted to University Malaya and I found out, first, that not everyone used lah as the universal Malaysian suffix. There were people who used ‘bah” as well, and it sounded just as natural even if the speaker’s accent seemed vaguely Indonesian.

I met students with names like Boniface Bait, Lo Ling, Charles Terra Jolly and Sepian bin Belit. All from East Malaysia, they found us – orang Semananjung – uniformly mystifying. But one thing transcended everything else: to a man, they were awed by the size, scale and sweep of Kuala Lumpur.

So were we. Most of us were from small towns, from all over the country and it was easy to relate to ourselves and to one another.

I kept tripping over my stereotypes during my first weeks. Ahmad Borhan, for example, was an incredibly charismatic guy from Miri whom I assumed was a Malay. No way, he declared indignantly. He was Melanau! I was to find out later that he was a minority in his own community: its majority are Christian.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, maybe it’s just nostalgia on my part but I have a sense of those simple times bringing out the best in us, as a community and as a nation. There was certainly less race and religious stridency in those days: little of the “us” versus “them.” At least, it did not seem to be of the scale and scope of the here and now.

For one thing, I don’t remember Hussein Onn bringing race or religion to the front and centre of the Malaysian ethos. Certainly, he wasn’t prone to perpetually lamenting, at every turn, that the Malays had been “colonised and oppressed.”

There is a lot to be said for people like Hussein Onn, an understated man who never took himself too seriously. He never saw the need for Malaysia to always be seen punching above its international weight. Nor did he see the need to hector other nations on their faults or foibles.

But he took the important things seriously. Like not sweeping things under the carpet, those actions that actually deter corruption, the things that matter to a developing nation.

I’ve never forgotten a story related to me by a social scientist who was close to Hussein before the latter’s death.

When word leaked in 1975 that the government was planning to indict Harun Idris for corruption. Apparently, the three serving Umno vice-presidents, led by Dr Mahathir, went to see Hussein, then premier, to plead Harun’s case. Harun was the head of Umno Youth then.

Nothing moved the premier at first.

Finally, as if to clinch it, the men wheeled out their trump card: “But he’s a nationalist.”

“So am I,” countered Hussein and that was the end of the meeting.

Years later, in 1998, his son would tell me that he felt his father was not in Dr M’s league as the latter had “vision.” Even then, I couldn’t believe my ears!

All things being equal, I’d rather that honesty have been preferred as an overriding principle in governing Malaysia. It might have saved us a lot of grief.