The National University of Malaysia, Kebangsaan University, was born out of the nationalists’ aspirations of Malay as an intellectual language. In 1923, the writer Abdul Kadir Adabi (Abdul Kadir Adabi) proposed seeking to establish a national university to oppose British colonization. This wave of nationalism aroused the Malay intellectuals at the time, but was suppressed by the British. The nationalists never wavered, and the movement became popular again in 1969. The sponsorship committee chaired by Malay intellectual Syed Nasir Ismail was established to prepare a report recommending the establishment of UKM. Other distinguished members of the committee include Mahathir Mohamad (Tun), Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, then Minister of Education, and Dr. Mohd Rashdan Haji Baba, who later became the first Deputy Prime Minister of UKM.
Kebangsaan University in Malaysia was opened to 192 undergraduates in Jalan Pantai Baru, Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 1970. This is a temporary campus with three main colleges, namely the Faculty of Science, Art and Islamic Studies. In October 1977, UKM moved to its current premises, which constituted the main campus of Bangi. The campus covers an area of 1,096 hectares (2,710 acres) and is located in the metropolis, including Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the main commercial center Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital Putrajaya. The UKM Bangui campus is 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Kuala Lumpur, and 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Putrajaya.
UKM has two medical campuses, namely the Kuala Lumpur campus of Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz and the UKM Medical Center in Cheras. The Kuala Lumpur campus is composed of preclinical departments of the Departments of Health Sciences, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Medicine. The Kuala Lumpur campus covers an area of 20 hectares (49 acres) and was built in 1974.
The campus of Cheras consists of the Faculty of Medicine, UKM Teaching Hospital and UKM Medical Molecular Biology Institute (UMBI). The Cheras campus was opened in 1997. In addition to these campuses, UKM also has seven research stations (RS); Tasik Chini RS, Marine Ecosystem RS, Langkawi Geopark RS, Ocean RS, Fraser Hill RS, Plant Biotechnology RS, and The UKM campus life laboratory in the main campus itself, which includes the UKM Permanent Forest Reserve, or its Malay name Hutan Simpan Kekal UKM, Fernarium and herbarium.
Based on 30 years of research, UKM was awarded the status of a research university in Malaysia by the Ministry of Higher Education in October 2006. This move aims to promote four public universities to become leading research universities in accordance with the Higher Education Strategy 2007-2020 plan.
UKM also received the Prime Minister's Quality Award in 2006. The award is a testament to UKM’s efforts in quality education and management outlined in the UKM Strategic Plan (PS2020) goals for 2000–2020. The newly released UKM Knowledge Ecosystem Transformation Plan further completes the strategic plan, which will push UKM into a leading research university alliance by 2018.