Since 1949, the University of Malaya Press (UMP) has been given the responsibility of publishing scholarly works of the University. In those early years, it discharged this task through a Publication Committee. However, it was only in 1960 that it became formally incorporated as the University of Malaya Press Private Limited. With this new beginning, significant publications finally appeared under its imprint. Still, those early titles were produced with help from the Oxford University Press (OUP) which wielded a significant influence over the look and feel of the publications. A major advantage from this association was that the UMP benefited from OUP’s vast international distribution network. The benefits came through, not so much in terms of book sales, but through exposure and an association with quality.
The game changer came when, in 1968, Ungku Aziz became the Vice-Chancellor of the University and, by virtue of this position, the Chairman of the Press. He terminated the publishing and distribution arrangement with OUP, and set out to establish objective procedures, and gave new purpose and direction to the Press.
Ungku understood publishing. More importantly, he understood the role of a university press and the notion of university presses in spreading knowledge far and wide. He set about introducing measures that took the Press to a new footing and standards that other later-established local university presses attempted to emulate.
An Academic Advisory Committee was established to review and decide on titles to be published. The Committee, comprising of representatives from all the faculties of the university, including the Chief Librarian as Secretary, signalled the commitment of the University to publish scholarly titles of a quality that would be acceptable by international standards. By 1971, the University of Malaya Press Sendirian Berhad had changed its name to Penerbit Universiti Malaya Sendirian Berhad with its own production facilities and a full-time staff of five. Operating from the basement of the Library building, in what were formerly the washrooms, the Press also assumed its other role as the printer to the university. The facilities were far from complete – a single-colour offset printing machine which is still running today, a paper cutter donated by the Library, a graphic camera and two direct typesetting machines – but they were sufficient during those days for productivity of an acceptable standard.
More significant was the methodology adopted in publishing and printing. Albeit borrowed from other models, excellence was ingrained into the Press by Ungku that set UMP apart from the rest of the field that came after. The strict adherence to academic integrity stood the Press in good stead for years to come. Those years are considered by many to be the glitter years of the Press. Ungku introduced many significant firsts in local publishing. The University of Malaya English for Special Purposes (UMSEPP) project involved, among the many notables, the Ministry of Overseas Development of the United Kingdom and the University of Birmingham and sold in places as far as Jamaica and Canada. Shakespeare was translated into the Malay language and so were the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers. Another landmark publication was the Malay translation of Biology: a Functional Approach which was adopted for use at the Sixth Form of all Malaysian schools.
To demonstrate and showcase the capabilities of the Press as a printer, Ungku volunteered UMP to print a daily newspaper for the 1977 SEA Games held in Kuala Lumpur and in which the University of Malaya was the games village – a feat of no small measure considering the equipment and staff strength of the Press then.
The most severe critic of the Press was none other than Ungku himself. It was said that he once threw books produced by the Press against the wall of his office to test the quality of the binding!
In 1982, seven years after the University and University Colleges Act of 1975, Penerbit Universiti Malaya Sdn. Bhd. ceased operations as it was against the Act for the University to hold interests in a business enterprise. A Department of Publications was then established to continue with the activities of publishing and printing although it continued to use the imprints of the University of Malaya Press and Penerbit Universiti Malaya. The change in name and status also brought about a perceived change in the psyche of the Press. For years, it seemed to look inwards and displayed a lack of ambition for an international role. It was not until the Press shed its not-for-profit mentality that it began to show signs of regaining its former status in publishing and printing.
The Press has long since moved out of the cramped, depressing basement of the Library in exchange for a workshop and a block of office space in the former Pusat Asasi Sains (Science Foundation) Complex. From its present home of four decades, it has built a backlist of over 900 titles. From 2012, UMP has published an average of forty titles a year across a broad spectrum of interests. As one of the earliest adopters of electronic publishing in Malaysia, the Press to date, has released 95 ebook titles. There is a promise of more to come, and many more titles to be released, with the new alliances formed around the world.
The University of Malaya Press considers itself a work-in-progress for there is always somewhere else better to be.